CHL hockey is unpredictable — that is the underlying basis for attending games or watching them on TV. You just never know what’s going to happen. The beauty of the junior game lies in its imperfections.
That premise doesn’t exist just for teams, or coaches, but for individuals as well. The 2018-19 CHL season is two months old and already we’re identifying trends that we expect will play out over the entire season. Operating under the premise that everyone loves an underdog, here’s our top 10 surprise player performances of the young CHL season.
10. Trent Miner, Vancouver Giants: What a difference a year makes. There’s no comparison to the nine games Miner played in last season, where he went 3-4-0-0 with a 4.20 GAA and .885 save percentage. Having said that, he was just 16 years old and didn’t even start the season with Vancouver. Albeit a small sample size, but this year has gone exactly as the Giants projected when they took him in the first round of the 2016 bantam draft. Miner is 6-1-1-0 with a 1.62 GAA and .945 save percentage a year after being named a first-team All-Star in the MMHL when he had a 1.64 GAA and .941 SP.
9. Mathias Laferriere, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: The 18-year-old centre had a career-best 12 goals, 29 assists and 41 points in 2017-18 and it was enough for St. Louis to take a flyer on him in the sixth round of the 2018 NHL Draft. At 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, the right-shooting Laferriere has the desired size at the most-coveted position in the game. Through 24 games this season Laferriere has 11 goals 21 assists and 32 points, most of which have been accumulated in his current stretch of getting a point in 14 of 16 games. Laferriere was the prized pick up in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade made with Blainville-Boisbriand at the 2017 deadline.
8. Ian Scott, Prince Albert Raiders: Despite having played more than 2500 minutes in both of the past two seasons, Scott has never had a goals-against average below 3.00 or a save percentage above .900. But since mid-February 2018 Scott has been the most consistent goalie in the CHL. He backstopped the Raiders to a Game 7 against powerhouse Moose Jaw in the 2018 playoffs, losing with under four minutes left in the game. With a more tenured group in front of him now, Scott has allowed more than two goals just twice this season and leads all CHL keepers with 18 wins, a 1.37 GAA and .951 SP. He’s a fourth-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs and will get a chance to earn a spot with Canada at the world juniors.
7. Zachary Emond, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies: Playing as a back-up in your draft year is extremely difficult, especially when it’s behind one of the league’s best in Samuel Harvey. That was the task Zach Emond had last year as he got into 24 games with a pedestrian 3.26 GAA and .897 SP. The duo has returned this year and is the best in the league, holding opponents to a league-low 2.37 GAA. But this time Emond is playing more and he’s doing well, with an 8-0 record, 2.25 GAA and .928 SP. With goaltending the most sought after position at the trade deadline, one of the two is likely to be dealt. The San Jose sixth-round pick will benefit either way en route to a career year.
6. Mitch Eliot, Sarnia Sting: A relative unknown to the CHL, Eliot played for Michigan State before deciding to join the Sting in February of 2018. He finished last season with two goals and three points in 16 games, adding three assists in 12 playoff games. With interests in pursuing a pro career, Eliot has left nothing to chance this season. The 20-year-old right shot defenceman has 21 points in 22 games for the Sting. Over two USHL seasons from 2014 to 2016, Eliot had five goals and 17 points in 113 games played. In 61 career college games, Eliot had just two goals and eight points. He is the son of former NHLer Darren Eliot.
5. Tyler Tucker, Barrie Colts: The move Tucker made from his home in Thunder Bay to Toronto to play minor midget really paid off. He was drafted by Barrie in the first round of the 2016 OHL priority selection and made his mark as a rough and tumble, stay-at-home, physical defenceman with limited offensive production, scoring just four goals and 37 points in his first two OHL seasons. His solid two-way play in the 2018 playoffs lead to him being drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Blues this past June. Tucker has added some offensive flair to his already sound defensive foundation this year. He’s got five goals and 19 points through Barrie’s first 22 games. His biggest fan may be head coach Dale Hawerchuk, who once referred to Tucker as a “throwback player with sneaky skill.”
4. Jonathan Yantsis, Kitchener Rangers: Signed as a free agent in January of 2017 Yantsis played third- and fourth-line minutes for the Rangers in 2017-18, scoring five goals and 12 points in 59 games. But this season, the big right winger has really come into his own and turned himself into one of the OHL’s premier snipers. In 24 games he has 19 goals, eight of which have come on the power play. Pro-rated, Yantsis is on pace for a 50-goal season, which is unheard of for an undrafted player. He hasn’t got a sniff professionally, but with his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) and goal-scoring ability, surely someone will give him a look at season’s end.
3. Jimmy Huntington, Rimouski Oceanic: The fourth year junior started his career in Acadie-Bathurst before three straight seasons with Victoriaville. Huntington’s tenure with the Tigres produced a durable 204 games, realizing a breakout campaign last year under Louis Robitaille in which he put up 18 goals and 58 points. But this season has been on another level, with Huntington posting 16 goals and 32 points through 22 games. The point totals are impressive, but the most recent run through November may foreshadow an amazing second half. Through the first six games of the month, Huntington had eight goals and 14 points with an outrageous 34.8 shooting percentage. It does help centring a line that includes all-world Alexis Lafreniere and the slick Olivier Garneau.
2. Tristan Langan, Moose Jaw Warriors: As a 20-year-old, Langan had the option whether or not to return to Moose Jaw. After all, the Warriors had a record season to remember in 2017-18, pacing the WHL with 52 wins and 109 points. Unfortunately, the Warriors had a Round 2 match-up with eventual WHL champion Swift Current and were eliminated. Would Langan ever have a better chance than last year? With a team that wouldn’t be as potent in 2018-19, head coach Tim Hunter knew Langan would be a key piece for his Warriors this season and trust from the coach has translated into confidence for the player. In less than one-third of a season, the durable winger is one shy of a career-high in goals (16) and nine points shy of another career-high (42). Langan will take a four-game multi-point streak into the weekend, where his Warriors will be featured on our CHL Saturday Showcase game when Moose Jaw plays host to Lethbridge at 2:30 local time.
1. Brett Leason, Prince Albert Raiders: Before this season, Leason had played in 135 career WHL games amassing 24 goals, 27 assists, 51 points and a plus-13 rating. Through 22 games this season, Leason already has 22 goals, 25 assists and 47 points with a plus-34 rating. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound right winger worked on his skating in the off-season, but is rather nonchalant about his success this year. It’s this low profile attitude that has helped him to become the most feared right winger in the CHL. The CIBC Canada-Russia series was a test for Leason to see whether or not he could handle the speed, skill and strength of international competition. He passed with flying colours, assisting on the game-winning goal of Game 1 of the series. Every time he was on the ice, it seemed Team WHL had offensive zone possession. He’s about to pull off the rare feat of being named to Canada’s WJC selection camp roster after never having participated in the country’s program of excellence.