Kia CHL Top-10 Spotlight: Foreurs digging for gold

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It’s no secret that success in major junior hockey is cyclical, which is why it should come as no surprise that the Val-d’Or Foreurs are digging for gold this season.

The Abitibi team won a President’s Cup in 2014 and finished in the league’s top half the next two years including a 49-win season in 2016. They have been rebuilding ever since by making more first round selections than any other QMJHL team since 2017. And now, having posted a league-leading .833 point percentage during a six-game exhibition schedule, have a renewed optimism and a fourth-place recognition in the preseason edition of the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings.

Headlining their talent is actually an offseason acquisition, Jakob Pelletier, a 2019 first-round selection of the Calgary Flames. The shifty forward joins the Foreurs after spending the past three campaigns with the Moncton Wildcats in which he amassed 232 points over 182 career appearances with the club, including 32 goals and 50 assists last season to earn a spot on the QMJHL Second All-Star Team.

A natural leader, Pelletier captained a loaded Wildcats club last season and he was immediately appointed the ‘C’ upon his arrival in Val-d’Or.

“It was kind of hard to get traded and to leave Moncton, my billet family, and the whole organization,” Pelletier told Kristen Anderson of the Calgary Sun following the June deal. “But, I think for me, the best option was to go to Val-d’Or and have a chance to win the Cup next year if I come back.

“(The trade) can teach me (to) not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. For me, I was kind of comfortable in Moncton. But now, to go to Val-d’Or, it wasn’t easy, to be honest. I’m glad to have done that and I’m just looking forward to (the) year.”

As Pelletier notes, there remains the possibility he moves up to the Flames once NHL training camps open, but in the interim he remains a key cog for the Foreurs in a year which could also include a once-in-a-lifetime experience in helping Canada defend gold on home soil at the 2021 World Juniors. The Quebec City native just missed the cut last winter but is back on the radar as one was of 43 players who was invited to Hockey Canada’s virtual development camp this offseason ahead of the holiday classic.

With the Foreurs, Pelletier will be counted on to provide much of the offensive punch, particularly after finishing among the top 10 highest scorers league-wide last season, but isn’t the only intriguing scoring threat in Val-d’Or. A former third-overall selection from the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft, Pelletier has carried well the expectations that come with such a high selection and he can undoubtedly help relay that experience to his new teammate Justin Robidas, a 17-year-old centre who was chosen second overall two years later.

A projected top-half selection in the 2021 NHL Draft, Robidas brings a strong offensive skill set mixed with tantalizing NHL bloodlines – his father Stephane is a graduate of the Shawinigan Cataractes whose NHL playing days counted more than 900 career contests.

A successful first season saw Robidas impress with 43 points in 57 appearances, including 21 tallies that were outpaced by only three fellow QMJHL freshmen. That success has carried into the new season where Robidas is scoring at a point-per-game pace through the opening weeks, notching two goals and two assists through four appearances to sit two points back of Pelletier for the team lead. An early sign of what was to come was evident in the preseason following a dominant showing in which Robidas topped the charts with 10 points including five goals and five assists in six exhibition contests.

“I was very motivated to come back to the game and it felt good after several months without hockey,” Robidas told Simon Servant of CBC Sports. “It’s hard not to think about the draft, but the ultimate goal is to win as a team.”

The Foreurs are one of only two QMJHL teams with three NHL affiliated forward prospects on their roster. Counting Pelletier, the group of circled names also includes 19-year-old right wingers Jeremy Michel, a seventh-round selection by the St. Louis Blues, as well as Slovakian sniper Maxim Cajkovic, a Tampa Bay Lightning third rounder who spent the past two seasons with the Saint John Sea Dogs after being the first overall pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft. He’ll make his highly anticipated debut when COVID-19 restrictions allow for his overseas travel and quarantine.

The collection of NHL-drafted talent also appears on the back end where the Foreurs feature names like budding blue-liner Maxence Guenette, a seventh-round selection of the Ottawa Senators whose 40-point showing last season ranked 12th among all QMJHL rearguards. The gifted puck-mover has brought that scoring touch into the new season, already with three assists through four games.

While the latter three selections from the 2019 NHL Draft are not yet signed, Guenette hopes a successful season will help him garner an NHL entry-level contract.

“The season is still very young and as a team, we can still improve. But with everything in place here in Val-d’Or, I think it’s going to be a good season for me and my team,” Guenette told Marc Brassard of le Droit. “For me, it’s doing well here first and the rest will follow.”

The top homegrown talent on the Foreurs certainly includes the likes of Guenette, Michel, and more recently Robidas, but don’t count out the first round trio the club selected in 2018. Forwards William Provost, Marshall Lessard, and defenceman Jeremie Biakabutuka are entering their third QMJHL season carrying high expectations from their minor hockey past. Add two more former first round picks in Thomas Pelletier (Drummondville, 2017) and Edouard St-Laurent (Baie-Comeau, 2016) both acquired late last season, and the Foreurs boast some dangerous depth.

In the blue paint, few QMJHL goaltenders carry the experience of 19-year-old starter Jonathan Lemieux who enters his fourth season with the club. He’s handled much of the top-job duties for the past two campaigns and ranked fifth overall in minutes played in 2019-20 when he won a career-high 20 games. So far his October has been outstanding sitting undefeated in regulation through three appearances marked by a .923 save percentage and 1.92 goals-against average. He’ll be a good mentor for rookie William Blackburn and Vincent Filion, the highest QMJHL goaltender selected in 2020 at sixth overall.

“We’re a team that’s peaking in maturity,” head coach Daniel Renaud said ahead of his first full season behind the bench. “We are well balanced at all positions. During training camp I saw a hardworking group. If we keep that same consistency and work ethic, we’ll be hard to play against.”

The Foreurs are strong and deep in all areas of the ice and are ready to climb the ranks in pursuit of their fourth league title and first Memorial Cup since the franchise began in 1993.

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