Though it seemed just yesterday the Windsor Spitfires were hoisting the Memorial Cup on home ice, here we are approaching mid-September with another season of Canadian Hockey League action set to get underway.
It’s always an exciting time of year with no shortage of good storylines to follow as teams from coast-to-coast establish their depth charts and make those final few difficult roster decisions as the pre-season draws to a close.
Here are seven interesting storylines to keep tabs on as we embark on the 2017-18 season that gets started in one week’s time.
1) How good are the 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup hosts?
Head coach and GM John Paddock and his staff have been hard at work assembling a winner in Regina where the Pats will host the 100th Mastercard Memorial Cup from May 17-27, 2018.
The Pats reached the WHL Championship Series for the first time since 1984 last spring, falling in six games to the Seattle Thunderbirds. They’ll be looking to fill some holes entering the 2017-18 season though as overage graduates Dawson Leedahl, Chase Harrison and scoring sensation Adam Brooks join Washington Capitals prospect Connor Hobbs, New York Rangers farmhand Sergey Zborovskiy and Ottawa Senators draftee Filip Ahl in moving on with their careers.
Los Angeles Kings prospect Austin Wagner, sidelined for approximately six months following June surgery on a torn labrum and dislocated bicep tendon, could potentially find himself back with the Pats come mid-season despite being signed to an NHL contract by the Kings in March.
On a more sure note, reigning WHL Player of the Year Sam Steel, whose 131 points (50-81–131) led the league in scoring last season, is set to return to the lineup barring an extended look with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks out of training camp. His presence would give the Pats a central cog in their offensive wheel that also includes offseason acquisition Matt Bradley and fellow overager Wyatt Sloboshan, Vegas Golden Knights second round pick Jake Leschyshyn and Colorado Avalanche prospect Nick Henry who is currently recovering from a shoulder surgery of his own.
2) Will the OHL’s Midwest be the premiere division once again?
It’s not often that three teams in the same division will flirt with the 100-point plateau, but the Erie Otters, Owen Sound Attack and London Knights all did so last year. The OHL champion Otters set a CHL record with their fourth consecutive 100-point campaign, defeating a 102-point Attack club in the OHL’s Western Conference Final. The London Knights finished with 99 points during the regular season, their sixth straight season with over 40 victories.
The defending three-time Midwest Division champion Otters will have their work cut out for them this season. As all teams inevitably do, the Otters will deal with graduation following their historic run centred around departing franchise cornerstones Dylan Strome (Arizona Coyotes), Alex DeBrincat (Chicago Blackhawks) and Darren Raddysh (Rockford IceHogs, AHL).
Though the Owen Sound Attack (Michael McNiven) and London Knights (Tyler Parsons) look as though they’ll lose star goaltenders to the pro ranks, both clubs are loaded with depth and talent, each entering 2017-18 as legitimate contenders for an OHL championship.
The Kitchener Rangers have a revamped blue line with the addition of Winnipeg Jets first round pick Logan Stanley from the Windsor Spitfires while Pittsburgh Penguins draftee Connor Hall looks to bounce back from an injury-shortened season. Florida Panthers prospect Adam Mascherin was one of three OHL players to record 100 points last season.
Finishing in the basement of the OHL’s Western Conference last season, an upstart Guelph Storm squad returns to action under new head coach and general manager George Burnett. Don’t overlook the Storm, who have a potential top NHL pick next summer in 17-year-old blueliner Ryan Merkley along with a host of NHL prospects in Givani Smith (Detroit Red Wings), Isaac Ratcliffe (Philadelphia Flyers) and Russian talents Dmitri Samorukov (Edmonton Oilers) and Alexey Toropchenko (St. Louis Blues).
3) Who steps up in the Maritimes?
The defending QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs won with a veteran club last spring, but with a youth movement headlined by 2018 NHL Draft prospect Joe Veleno in full swing under new head coach Josh Dixon, five other clubs have their sights set on ascending to the Maritimes throne.
The Acadie-Bathurst Titan have some forward momentum entering the new season after winning their first playoff round since 2008 last spring. They’ll return big scorers in Anaheim Ducks second round pick Antoine Morand and 35-goal scorer Jeffrey Truchon-Viel in front of 19-year-old netminder Reilly Pickard.
Though head coach André Tourigny departed to the Ottawa 67’s of the OHL, Jim Midgley takes over a promising young Halifax Mooseheads squad headlined by first and second overall 2016 QMJHL Draft selections Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Jared McIsaac. Both players played a part in Canada’s gold medal effort at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last month. What’s more, fourth overall 2017 QMJHL Draft choice Xavier Parent has had a strong preseason showing for the Moose, recording six points (2-4–6) in as many games. Though first overall NHL Draft pick Nico Hischier has likely moved on to New Jersey, overage candidate Maxime Fortier, should he return from Montreal Canadiens camp, would be the highest returning QMJHL scorer from last year following an 87-point (32-55–87) campaign.
Though they return goaltenders Kyle Jessiman and Kevin Mandolese, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles will look to fill the offensive void left by grads Giovanni Fiore and Massimo Carozza. They’ll look to Ottawa Senators fourth rounder Drake Batherson and overage centreman Phélix Martineau to help in that respect.
The Charlottetown Islanders are another team that has missing goals to account for following the departure of stars Daniel Sprong (Pittsburgh Penguins), Filip Chlapik (Ottawa Senators), leading scorer Francois Beauchemin and veteran Kameron Kielly.
Both teams that struggled through the 2016-17 season, the Moncton Wildcats and Sherbrooke Phoenix are looking like they’re on the rise.
The Wildcats acquired 2018 NHL Draft prospect Anderson MacDonald in an August trade with the Phoenix and feature a pair of 2017 first round QMJHL Draft picks in their lineup including preseason scoring leader Jakob Pelletier (6-4–10) and blueliner Jaxon Bellamy (4-2–6).
Sherbrooke is anchored in goal by St. Louis Blues prospect Evan Fitzpatrick while boasting two of the best defencemen in the QMJHL this season in Winnipeg Jets pick Luke Green and 2016-17 leading scorer Thomas Grégoire. 2017 second overall QMJHL Draft pick Samuel Poulin is a player to keep an eye on.
4) Who will make instant CHL Import Draft impact?
Every year it’s intriguing to see which new additions to the CHL can make an immediate impact with their new clubs. In recent years we’ve seen a number of European talents including Mikhail Sergachev (Windsor Spitfires, 2015), Alexander Nylander (Mississauga Steelheads, 2015), Nico Hischier (Halifax Mooseheads, 2016) and Filip Hronek (Saginaw Spirit, 2016) come in and become instant stars.
Those attempting to forecast this past summer’s CHL Import Draft need look no further than first overall pick Andrei Svechnikov, a 17-year-old Russian winger that has consistently put up big numbers against older competition on the international stage. The younger brother of former Cape Breton Screaming Eagles winger and Detroit Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov, Andrei joins the Barrie Colts, a club that also features 2017 first overall OHL Priority Selection pick Ryan Suzuki.
The early portion of June’s CHL Import Draft is loaded with Russian talent including Guelph Storm fourth overall choice Alexey Toropchenko (St. Louis Blues), draft eligible Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament scoring leader Dmitri Zavgorodny (5-5–10) chosen eighth overall by the Rimouski Oceanic and smooth-skating draft eligible rearguard Nikita Okhotyuk taken 16th overall by the Ottawa 67’s.
Top 2018 NHL Draft prospect Filip Zadina, chosen 11th overall by the Halifax Mooseheads out of the Czech Republic will also be a player to watch.
5) Who are the CHL’s top 2018 NHL Draft targets?
A new hockey season means turning our attention to another NHL Draft, one that will take place next June in Dallas, Texas.
The 2017 NHL Draft was heavy on forwards in the early going with the first seven CHL players off the board playing up front, but it looks as though more defencemen will be there for the taking next summer.
Early names in the conversation on forward include the aforementioned Andrei Svechnikov of the Barrie Colts, Saint John Sea Dogs phenom Joe Veleno, smooth-skating centre Ryan McLeod of the Mississauga Steelheads, Halifax’s Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Filip Zadina, Moncton’s Anderson MacDonald, Barrett Hayton of the Soo Greyhounds, Niagara IceDogs sophomore Akil Thomas and former first overall OHL Priority Selection choice David Levin of the Sudbury Wolves.
On the back end prominent names include Guelph Storm puck-mover Ryan Merkley, Halifax’s Jared McIsaac, former first overall WHL Bantam Draft choice Ty Smith of the Spokane Chiefs as well as Jett Woo of the Moose Jaw Warriors.
In goal, Canadian Ivan Hlinka standout Olivier Rodrigue of the Drummondville Voltigeurs is joined by other QMJHL talent in Kevin Mandolese of the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and Alexis Gravel of the Halifax Mooseheads. Mississauga Steelheads sophomore Jacob Ingham and Seattle Thunderbirds playoff standout Carl Stankowski will also be on the radar come draft day.
Several of these names will no doubt be included on 2018 Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game rosters. The annual event is scheduled for Thursday January 25, 2018 in Guelph, ON.
6) Who makes the jump?
A total of seven 1997 and 1998-born CHL eligible players including Jakob Chychrun (Sarnia Sting/Arizona Coyotes), Matthew Tkachuk (London Knights/Calgary Flames), Lawson Crouse (Florida Panthers/Kingston Frontenacs), Travis Konecny (Sarnia Sting/Philadelphia Flyers), Mitch Marner (London Knights/Toronto Maple Leafs), Ivan Provorov (Brandon Wheat Kings/Philadelphia Flyers) and Pavel Zacha (Sarnia Sting/New Jersey Devils) made the jump to full-time duty in the NHL last season.
So the question is, who will do so this season?
There’s a long list of possible names from the 1998 and 1999-born age groups, a few of which include 2017 first overall pick Nico Hischier (New Jersey Devils) of the Halifax Mooseheads, second overall pick Nolan Patrick (Philadelphia Flyers) of the Brandon Wheat Kings as well as a host of other early first round selections from this past June. Additionally, high 2016 picks in third overall choice Pierre-Luc Dubois (Columbus Blue Jackets) of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, former Mastercard Memorial Cup champions Olli Juolevi (Vancouver Canucks) of the London Knights, Mikhail Sergachev (Tampa Bay Lightning) and Logan Brown (Ottawa Senators) of the Windsor Spitfires will put their best foot forward out of training camp.
A host of other names including Anaheim Ducks prospects Max Jones (London Knights) and reigning CHL scoring champion Sam Steel (Regina Pats), New Jersey Devils first rounder Michael McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads) and St. Louis Blues second round pick Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia Sting) could potentially be in for an extended look this fall.
7) Who will earn World Junior jobs?
Always thought-provoking at the beginning of a new season is the debate of who will step up to represent Canada at the World Juniors come Christmas time?
November’s CIBC Canada Russia Series tends to reveal the players Hockey Canada is zoning in on, but in advance of that we do know that seven CHL players from last year’s squad are eligible to return including defencemen Jake Bean (Calgary Hitmen) and Kale Clague (Brandon Wheat Kings), forwards Dillon Dube (Kelowna Rockets), Taylor Raddysh (Erie Otters), Pierre-Luc Dubois (Blainville-Boisbriand Armada) and Michael McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads) as well as goaltender Carter Hart (Everett Silvertips).
Goaltending is always a hot-button issue, but Hart, a back-to-back WHL Goaltender of the Year recipient drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers, appears to be a safe bet for one of those two jobs.
Who will join him?
If Canada’s World Junior Summer Showcase roster from last month in Plymouth, Mich. is any indication, Vancouver Canucks prospect Michael DiPietro (Windsor Spitfires) and Edmonton Oilers draftees Dylan Wells (Peterborough Petes) and Stuart Skinner (Lethbridge Hurricanes) are a good place to start looking.
Canadian World Junior Summer Showcase standouts included St. Louis Blues prospect Jordan Kyrou (Sarnia Sting) who finished tied for the tournament lead with four goals as well as Anaheim Ducks first rounder Sam Steel who recorded five points (2-3–5).
The 2017-18 CHL season begins on Thursday September 21 in both the QMJHL and OHL with WHL action opening on Friday September 22.