Jonathan Huberdeau will look to lead the team representing the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League back in the win column against Nail Yakupov’s Russian squad in the Subway Super Series.
The Russians enter this year’s series with recent dominance against the QMJHL with wins in each of the last four meetings. Team QMJHL last defeated the Russians in 2009, with a 3-1 win and an 8-3 rout to take both games in the QMJHL leg of that series.
The 2012 Subway Super Series starts tonight in Blainville-Boisbriand with Team QMJHL vs. Team Russia live on Sportsnet at 7 p.m. ET.
If the pressure’s on the QMJHL players to get their league back in the win column, it won’t be coming internally.
“We cannot have that pressure on our shoulders,” Team QMJHL head coach Andre Tourigny explained. “It’s not about what happened the last few years. For me, it’s all about what will happen Monday.”
A broken foot kept Huberdeau out of action in last year’s series. The Team QMJHL captain knows how important it is for his team to start the Subway Super Series on a winning note for the Canadian contingent, and just how intense the rivalry remains with the historic rivals.
“We don’t like them and they don’t like us,” Huberdeau said. “Every time we play against them, we want to beat them for sure.”
Huberdeau is excited to play in the series and use it as a stepping stone towards representing Canada at the world juniors this December and January in Ufa, Russia. A two-time QMJHL champion and future Florida Panther, Huberdeau is enjoying another productive season with 11 goals and 23 points in 18 games this season.
He’s hoping he will be able to play alongside Halifax Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon.
“That’s why I’m really excited,” Huberdeau said. “Hopefully I can play with MacKinnon. He’s a great player and I never got a chance to play with him. It will be nice.”
Tourigny isn’t surprised his star player would like to play with another premier player. The decision to put them together may not be quite as simple.
“As a coach, I think everybody in the world will say he wants to play with MacKinnon or with Huberdeau,” Tourigny said. “I’m not surprised. If I play with Pittsburgh, I bet you I will want to play with Sidney Crosby. That’s just normal.”
Had it not been for the NHL lockout, Nail Yakupov would be wearing an Edmonton Oilers jersey right now instead of one representing the Russians in this series. The first-overall pick in last summer’s draft, Yakupov will be quite a handful for Team QMJHL and Tourigny is hoping a good offence will result in good defence.
“He’s a really powerful skater,” Tourigny noted. “He’s a guy that can shoot the puck, he’s shifty too. He can change direction really quickly. It will be a (five-man) unit job. We’ll have to eliminate his time and space, keep him outside and keep possession of the puck. When we have the puck, he won’t.”
The headliner in a group of draft eligible talent is MacKinnon, widely-considered the top forward prospect for the draft and a contender for the first-overall pick. MacKinnon is averaging a goal a game this season with 18 in 18 games, but the natural center may be playing out of position when the lineup cards are drawn.
“It depends on the lockout situation, but right now Canada is pretty deep at center,” Tourigny said, noting the roles players play in the series could reflect roles they vie for at the December camp. “We might use him as a winger, we’ll see… I already spoke with (Halifax head coach) Dominique Ducharme about that and Dom says he’s not used to playing as a winger, but he’s sure he can get the job done.”
One of the Russians’ youngest players may also be one of their best. Valeri Nichushkin is considered a top 10 pick for this summer’s draft and should show fans why scouts think so highly of him in this series. Nichushkin is a skilled, offensive player with creativity and goal scoring prowess.
The Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t afraid of drafting Russians, as evidenced by taking goalie Andrei Vasilevski with their first round pick last June. The Russian goaltender was one of the bright surprises at last year’s world junior tournament. He started the semifinal against the Canadians, but was later pulled when Canada climbed out of a 6-1 deficit to trail 6-5 in the dying minutes.
Tourigny wouldn’t announce his starter for this game over the weekend, but feels comfortable with the three his league is bringing for the competition. Blainville-Boisbriand’s Etienne Marcoux is the oldest of the three and the game is in his junior team’s rink, while Francois Brassard and Zachary Fucale provide depth against a talented Russian side.
“The Russians have their A team this year,” Tourigny said.
Phillip Danault was among the final cuts for Canada’s team last year. The Chicago Blackhawks’ prospect is adding an offensive punch to his two-way game this season and should vie for another bottom six, penalty killing role on this year’s squad.
“He’s a guy that can play both sides of the ice,” Tourigny said. “His work ethic is relentless. He’s a really good kid. He will be a leader for us during that Subway Super Series game and I will rely on him in a lot of situations so I expect a lot from him.”
Mikhail Grigorenko, a Quebec Remparts forward, played sparingly for the Russians in last year’s world junior tournament. He may be looking for a bigger role after being drafted in the first round by Buffalo this summer. He’s one of three Russian players who play in the QMJHL, which isn’t necessarily an advantage in terms of scouting for the QMJHL.
“As soon as you put them together with their old friends, they quickly get back to their habits,” Tourigny said. “Even if you know the way he plays with his junior team, he will play a totally different type of game in the Russian jersey. It’s the reason for me you cannot think too much about the way he plays on his junior team.
“They’ll have all the big guns and they will have pretty much the team they will have at the world juniors so we better be ready.”
Two years ago, the Russians won both games against the QMJHL team in the series and captured the challenge for the first time in their history. They later went on to win the world junior gold medal over Canada in Buffalo.
Team QMJHL will look to set the pace for the series with an opening win, which would put less pressure on the teams from the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
The Russians will have an advantage since, unlike the other two teams they will face, Team QMJHL doesn’t have the advantage of pre-scouting and will face a rested Russian team. They will also have players playing their third or fourth game in a matter of days following this weekend’s action.
“We’re not in the best situation, but at the same time, I think that’s a good chance for our players to prove character and prove they can battle through adversity,” Tourigny said.
QMJHL Announces lineup changes
Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads will not compete in Game 1 of the 2012 Subway Super Series due to injury, the league announced on Monday.
Drouin, a 17-year-old from Ste-Agathe, will not be replaced for Monday’s game with Team QMJHL dressing 13 forwards against Team Russia.
Team QMJHL also announced that Halifax Mooseheads goaltender Zachary Fucale and Val-d’Or Foreurs defenceman Matt Murphy will not be in the lineup for Monday night’s game, but will compete for Team QMJHL in Game 2 of the Subway Super Series on Wednesday in Val-d’Or.