Friday, May 18, 2012

CHL Weapons of Mass Destruction

It won't surprise anyone that with three league champions and a host team that scored nearly 100 goals more than it allowed, there's going to be a lot of fire power on display in Shawinigan. And while goaltending can steal a victory and it's said that "defence wins championships", I've never seen a team claim a title without scoring goals.

London, Shawinigan, Edmonton and Saint John have a lot of weapons at their disposal but which forwards should fans expect to see lead their team to success? 

Tuesday night's conversation with Sam Cosentino, our weekly CHL Insider, began with the defending champions.

"It starts with Saint John for me, I don't think anyone can throw out a top 6 like [Zack] Phillips (MIN), [Stanislav] Galiev (WSH), [Jonathan] Huberdeau (FLA), Charlie Coyle (MIN) and on and on it goes with that group," said Cosentino. "That top six to me is unrivaled by any other team in this competition."

The Sea Dogs scored 298 goals in 68 games this past season, an average of 4.38 goals per game and their leading scorer was Danick Gauthier, an overage player Sam didn't even mention. 

The two imports on the club have been outstanding in the post season with Galiev's 34 points leading the team in scoring and Tomas Jurco (DET) not far behind with 29 points. The duo had completely shattered the stereotype of the European who disappears in the post season.

"They're great players for us and they have been since they first got here," head coach Gerard Gallant told us, "This is the third year for both of them, they're really comfortable in Saint John and they both get a chance to play with verytalented hockey players. They've been outstanding since the first day we got them and like you said, they seem to get better in the playoffs."    

No question that the mid-season addition of Charlie Coyle was a huge one. The former Boston University Terrier has been extremely productive playing against his age group.

Photo: QMJHL
"I didn't really know what we were getting - I knew he was a good hockey player because he was a first round pick in the NHL and I'd heard great of him playing at Boston University things but, I didn't think he'd be the player that he is," admitted Gallant. "He's a complete player, the complete package and just a great kid. That's the best thing is that he fits in with our team so well, as good as he is on the ice he's just as good off of it."

One can't help notice that 2011 3rd overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau is 5th on the team in scoring and although it's hard to think that 21 points in 15 games can be considered "struggling", he has been far less productive than his mates. We asked Gallant to explain. 

"To be honest with you, with Jonathan, the first two rounds of the playoffs we played teams that were rebuilding for next season and we had some lopsided scores," the coach began, "Jonathan's the type of kid that doesn't want to embarrass people and he's going to play the game the way it's supposed to be played. He didn't get near as many points as he could have got in the first round because he didn't need them. In the third and the fourth round he played very well for us, he's been a good all around player; he's doing a lot more penalty kill for us than he did last year."

"He's not on the top of our scorers right now but everybody knows how good of a hockey player he is," summed up Gallant, "it's just not all about points with Jonathan."  

While Saint John appears to be alone at the top when it comes to forward strength, figuring out the next best team wasn't as easy.     

"I look at the other three teams as being remarkably similar," said Cosentino, "I think they are so balanced and that balance goes three, maybe three and a half lines deep."

"I love [Rhett] Rachinski and [Jordan] Peddle and some of the contributions that Edmonton is getting from it's older players," he continued, "I think Curtis Lazar has been dynamite and although early on he was putting up big points but his two-way game really picked up and came to fruition in the Portland series."

The Oil Kings ended the regular season with 310 goals in 72 games (4.31/game) and were led by 105-point man Michael St. Croix (NYR). We asked coach Derek Laxdal to share with our out of market audience his thoughts on his leading scorer. 

Photo: Andy Devlin
"He's a very offensively gifted and dynamic hockey player," Laxal started, "He's one of the guys that runs our power play, he's the catalyst of our offence on the top line Tyler Maxwell and Kristians Pelss (EDM). He's a streaky scorer; he had two points or something in the first 15 games and then he ended up with 105 because he went on a 40-point tear in November and December. He's played some of his best hockey in the last three games against Portland and that's a great sign for us."

The team will have to make do without the injured Dylan Wruck, an 80-point forward who recently underwent shoulder surgery, but fortunately for Edmonton, they have an unusual amount of depth.  

"Right now we're carrying 14 forwards and four lines that we can roll to use that depth and we've done it consistently over the course of the season," said Laxdal, "You saw us in the last round against Portland that we did shorten our bench in Game 4 through 7 just because they were such a strong team and we wanted to get our best players on the ice at critical times."

Edmonton's "checking line" includes Rachinski, an undrafted overage player who scored 27 goals this year - not bad for a shutdown player.  T.J. Foster, the second player drafted by the Oil Kings in their short history, had 30 goals and 75 points. In all, five 25-goal scorers but interestingly, in the playoffs it's been guys like Stephane Legault, Henrik Samuelsson and Jordan Peddle who have increased their offensive output that pushed them through to the Memorial Cup. 

Photo: Agence QMI
From the WHL champs we go back to Shawinigan to discuss the Cataractes who finished second overall in the QMJHL regular season standings before being upset in the second round by Chicoutimi. 

"[Anton] Zlobin and [Kirill] Kabanov (NYI) have the potential to be world class guys along with Yannick Veilleux, Maxime Le Sieur and there's tons of talent up front for Shawinigan as well." offered Cosentino. 

Kabanov had 13 points in 11 playoffs games, a good sign for the Cataractes who will need him to play up to his potential. Michael Chaput (PHI) recorded 21 goals and 63 points during the season, second only to Zlobin who had a much better second season in the Q than he did last year as a rookie. 

Shawinigan also has Michael Bournival (MTL) on the roster who played an energy role for Canada at the 2012 WJC in Alberta. The home town kid scored 30 goals and had 56 points in just 41 games for the Cataractes this year.  

With 278 goals in 68 games, Shawinigan also averaged over 4 goals per game last year (4.09).

Lastly, the Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, with 277 goals in 68 games (4.07) were the least productive up the four teams but not by a significant margin. London has 8 players born in 1994 or later making them the youngest group of forwards in the Memorial Cup.

"The London Knights have a lot of talent its just a little bit more youthful," echoed Cosentino.

Photo: Aaron Bell
Undrafted Seth Griffith led the team in scoring during both the regular season and the playoffs. The average sized forward was described to me last year as being very much like Michael St. Croix but obviously NHL teams didn't share the same opinion. 

Certainly there are dangerous players on London's roster including Vlad Namestnikov (TBY), Austin Watson (NSH), Jared Knight (BOS) and 2013 eligible Max Domi. An overlooked asset might be Gregg McKegg (TOR) who was acquired at the deadline from Erie. 

"[McKegg] plays all three zones on the ice, he's another character guy who is great for our kids in the locker room," said assistant coach Misha Donskov about the 75-point center, "He's very strong on the puck and he's a very unselfish hockey player. He's a kid that we're happy to have in our organization and he's a huge part of our success and our depth."   

The Memorial Cup begins this evening with the Shawinigan Cataractes hosting the Edmonton Oil Kings. Saturday's contest will pit the London Knights against the defending champion Saint John Sea Dogs. 


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