Balance of power shifting in QMJHL

CHL insider Sam Cosentino discusses his players to watch this year in the QMJHL.

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s three-year reign atop the Canadian junior scene is over.

Last year’s QMJHL champion, Val-d’Or, failed to keep the MasterCard Memorial Cup in the league for a record fourth season when it lost a marathon semifinal in last May’s tournament to eventual champion Edmonton.

The Foreurs won’t be in the mix to bring the trophy back to their league, but with two entries in this year’s tournament, the QMJHL has a 50 percent chance of returning to the top of the junior hockey landscape.

Here are some burning questions heading into the new season, which opens on Wednesday.

Are the Remparts a worthy host?

The Quebec Remparts will play host to the MasterCard Memorial Cup, which in recent years seems more like a curse given the year-long scrutiny and criticism that surrounds the home team. The Remparts were busy this summer, but like every host, the roster is far from finalized in September.

On paper, the Remparts have some holes to fill, but all that could change after December’s trading period. They should have two solid scoring lines with returnees Anthony Duclair and Adam Erne, alongside Europeans Vladislav Kamenev and Dmytro Timashov.

Quebec’s season hinges on its defensive ability, and more specifically, goaltending. It’s asking a lot to put the team’s fortunes in the hands of Callum Booth and Eric Brassard. Antoine Bibeau proved how far a great goaltender can carry a team last season, and you can be sure that owner Patrick Roy will want the team to be strong in a position he excelled at during his illustrious NHL career.

Some are expecting Halifax to take a step backwards this season; if that happens, Zachary Fucale could be made available. Given that goaltending could be a pressing need for the MasterCard Memorial Cup hosts, the Remparts and Mooseheads are ideal trading partners.

Quebec’s roster as it stands now doesn’t appear any better than the last two hosts from London and Saskatoon, and those two teams combined for only one win in seven games.

Which is the team to beat?

The Remparts will have their biggest challenge from within the East Division as the Rimouski Oceanic have every ingredient of a championship team.

The Oceanic are the deepest team entering the season with pillars at every position. It starts from the goaltender out, as Philippe Desrosiers should lead most statistical categories. Philadelphia Flyers first-rounder Samuel Morin is a tower of power on defence while the forwards corps — consisting of Frederik Gauthier, Anthony DeLuca, Vincent Dunn, Christopher Clapperton and Michael Joly — bring a dynamic blend of offensive and defensive ability along with sandpaper and an agitating presence.

Rimouski can check off every box coaches look for in a playoff series. They have size, speed, skill and a goaltender who can steal games, which will make them a matchup nightmare come playoff time.

Which team will surprise?

For the first time in a half decade, the Maritimes Division is truly open for the taking. No longer is the division home to a powerhouse as it was with the Halifax Mooseheads the past two seasons, who took over the reins from the Saint John Sea Dogs the three years prior to that. The Mooseheads will remain in the mix, although their time at the top is over. The Moncton Wildcats, no strangers to the division crown, will be competitive.

It may now be time for the small markets to take over and, with a heavy divisional schedule, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and Charlottetown Islanders could be the darlings of the new season. Screaming Eagles head coach and general manager Marc-Andre Dumont made two significant additions with Russian forward Evgeny Svechnikov and goaltender Francois Brassard, adding to a team that’s short on name recognition but long on effort.

The Islanders, meanwhile, were built to contend a year from now but have a young core that features the top goaltender drafted last June in Mason McDonald, and a potential top-10 NHL pick in forward Daniel Sprong. This team has the potential to take a forward step a year earlier than expected.

Who is the player to watch?

The throne belongs to Nikolaj Ehlers after the graduations of Jonathan Drouin and Anthony Mantha. Ehlers is the league’s most electrifying player, which is cause for concern for Halifax GM Cam Russell. There’s little doubt Ehlers could reach the 50-goal plateau — he came up just one shy as a rookie — even without co-pilot Drouin. However, the Winnipeg Jets, the team that drafted Ehlers last summer, may feel those game-breaking skills are ready for a frigid Manitoba winter.

If Ehlers doesn’t return, Sprong could be the player to watch after impressing as a rookie last season in Charlottetown. The Islanders forward comes with a lot of fanfare given his natural offensive ability and appears destined to become the league’s poster-boy before his junior career is done.

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