2019 Memorial Cup Preview

Halifax will host a few league standouts in the coming days.

It’s a weird time of year for in the hockey world: an unexpected final four in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Hughes-Kakko debate catching fire at the IIHF World Championship in Slovakia, and, starting tonight, the 2019 Memorial Cup hosted by the Halifax Mooseheads.

If you’ve never tuned into the Memorial Cup, there is never a bad time to start. It’s a fantastic tournament highlighting some of the league’s best prospects and draft-eligible players in a unique, round-robin style showcase. Let’s take a look at the field and some players to keep an eye on.

The Final Four

The Memorial Cup follows an interesting plan to select its annual participants. The playoff champions of each of the three leagues of the Canadian Hockey League - OHL, QMJHL and WHL - get a bid to Halifax; a host team picked a year in advance is a selected privilege that rotates among the three leagues.

Halifax Mooseheads [QMJHL] / 49-15-4, 102 pts.

The CHL is infamous for teams who are gunning for the Memorial Cup to go all-in at the trade deadline and conduct massive deals. For example, the OHL’s Niagara Ice Dogs sent 11 draft picks to the Kingston Frontenacs earlier this season for league standout Jason Robertson and Predators prospect Jacob Paquette.

The Mooseheads, however, didn’t conduct such a trade this season, but still found their way to the QMJHL final before falling to Rouyn-Noranda.

Halifax is a fairly balanced team with lethal offensive skill, potting 300 goals this season - good for fourth in the QMJHL. Up front, the offense is led by the draft-eligible Raphael Lavoie. The 6’4” forward, and expected first-round pick next month, scored 32 goals and 73 points in 62 regular season games but then exploded for 32 more points in 23 playoff appearances. Lavoie shifted around the lineup regularly during the season, but his offense was complemented by the Ducks’ Antoine Morand, Samuel Asselin and the Oilers’ Ostap Safin.

On defense, the Mooseheads like to be moving north at all times. The Red Wings’ Jared McIsaac leads the way scoring 62 points in 53 regular season contests and is accompanied by the Blackhawks’ Jake Ryczek and 2020 prospect Justin Barron.

Chicago Blackhawks prospect Alexis Gravel will be the Mooseheads’ starter in net.

Rouyn-Noranda Huskies [QMJHL] / 59-8-1, 119 pts.

After an absurd regular season, the Huskies continued their conquest of the QMJHL,losing four total games in the playoffs and none in rounds two and three. Top to bottom, they might be the best team in the CHL, but they’ve been in this position before and failed to capitalize, missing out on their first Memorial Cup in 2016 after a 113-point first-place finish.

The Huskies aren’t highlighted by big names up front like when Timo Meier scored 51 points in 29 games for them down the 2016 stretch, but they do have the Islanders’ Noah Dobson on the back-end - one of the most dangerous players league-wide.

Scoring will come from the Canadiens’ Joel Teasdale and overager Peter Abbandonato,who led the QMJHL in scoring this year with 111 points in 68 games. Don’t count out third year player Raphael Harvey-Pinard, too.

In net, Rouyn-Norand will lean on Samuel Harvey to be their horse, but Zachary Emond - a Sharks prospect - is a formidable backup.

Prince Albert Raiders [WHL] / 54-10-4, 112 pts.

The Raiders combed their way through the regular season with relative ease and dispatched the Red Deer Rebels, Saskatoon Blades and Edmonton Oil Kings, faltering just twice before an incredible seven-game series against Bowen Byram and the Vancouver Giants in the WHL final.

Prince Albert’s lineup plays a very WHL-style game, which is a stark difference from the QMJHL front-runners. Their top guys on defense are Brayden Pachal and Zackary Hayes, who are excellent at playing physical and providing top-notch gap control. Keep an eye on Sergei Sapego, too.

Up front, the Raiders are led by draft-eligible prospect Brett Leason, who exploded for 36 goals and 89 points in 55 games this season. He’s backed up by Noah Gregor (88 points) and Cole Fonstad (73 points). Gregor can fly, which is necessary for a more bruising team, and Leason will pepper the opposing goalie with shots.

Prince Albert has the luxury of the best goalie in the tournament: Maple Leafs prospect Ian Scott. I don’t anticipate many games where he allows more than one or two.

My only concern with Prince Albert is they take a lot of penalties. Their penalty kill is good, but it hasn’t faced a man-advantage from the likes of Rouyn-Noranda yet.

Guelph Storm [OHL] / 40-18-10, 90 pts.

What an unbelievable season it’s been for Guelph, and that may be an understatement. A huge deal that shipped out Tag Bertuzzi earlier this season might have rendered the Storm’s season over. But then they turned around and picked up Nick Suzuki (MTL), MacKenzie Entwistle (CHI) and Sean Durzi (LAK) and finished fourth in the Western Conference.

The playoffs, however, is where the real magic began. Suzuki led the way with 42 points in 24 games as the Storm clawed back from a 3-0 series deficit in the round two, a 2-0 and 3-1 deficit in round three, and a 2-0 deficit in the Finals against the powerhouse Ottawa 67’s, winning four straight to head to the Memorial Cup.

Suzuki and Durzi have been excellent, but their lineup is rounded out by Nate Schnarr (ARI), Isaac Ratcliffe (PHI), Markus Phillips (LAK) and Fedor Gordeev (TOR). Their goaltending is a question mark, but how can you bet against them at this point?

NHL Prospects and Draft Eligibles To Watch

There is a really intriguing mix of prospects in this year’s tournament, so here are a few names to keepin the back of your mind.

Dmitri Samorukov, Guelph [D] - 2017, 3rd Round, 84th overall - Edmonton

I hate to be too eager about a prospect, but with the way Samorukov has been playing, I can’t see him needing too much time in the AHL. He’s patient but effective on offense, scoring 37 points in his 34 games at one point this season. He’s an effective defender and not even 20 years old yet:

Raphael Lavoie, Halifax [F] - 2019 Draft Eligible

I touched on Lavoie a bit above but wanted to highlight him again, seeing as he could be available at 24 for Nashville. He’s a huge body but not a bad skater, has excellent hands and an excellent shot, and his hockey sense should translate well to the next level:

Justin Barron, Halifax [D] - 2020 Draft Eligible

Barron is a really complete player despite being a year away from eligibility. Good skater, good hands, good puck control and loves a controlled breakout. He’s not the best passer and has average positioning.

Noah Dobson, Rouyn-Noranda [D] - 2018, 1st Round, 12th overall - New York Islanders

I think Dobson will be quite the steal for the Islanders. He won the Memorial Cup last year and is such an elite junior player. He scored the most playoff points of any QMJHL defender in the last decade, passing Thomas Chabot and Samuel Girard in that category. He’s likely the difference-maker if the Huskies take the championship.

Brett Leason, Prince Albert [F] - 2019 Draft Eligible

Leason is a curious player. He only managed 51 total points in his two previous WHL seasons but took off with 89 in 55 games this year and was equally excellent in the playoffs. His season has skyrocketed him into first-round discussions next month, and rightfully so in his last year of eligibility. Reminding many of Tanner Pearson, he’s improved his skating considerably this past season to catch up with his offensive tools:

Alexei Protas, Prince Albert [F] - 2019 Draft Eligible

Protas had a quieter debut for the Raiders with just 40 points this season, but he was excellent in the playoffs with 22 points in 23 games. The Belorussian could be an intriguing mid-round pick with good skill and a huge 6’5” frame.

Alex Beaucage. Rouyn-Noranda [F] - 2019 Draft Eligible

There’s a common theme among these players, and Beaucage fits it well: big frame with excellent puck-handling skills. I think he has really excellent hockey sense and will be a good second or third round option:

All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com.