CHL Power Rankings: Nine storylines to follow in 2019-20

Rimouski Oceanic forward Alexis Lafreniere. (Vincent L. Rousseau)

Another CHL season kicks off Thursday and there’s a lot to watch this season. To narrow it down for you a little, we focused in on nine topics to follow throughout the season.

By the way, our CHL broadcast schedule is almost final, but we do know that the CIBC Canada-Russia series kicks off in Saint John on Monday, November 4. Please be sure to check back for our official CHL broadcast schedule.

9. Cape Breton: Long mired in mediocrity, it seems like the Cape Breton franchise is trending upward. New owner Irwin Simon has already had a significant impact by removing Screaming from the team’s nickname. The new ownership group also introduced a streamlined logo, while keeping true to its traditional black and gold colours.

Enter Jake Grimes as the new head coach. Grimes has maritime roots and has spent most of his coaching career being mentored by George Burnett in two different OHL locales. Grimes is fresh off an OHL title with Guelph where he was an associate coach and now gets a chance to start anew in a different league with the Eagles. The franchise, which moved to Cape Breton in 1997, has never been past the semifinals, something Irwin believes he can change by investing new and improved resources to the club.

8. NHL Experience Returns: Just two years after winning a WHL title with Swift Current, Manny Viveiros is back in the WHL at the helm of the Spokane Chiefs. Willie Desjardins returns to a familiar place in Medicine Hat after an interim stint with the L.A. Kings to close out the 2018-19 season. Desjardins won WHL titles in 2004 and 2007 with the Tigers. Dave Lowry, who was also on that L.A. staff, takes over in Brandon. Lowry had two very successful WHL stints in Calgary and Victoria before moving to L.A. J.J. Daigneault spent six years as an assistant coach for the Montreal Canadiens before being let go. He spent the 2018-19 campaign as an AHL assistant and now takes over in Halifax. Daigneault is a former first round pick with almost 900 NHL games as a player.

7. Mario Pouliot: While it is doubtful Pouliot will make a third straight run to the Memorial Cup, it will be fascinating to see how his Rouyn-Noranda Huskies defend their President and Memorial Cup titles. Several players return from last season, while others such as Rafael Harvey-Pinard, were moved to keep re-stocking the cupboards. The Huskies have a long-standing tradition of drafting speed, smarts and character in no particular order. That mantra has held strong from Andre Tourigny through Gilles Bouchard and looks to be in tact under Pouliot. The Huskies thrive on representing the small town of Rouyn-Noranda and nobody typifies that more than head coach and GM Pouliot.

6. Kelowna Rockets: Some nifty wheeling and dealing, especially at the WHL bantam draft, allowed owner/GM Bruce Hamilton to add 19-year-old defenceman Sean Comrie along with San Jose Sharks invitee Jake Lee and Sharks draftee Dillon Hamaliuk from Seatttle. The loss of Lassi Thomson, who returned home to Finland, will hurt, but Vegas prospect Kaedan Korczak should be able to anchor the back end, while Tampa first-rounder Nolan Foote will be leaned on to provide goal-scoring.

The Rockets will host the 2020 Memorial Cup and will need big contributions from several of their returnees if they intend to be a worthy host. Hamilton will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye to tweak the roster. The B.C. Division looks strong with the likes of WHL finalist Vancouver and this week’s fifth-ranked CHL team in Kamloops.

5. CHLers for the NHL Draft: It’s a long way from June, but scouts have already hit the road in search of finding the next batch of talent. The CHL remains the top developmental league in the world, but the league is mired in four straight years of decline. Over the past 10 drafts, 51 per cent of the players selected since 2010 came from the CHL. That number was just 32 per cent in last year’s draft.

There are several reasons for the decline, definitely a topic for another day, but the numbers don’t lie: 2016 represented the last time 50 per cent or more of the players taken in the first round were from CHL clubs. In 2019, 13 of the 31 (42 per cent) players selected in Round 1 came from the CHL. The record number of CHL players taken in Round 1 is 22, all the way back in the 2013 NHL Draft, led by the likes of Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin.

Another trend shows a CHL player hasn’t been taken first overall since Connor McDavid (Erie) in 2015, which is also the last year a Canadian-born player was selected first overall. Look for some if not all of these trends to change in the 2020 NHL Draft. The 2002-born CHL class is expected to produce a bumper crop of talent. With the likes of Alexis Lafreniere, Hendrix Lapierre, Cole Perfetti, and Quinton Byfield, the high-end group looks to be strong as well.

4. WHL in Winnipeg: For the first time since 1984, the city of Winnipeg will have a WHL team. Ice GM Matt Cockell was the busiest executive over the course of the 2018-19 season, having made 18 trades in preparation for the relocation from Kootenay to Winnipeg.

A few more deals by Cockell during the off-season have the Ice poised to be a playoff team in their first season. He has assembled a roster to be reckoned with in year one with Vegas first-rounder Peyton Krebs and diminutive sniper Connor McClennon as the backbones.

Cockell also pulled off a coup by drafting Winnipeg native Connor Geekie and projected star Matthew Savoie with the first two picks of the 2019 WHL bantam draft. He served further notice that they are set to contend immediately with Monday’s acquisition of veteran WHL netminder Dean McNabb. The franchise has big plans for a new arena and training centre that should help revitalize WHL hockey interest in the Winnipeg area.

3. Shane Wright: Granted exceptional status for early entrance into the OHL, Wright ran roughshod through the minor midget ranks in Ontario. The former Don Mills Flyer was taken first overall by Kingston, in the OHL Priority Selection.

Kingston will be young and that should give Wright ample opportunity to strut his stuff. He should fit right into the plans of head coach Kurtis Foster, and look for associate coach Luca Caputi to utilize Wright in plays designed around the right-shot centre.

Wright will benefit greatly from the likes of Fronts president Doug Gilmour, long-time GM Darren Kiely and the recently hired Jeff Twohey, who has a boatload of OHL Executive experience. Wright follows the likes of Joe Veleno, Sean Day, Connor McDavid, Aaron Ekblad and John Tavares as the only CHL’ers ever granted such status.

Dan MacKenzie has been named the first full-time president of the Canadian Hockey League. (CHL/Twitter)

2. Dan MacKenzie: A role created by the three current commissioners was officially filled Sept. 3 by Dan MacKenzie after an exhaustive search conducted in conjunction with a third party yielded the former NBA Canada executive.

It’s tough to argue the success of the NBA, and coming from that culture can only benefit the CHL. Historically, as a brand, the CHL has taken a backseat to each of its three-member leagues: the QMJHL, OHL and WHL.

Will MacKenzie push the CHL agenda forward, and if so, how will he balance that brand with each of the three brands currently?

He will also be challenged to penetrate the inner circle of the three long-standing commissioners David Branch, Gilles Courteau and Ron Robison. Look for the CHL to separate itself from the OHL, where several employees have served in a dual capacity.

MacKenzie will be tasked with getting up to speed on the on-going lawsuits, all matters Hockey Canada, the CHL-Sportsnet relationship and of course the emergence of social media amongst other key issues.

1. Alexis Lafreniere: following in the footsteps of Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Sidney Crosby, the pressure will be on the reigning CHL Player of the Year to maintain his status as the top prospect available for the 2020 NHL draft.

The 17-year-old followed up a 42 goal, 80 point rookie campaign by netting 105 points to finish tied for second in QMJHL scoring during the 2018-19 season. Lafreniere’s 35 power-play points tied for top spot in the league.

When things got even more intense, the left-winger scored nine times and finished with 23 playoff points in just 13 games. With experience at the world juniors under his belt and the drive to fend off several contenders for the top spot in the 2020 draft, look for Lafreniere to have a monster season.

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