QMJHL Season Preview: Joe Veleno, Voltigeurs built to win a championship

Drummondville Voltigeurs centre Joe Veleno. (Drummondville Voltigeurs)

The youngest of the three Canadian major junior hockey leagues, the QMJHL celebrates its 50th anniversary this season. While teams wear commemorative patches and the league gets to wax nostalgic, 17 teams will vie for a spot in the Memorial Cup tournament alongside the host Halifax Mooseheads.

Two of the best coaches left the ‘Q’ to join the Montreal Canadiens — Drummondville’s Dominique Ducharme as assistant coach and Blainville-Boisbriand’s Joël Bouchard as head coach of Montreal’s AHL affiliate, the Laval Rocket. On the topic of nostalgia, Patrick Roy is back in the league as head coach and general manager of the Quebec Remparts, similar to the role he held with the team from 2005-2013.

The Mooseheads also hired a familiar face with Éric Veilleux back after four seasons coaching in the AHL and ECHL. Veilleux was the head coach of a Shawinigan Cataractes team that won the 2012 Memorial Cup as hosts and will look to do the same with the Moose.

TOP THREE CONTENDERS

Drummondville Voltigeurs
The Voltigeurs brought veteran forwards Maxime Comtois (ANH) and Félix Lauzon in from Victoriaville in a trade that sets the team up to challenge for the President Cup. With a full season of Joe Veleno (DET) front and centre, Nicolas Beaudin (CHI) and Xavier Bernard (NJ) on the blue line and Olivier Rodrigue (EDM) in net, this will be a tough team to score on.

Former head coach Ducharme is gone, but the team is in good hands with his long-time assistant Steve Hartley. The pair won a Memorial Cup together behind the bench of the Halifax Mooseheads in 2013.

Rimouski Oceanic
The Oceanic did a 180-degree turn last season, finishing atop the East Division a season after finishing in 16th and winning the QMJHL draft lottery. That pick turned into Alexis Lafrenière, who promptly scored 42 goals as a 16-year-old.

In net, Colten Ellis had a stellar debut season and won defensive rookie of the year. Rimouski gave up the 15th and 67th picks of the QMJHL draft to bring in Cédric Pare (BOS), a player who won the President Cup with the Saint John Sea Dogs in 2017.

Halifax Mooseheads
Even before they were named Memorial Cup hosts, the Mooseheads’ rebuild was focused on contending in the 2018-19 season. A promising young Halifax team was swept by the Charlottetown Islanders in the second round last season and will need to learn from those mistakes this year.

Even without Filip Zadina (DET), Halifax is loaded with talent including NHL prospects Benoit-Olivier Groulx (ANA), Jared McIsaac (DET), Arnaud Durandeau (NYI), Jocktan Chainey (NJ), Jake Ryczek (CHI) and Alexis Gravel (CHI). The team brought in valuable experience with 2017 Memorial Cup winners Jordan Maher and Antoine Morand (ANA) coming over from the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

TOP 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alexis Lafrenière, Rimouski Océanic: The comparisons to fellow Rimouski first overall pick Sidney Crosby may persist, but Lafrenière continues to make a name for himself. After scoring 42 goals in his rookie season, the 16-year-old won gold with Canada’s under-18 team at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup. In five games, he had four goals including two in the gold-medal game. Loaded with creativity and high hockey IQ, all eyes will be on the early favourite to go first overall in the 2020 NHL Draft.

Raphael Harvey-Pinard, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies: An eighth-round pick by the Huskies in 2015, Harvey-Pinard’s production exploded in his sophomore season as he jumped from 23 to 76 points. Those 76 points were 15th-best in the QMJHL and included 64 primary points, 10th-best in the league according to Prospect-Stats.com. Those numbers by the undrafted, 5-foot-9 forward grabbed the attention of the Vegas Golden Knights who gave him a tryout at their 2018 training camp.

Hendrix Lapierre, Chicoutimi Saguenéens: With family living in or close to Chicoutimi, the first overall pick of the 2018 QMJHL draft will get to play in front of familiar faces on a regular basis. The 5-foot-11, 161-pound forward posted 57 points in 35 games with the Gatineau L’Intrépide last season, the same Midget AAA team that produced Benoit-Olivier Groulx (selected first overall by the Halifax Mooseheads in 2016). The playmaker will inject some creativity into a squad that finished 15th both in the standings and goals scored.

NHL DRAFT ELIGIBLE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Raphaël Lavoie, Halifax Mooseheads: It’s hard to miss the 6-foot-4, 198-pound winger when he steps on to the ice, especially after he got 30 goals and 33 assists in his sophomore season. He showed up in the big moments, scoring 10 game-wining goals including six in overtime, which was the most ever in one QMJHL season.

Lavoie should be a regular on the top line this season and could be hard to ignore when it comes to world junior selection time after he scored five goals in five games with the Canadian under-18 team in April.

Valentin Nussbaumer, Shawinigan Cataractes: After starring for Switzerland at the world junior tournament as a 17-year-old and playing against men in the top tier Swiss league, Nussbaumer will bring his exciting hockey smarts to North America this season with Shawinigan. Selected fourth overall in the CHL Import draft, the centre had three points in six pre-season games and realistically could lead Shawinigan in points this season.

Senior Writer Ryan Dixon and NHL Editor Rory Boylen always give it 110%, but never rely on clichés when it comes to podcasting. Instead, they use a mix of facts, fun and a varied group of hockey voices to cover Canada’s most beloved game.

Samuel Poulin, Sherbrooke Phoenix: The son of former NHLer Patrick Poulin got a taste of success this offseason when the winger won gold with Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in August. He didn’t set the world on fire with one assist in six games, but he gained valuable experience as he heads into his sophomore campaign.

The 6-foot-1, 204-pound power-forward scored 16 goals and 45 points as a rookie but really started to heat up in January. That success spilled over into the playoffs where had had five goals in 11 games.

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