The Acadie-Bathurst Titan claimed the exclusive title of 100th Memorial Cup champions last spring, but now a new century of the CHL’s prestigious national championship begins in the Maritimes as the Halifax Mooseheads will serve as 2019 hosts.
The 2018-19 campaign has been one several years in the making for a Mooseheads organization that last hoisted the Memorial Cup in 2013 behind the efforts of stars Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and young goaltender Zach Fucale in Saskatoon.
Mooseheads GM Cam Russell has worked to construct a deep roster, using a combination of the QMJHL Draft to develop homegrown talent in Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Jared McIsaac, Xavier Parent, Justin Barron, Raphael Lavoie and Alexis Gravel in addition to recent trades that have acquired established veterans Antoine Morand, Samuel Asselin and Ostap Safin.
Perhaps the most unique element of the Mooseheads’ 25th season aside from Memorial Cup preparations is the club’s 15-game road schedule to start the campaign, an unheard-of stretch in the club’s franchise history. Due to arena renovations, the Mooseheads won’t play their home opener until October 27th when the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles come to town.
Of course, getting that many road games out of the way early in the season will allow the team to rest up for the playoffs in the second half. Halifax will play 34 of their final 53 games on home ice.
“I don’t think it bothers us that much,” defenceman Denis Toner told The Chronicle Herald’s Willy Palov. “It’s obviously different to have 15 games on the road like that but you’re still playing hockey so who cares where it is. If you’re at home or on the road, all you want to do is get the two points and get out of there. We just want to have a good start to the season.”
The Mooseheads have done just that, winning both of their games on QMJHL Opening Week. Despite a number of players still attending NHL Training Camps and star blueliner Jared McIsaac sidelined with an injury, the Moose took a 5-4 overtime road win over the Saint John Sea Dogs on Patty Kyte’s game winner before edging the Charlottetown Islanders 3-2 a night later.
As they prepare to host their first Memorial Cup since 2000, the Mooseheads aren’t getting too far ahead of themselves despite retaining top spot in the CHL Top 10 Rankings this week. They led all CHL clubs out of the gate as the top-ranked team on the annual pre-season edition.
“We’re just focusing on the regular season right now and then getting to playoffs and trying to win the President’s Cup,” Kyte told Palov. “From there we’ll worry about the Memorial Cup but for now we’re just focusing on ourselves and making sure not to get ahead of ourselves.”
As mentioned, the Mooseheads blend an exciting homegrown base under head coach Eric Veilleux with experienced veteran additions in the 2018 Memorial Cup trio of Morand, Asselin and Jordan Maher. GM Russell made a flurry of moves in the lead-up to Opening Night, looking to afford his club a chance to develop new chemistry early in the season.
“We’re trying to finalize as many pieces as we can now and get our team together for the entire season,” Russell explained of the process. “We don’t want to throw a team together at Christmas time. We like the group we have now and there’s only a bit of tinkering left to do.”
Russell addressed the biggest early-season question surrounding the Mooseheads on Monday, acquiring 6-foot-5 Edmonton Oilers prospect Ostap Safin from Saint John. The Czech flank fills the import spot left vacant by the departure of Filip Zadina who remains with the Detroit Red Wings after being the sixth overall pick of the 2018 NHL Draft.
“He can skate, he can score, he can be hard to handle down low,” said Russell of the move. “He’s a big, strong forward who can score goals.”
Safin, who signed an entry-level deal with the Oilers last year, joins fellow Czech Marcel Barinka has the club’s second import this season.
“They are going to give him (Filip) every opportunity to play in Detroit,” Russell confirmed. “At this point, we are moving forward and we had to make a decision to acquire Safin because he’s a world class player.”
The road ahead features more east coast travel for the Mooseheads as they visit Cape Breton and Moncton this weekend. Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Antoine Morand have returned from Anaheim Ducks Training Camp as Morand and Safin are set to make their Mooseheads debuts on Friday.