QMJHL Preview: Wide open field for the President Cup

Maxime Comtois. (Photo courtesy the Victoriaville Tigres)

The race for the President Cup looks wide open with previous heavyweights taking a step back.

The defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs have a new coach in Josh Dixon after Danny Flynn won a league title then left for the WHL as an assistant coach with the Portland Winterhawks. The Sea Dogs, Charlottetown Islanders, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies and Shawinigan Cataractes all look like they’ve peaked.

The Blainville-Boisbriand Armada fell short in the final last season and could make another run depending on what happens with NHL prospects who have yet to return to junior.

It’s time for new teams to emerge as contenders. Perhaps the Acadie-Bathurst Titan, who were red-hot down the stretch. Or the Victoriaville Tigres, who have a veteran defence group and two of the league’s most lethal scorers.

Here’s a player to watch (2018 NHL draft eligible unless noted) and what to expect from each team:

MARITIMES DIVISION

Acadie-Bathurst Titan

Player to watch — Noah Dobson, D: After spending a season in Austria, the 6-foot-3 defenceman had a 26-point rookie season for the Titan. He’s a franchise player and should see plenty of ice time in his sophomore season. Dobson gained valuable experience in the summer, picking up three points for Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.

Team outlook: The Titan continue to trend upwards after finishing dead-last in the standings in 2014-15 and sixth last season. With the Sea Dogs and Islanders losing key veterans, the Titan are poised to claim a division crown. Antoine Morand (ANA) leads the scoring attack for a team that finished third in goal-scoring behind Saint John and Charlottetown. Vladimir Kuznetsov left the team to play in the KHL, but could return to the ‘Q’ after being cut by the Russian club.

Cape Breton Screaming Eagles

Player to watch — Kevin Mandolese, G: After backing up Kyle Jessiman in the crease last season, Mandolese will look to pick up more starts after finishing with 16 wins and eight losses in 27 games. He was one of three QMJHL goalies invited to Team Canada’s U-18 Program of Excellence goalie camp.

Team outlook: Despite trading away top NHL prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois (CLB) last season in what should have been a rebuilding year, the Screaming Eagles still finished in seventh place. A big part of the team’s success was from late-bloomer Drake Batherson (OTT) who had 58 points as an 18-year-old rookie. With the loss of veterans Giovanni Fiore and Massimo Carozza, the team will need to find new sources of scoring. Draft-eligible Russian rookie Egor Sokolov (CHL Import draft, 35th overall) could be that source.

Charlottetown Islanders

Player to watch — Matthew Grouchy, RW: The winger left his hometown of Labrador City, Newfoundland to play hockey in Ontario where he dominated Minor Midget AAA on a line with Gabriel Vilardi (LAK). Drafted in the sixth round of the 2015 QMJHL draft, Grouchy opted to go the CHL route and scored 28 points in a limited role last season.

Team outlook: The Islanders went all-in last season, making blockbuster trades and tearing up the league before bowing out in the semis. Losing its top eight scorers from last season, the Islanders look drastically different. Last year the team was chasing a league title, this year, just making the playoffs will be a challenge. One bright spot is Pierre-Olivier Joseph (ARI), who had a break-out sophomore season and was a first-round pick in June.

Halifax Mooseheads

Player to watch — Filip Zadina, RW: For the second year in a row, a CHL Import player with high first-round potential will step into the Mooseheads lineup. The goal-scoring Czech winger already reminds coaches and teammates of power-forward Timo Meier (SJ), a former Moosehead import who went ninth overall in 2015.

Team outlook: All eyes will be on potential NHL first-rounders Zadina, centre Benoit-Olivier Groulx and defenceman Jared McIsaac. The team will miss Nico Hischier (NJ), but should make up for it with Zadina and rookie Xavier Parent — a player to keep an eye on for the 2019 draft. A young group with lots of potential could make some noise in what should be a wide open Maritimes Division.

Moncton Wildcats

Player to watch — Anderson MacDonald, LW: The Wildcats finished last in the QMJHL in 2016-17 while hoarding draft picks. The team flipped two of those first-round picks in a trade to acquire Anderson MacDonald from the Sherbrooke Phoenix. The 6-foot-2, 190-pound forward had 29 goals in 50 games as a rookie and should lead the rebuilding Wildcats as one of the league’s most exciting young scorers.

Team outlook: It can’t get any worse than last year for the Wildcats. The team had a franchise low in wins (14), points (31) and a 25-game losing streak. Picking up MacDonald gives the Wildcats a player to build around. Grabbing centre Jakob Pelletier and defenceman Jaxon Bellamy in the first round of the QMJHL draft give the team hope for the future even if it’s another tough season.

Saint John Sea Dogs

Player to watch — Joe Veleno, C: The first QMJHL player granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada, Veleno had 40 points in 45 games over an injury-shortened sophomore campaign. He could be in for a breakout season with key veterans gone and more time and space to showcase his elite speed, vision and puck skills.

Team outlook: Don’t expect an encore for the defending President Cup champions with the team’s core graduating from the junior ranks. Along with Veleno, Saint John has a number of returning veterans including forward Cédric Paré (BOS) and goalie Alex D’Orio (PIT). The Sea Dogs also nabbed winger Ostap Safin (EDM) in the CHL Import draft, so they will still be a dangerous team, but won’t resemble a junior all-star team like last year.

Ryan Dixon and Rory Boylen go deep on pucks with a mix of facts and fun, leaning on a varied group of hockey voices to give their take on the country’s most beloved game.

WEST DIVISION

Blainville-Boisbriand Armada

Player to watch — Antoine Crête-Belzile, D (2017 draft): The 6-foot, 188-pound defenceman went undrafted in June, but received a tryout from the Winnipeg Jets. He didn’t leave camp with a contract, but could make some noise if he can stay healthy with the Armada. Last season Crête-Belzile was limited to 39 games. Just over 12 months ago he was an alternate captain for Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka tournament.

Team outlook: The Armada followed up a Cinderella run in the 2016 playoffs with a President Cup final loss to the Saint John Sea Dogs. A return to the final isn’t out of the question, and it would be a huge boost if Pierre-Luc Dubois (CLB) and Jérémy Roy (SJ) returned to the QMJHL. But Roy was recently assigned to the AHL by the Sharks, where he’s likely to remain. Leading scorer Alex Barré-Boulet was recently cut by the Vegas Golden Knights and could lead the QMJHL in points this season after an 81-point campaign last year.

Drummondville Voltigeurs

Player to watch — Olivier Rodrigue, G: Winning gold at the Ivan Hlinka Tournament as the starting goaltender is a good way to grab the attention of NHL scouts heading into your draft year. The third overall pick of the 2016 QMJHL Draft, Rodrigue started 41 games for the Voltigeurs last season and is in for another busy year.

Team outlook: A 12th-place finish was a big step forward for a young team that finished bottom-three the two seasons prior. The team focused on goal-scoring in the 2017 ‘Q’ draft, selecting Dawson Mercer eight overall and Xavier Simoneau one pick later. Draft-eligible import pick Bastian Eckl had 41 points in 38 games with his German U-19 team and could be a pleasant surprise as he adapts to the North American game.

Gatineau Olympiques

Player to watch — Vitaly Abramov, RW (2016, 6th round, CLB): The Russian winger has been a points machine for the Olympiques, scoring 93 points two years ago and a league-best 104 points last season. Abramov is determined to make the Blue Jackets out of training camp. A return to Europe or a winter trade to another QMJHL team seem like the most likely outcomes if he doesn’t make the show right away.

Team outlook: The Olympiques have only made two picks in the first four rounds of the QMJHL draft over the past two years, limiting the influx of high-upside players. Import picks Yakov Trenin (NSH) and Abramov have worked out in the past and the team needs Mikhail Shestopalov to contribute right away. Gatineau has made the playoffs every season since missing out in 1983-84, but that streak could be in jeopardy this year.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

Player to watch — Alex Beaucage, RW (2019 draft): Two straight seasons of going for it, including a 2016 QMJHL title, have left the Huskies with a lack of draft picks and elite prospects. Beaucage was Rouyn-Noranda’s first pick of the 2017 draft, 22nd overall. He led the Huskies in pre-season scoring with four goals and seven assists.

Team outlook: The glow of the 2016 President Cup started to fade last season after the team bowed out of the playoffs in the second round after a second-place finish. Defenceman Zachary Lauzon (PIT) was drafted 51st overall in 2017, two years after brother Jérémy Lauzon went to the Bruins 52nd overall. Zachary will be an important presence on a team that will require some time to re-tool.

Sherbrooke Phoenix

Player to watch — Samuel Poulin, C (2019 draft): The son of former NHLer Patrick Poulin made the jump to midget a year early as a 14-year-old. He scored 48 points in 38 games as an underage and another 68 points in 39 games last season. The 6-foot-1, 201-pound centre should make an immediate impact as a rookie and has 2019 first-round potential.

Team outlook: Selecting Poulin second overall and then Bailey Peach 11th gives a team that missed out on the playoffs last year some optimism. The Phoenix will be without defenceman Luke Green (WPG) for five months after he was injured in NHL training camp. The team traded away top 2018 NHL prospect Anderson MacDonald in August in a big deal with two first-round picks returning to Sherbrooke. This team is in position to build in the future, but could still succeed in a wide-open division behind the Armada.

Val-d’Or Foreurs

Player to watch — Maxence Guenette, D (2019 draft): The first defenceman selected in the 2017 QMJHL draft, Guenette will be one of many rookies thrust into an immediate starting role. Known for his passing and skating abilities, Guenette participated in Canada’s U-17 camp in July.

Team outlook: The Foreurs went into sell mode at the trade deadline, moving its top players, but still pulled off a first-round upset of the third-place Shawinigan Cataractes before getting swept by the Sea Dogs. Don’t expect any upsets this time around with a roster that features 10 rookies. Overage goalie Etienne Montpetit has been a constant for the Foreurs, entering his fourth season with the team.

EAST DIVISION

Baie-Comeau Drakkar

Player to watch — Gabriel Fortier, C: A shoulder injury meant Fortier didn’t make his season debut until January, oddly enough against older brother Max Fortier with the Halifax Mooseheads. At 5-foot-10, 190-pounds, he’s small but speedy and hard-working. His ceiling is even higher than the older brother.

Team outlook: In the past two years, the Drakkar have made five top-10 selections in the QMJHL draft. The 17-year-olds — Fortier, defenceman Xavier Bouchard and forward Shawn Element — are all on the radar for the 2018 NHL draft. The top-four leading scorers are back including Ivan Chekhovich (SJ) and D’Artagnan Joly (CGY). With 20-year-old Antoine Samuel in nets, this team should be a contender for years to come.

Chicoutimi Sagueneéns

Player to watch — Vladislav Kotkov, LW: The Sags got a whole lot bigger in August when it was reported Kotkov was coming to North America. The 32nd pick of the 2017 CHL Import Draft is 6-foot-5 and 202 pounds. He led the team in pre-season scoring with five goals and three assists.

Team outlook: Losing its top three scoring forwards from last season, including Nicolas Roy, leaves a big hole up front. The addition of Kotkov will help, but fellow Russian forward German Rubtsov (PHI) is still a question mark. He only appeared in 16 games after coming over from the KHL. He was lighting up the league with 22 points before going down with an injury and missing the playoffs. Because of his contract, Rubstov can play in the AHL or CHL as a 19-year-old.

Québec Remparts

Player to watch — Philipp Kurashev, C: Nico Hischier wasn’t the only Swiss forward who dominated the ‘Q’ last year. Kurashev, a centre, led the Remparts as a 17-year-old with 21 goals and 54 points. The speedy forward will look to make the Swiss world junior team and boost his draft stock like Hischier did last season.

Team outlook: The 2015 Memorial Cup hosts moved a lot of assets leading up to that gig, which has left the draft pick cupboard barren. The Remparts haven’t tumbled too far down the standings with shrewd moves like drafting Kurashev and gambling on centre Andrew Coxhead in 2016. At the time, the highly ranked forward was committed to prep school in the U.S. The NHL draft-eligible forward will look to improve on his 13 points as a rookie. Undrafted goalie Dereck Baribeau (MIN) left NHL training camp with a contract and should lead a crowded crease.

Rimouski Océanic

Player to watch — Dmitri Zavgorodny, C: The eighth pick of the 2017 CHL Import Draft led the Ivan Hlinka in scoring with five goals and five assists in 10 games for Russia. He’ll bring his soft hands to Rimouski where the 5-foot-9, 168-pound centre already has five goals in five pre-season games.

Team outlook: Changes to the QMJHL draft lottery meant the Océanic both made the playoffs and landed the first overall pick. The team used it on Alexis Lafrenière, the consensus top pick who had a 2.31 PPG average as a 15-year-old in the QMAAA. With elite hockey IQ, he’s already looking like a top prospect for the 2020 NHL draft. Yes, the team has 11 rookies, but some of them are elite talents and Rimouski doesn’t look stuck in a rebuilding rut.

Shawinigan Cataractes

Player to watch — Lucas Fitzpatrick, G: With Mikhail Denisov returning as Shawinigan’s starting goalie, Fitzpatrick will open the year in a backup role. The team traded away Zachary Bouthillier in the off-season to solidify Fitzpatrick’s spot on the team. Drafted by the Remparts in 2016, he never played major midget last year. Older brother Evan Fitzpatrick (STL) was selected in the second round in 2016.

Team outlook: The Cataractes have been upset in the playoffs twice in the past three years, but this year they’ll look to spoil the party. Where they finish hinges on if high-scoring defenceman Samuel Girard (NSH) is returned to junior. Import picks Vasily Glotov (BUF) — acquired for a fifth-round pick in August — and Jan Drozg (PIT) should make up for lost scoring.

Victoriaville Tigres

Player to watch — Tristan Côté-Cazenave, G: The Tigres are putting a lot of faith into a starting goalie who has only made 16 QMJHL appearances. The 6-foot-1, 188-pound netminder is a complete wildcard at this point, but if he can put up a solid season for a top team, scouts will take note.

Team outlook: A concussion in October slowed down Pascal Laberge (PHI) and he never really got back on track the rest of the season. A healthy Laberge alongside Maxime Comtois (ANH) could be the most dangerous duo in league if they can both stay healthy. A veteran defence loaded with 19- and 20-year-olds will make Victoriaville a tough team to play on a nightly basis. The team added a number of veterans late in the summer and could make even more moves during the trading period.