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2019 Memorial Cup Preview: Halifax looks for first championship since loaded 2013 team

From future NHL talent to draft-eligible prospects, it’s anyone’s tournament to win

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies goalie Samuel Harvey makes a pad save on Halifax Mooseheads centre BO Groulx during a QMJHL regular season game at the Scotiabank Centre.
Eric Wynne

Every May, the CHL’s three league champions and a host team play in a tournament to decide the best major junior hockey team in Canada. The Memorial Cup will be played in Halifax for the first time since 2000. Unlike most host teams, who normally don’t play deep into the playoffs, the Mooseheads nearly won the QMJHL championship. However, they fell in six games to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, but both teams will play in the Memorial Cup. They’ll be joined by the OHL champions, the Guelph Storm, and WHL champions, the Prince Albert Raiders.

There is usually a favourite at this tournament, typically the team who dominated all season long (regular season and playoffs). However, it could be any one of the four teams who walk away with the Memorial Cup this season. It will all come down to how well each one utilizes their team’s strengths and exploits the other teams’ weaknesses — so here they are.

Host Team: Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)

Playoff Finish: Lost in QMJHL Final to Rouyn-Noranda

Strengths: Offense & home ice

The last time the Mooseheads won the Memorial Cup in 2013, they were led by two draft-eligible talents in Nathan Mackinnon and Jonathan Drouin. Well, once again, it’s a draft-eligible prospect stealing the show for Halifax in Raphael Lavoie. After a somewhat inconsistent regular season, Lavoie found his offensive game in the postseason, and has 20 goals and 32 points in 23 playoff games. The Mooseheads don’t have the biggest names as far as offensive threats go, but Arnaud Durandeau (NYI), Benoit-Olivier Groulx (ANA), and Samuel Asselin have also led Halifax’s offense. Their mobile blueline features smooth skaters Jared McIsaac (DET) and Justin Barron (2020), who can create offense just as well as the forwards. Plus, there’s nothing like home ice advantage for the host teams at this tournament.

Weaknesses: Lack of depth & goaltending

Unlike the three league champions, Halifax did not load up on talent at the QMJHL trade deadline. Although they were still able to make it all the way to the QMJHL final, they may find going up against better offenses difficult, especially for a team who thinks offense-first, defense-second. Goalie Alexis Gravel (CHI) was excellent for the Mooseheads in the regular season, and a large reason for the team’s first-place conference finish. However, he had a somewhat average playoffs, and Halifax fell two wins short of the league title. Halifax has the third-best goaltending coming into the tournament (just ahead of Guelph). The Mooseheads will need Gravel outplay his counterparts in the tournament, as he’ll be facing more formidable offenses.

Player to Watch: Benoit-Olivier Groulx (ANA)
Draft-Eligible to Watch: Raphael Lavoie

QMJHL Champion: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

Strengths: Past experience & goaltending

Of the four teams, Rouyn-Noranda has the most recent appearance at the tournament, where they lost in overtime of the 2016 final. They are the only team who has never won a Memorial Cup, but they’re a strong favourite for the championship this year. Undrafted overage forward Peter Abbandonato and goalie Samuel Harvey are returnees from that 2016 team. Along with 2018 Memorial Cup champion Noah Dobson, the Huskies will lean heavily on those three for experience (and Abbandonato and Dobson for offense). They steamrolled through the ‘Q’ playoffs, losing just four games. Harvey was the best goalie in the QMJHL this season and there’s no reason to believe he will falter now. Even if he does, they have a solid backup in Zachary Emond (SJS) who can step in at any time.

Weakness: The blueline

Defenseman Jacob Neveu (another player who was on the 2016 team) suffered a broken jaw in the QMJHL final and will likely miss the first part of the tournament (if not all of it). His absence puts a greater strain on an already shallow blueline. The addition of Dobson at the deadline was a vital move, and he’ll be relied on even more heavily as he attempts to win a second straight Memorial Cup. Dobson had an incredible season and will be one of the most dangerous players in the entire tournament with his ability to create something out of nothing. But after him, there really isn’t much, and it will require a total team defensive effort for Rouyn-Noranda to win this tournament.

Player to Watch: Peter Abbandonato
Draft-Eligible to Watch: Alex Beaucage

OHL Champion: Guelph Storm

Strength: Resilient team loaded with NHL talent

If Halifax didn’t load up at the deadline, well, Guelph sure did. These weren’t just trades to bolster their depth, either — the Storm went and acquired a number of future NHL talents. Nick Suzuki (MTL), Sean Durzi (LAK), Mackenzie Entwistle (CHI), and Markus Phillips (LAK) were all brought in to help elevate Guelph to their first Memorial Cup since 1986. Their last appearance at this tournament was a second-place finish in 2014. Along with Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI) and Dmitri Samorukov (EDM), this is a strong offensive team with a lot of future NHL players. Plus, Guelph has faced adversity like no other team here. They fought back from a 3-0 series deficit and a 3-1 deficit in Game 7 of that series. They were down 3-1 in the conference championship series. And they had to dispatch the previously undefeated-in-the-playoffs Ottawa 67’s in the OHL championship in order to get here. No matter how many times the Storm were on the brink of elimination, they fought back, and they won’t go down without a fight.

Weaknesses: Inconsistent goaltending & slow starts

Slow starts have also plagued Guelph in the postseason, which was survivable in a seven-game series, but will not breed success in a one-and-done tournament like the Memorial Cup. However, it is goaltending that will decide Guelph’s fate. If Anthony Popovich plays well, they will win. But he has had shaky games in the postseason, which is why the Storm have had such a tumultuous run to this tournament. He hasn’t been forced to steal games for the Storm yet this playoffs, but when they have to play teams with better defense and goaltending, Popovich may need to. The Storm are definitely the underdog team in this tournament, but all it takes is a hot goalie, and they’ll need Popovich’s best if they want to win.

Player to Watch: Nick Suzuki (MTL)
Draft-Eligible to Watch: Er...none, but there are a few 2020 draft-eligible players!

WHL Champion: Prince Albert Raiders

Strengths: Stellar goaltending & offensive weapons

Ian Scott (TOR) was the WHL’s playoff MVP, and for good reason. His regular season performance was one for the ages, but he found an even better gear in the playoffs. In 23 playoff games, he had a .925 save percentage and 1.96 goals against average. Five of his 16 wins in the postseason were shutouts. Although Scott (like any goalie) has his off-games every now and then, they’re very rare — and he will be tough to beat. Up front, Prince Albert has two offensive dynamos in overagers Brett Leason and Noah Gregor (SJS). The 6’4” Leason is boasts a heavy shot that he unleashes relentlessly on goalies, as well as a lethal and accurate backhand. Meanwhile, Gregor is on the smaller side, but is an excellent passer, can adapt to his linemates’ games, and is one of the fastest skaters on this Raiders team.

Weaknesses: Slower & undisicplined

While the other three teams in Halifax are quick and agile, the Raiders are not known for playing a speed game, preferring to grind their opponents down along the boards instead. They play a tough, physical game that has worked well so far, but they may struggle to keep up with the faster teams at this tournament. Plus, they are prone to taking unnecessary penalties, averaging about four minor penalties a game and taking nearly 200 penalty minutes in the WHL playoffs. They do have a fairly strong and aggressive penalty kill (fifth-best in the playoffs), but with so many offensive catalysts on other teams at this tournament, they’ll need to crack down on allowing so many powerplay opportunities.

Player to Watch: Ian Scott (TOR)
Draft-Eligible to Watch: Brett Leason