Both the Ontario Hockey League Champion Erie Otters and Memorial Cup hosts Windsor Spitfires have shot out to a 2-0 start as of today in the Memorial Cup. The Seattle Thunder Birds, the Western Hockey League Champion, were easily defeated by the Otters (4-2) and the Spitfires (7-1) in back-to-back games over the long weekend. Led by New York Islanders prospect Matthew Barzal (15th, 2015), the Thunder Birds squeaked past the Regina Pats in the WHL finals to earn their place in the Memorial Cup. Similarly to the Thunder Birds, the Saint John Sea Dogs, winners of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), also met an untimely fate out of the gate with consecutive losses to Windsor and Erie. After losing to the Windsor Spitfires (3-2) in the tournament opener, the Sea Dogs were absolutely demolished by the Otters by a record-breaking 12-5 score. That’s right folks, 12 goals were scored by the Otters and this marked a record in Memorial Cup history, as the previous record for the most goals in a game was 11 (held by Quebec and Regina respectively). With the two OHL teams clearly pulling away from the pack, let us look at why they have been so successful right out of the gate:
Windsor Spitfires: Although the Spitfires have fought to erase their disappointing first-round OHL playoffs exit from their minds, you can’t help but notice the chip on the shoudlers of the Spitfire players in the first two games of the tournament. Late season additions have helped boost this team from OHL playoff contender to Memorial Cup contender in one quick sweep, as defenseman Sean Day (Rangers, 81st,2016) and dynamic forward Jeremy Bracco (Leafs, 61st,2015) came in and added an offensive boost to a passably offensive team. With the 2017 NHL Draft looming, many scouts came to feast their eyes on young center Gabe Vilardi, who posted 61 points in 49 games for the Spitfires this season. As their leading scorer during the season, Vilardi was expected to carry much of the offensive load going into the tournament, but it appears veterans Bracco and over-ager Jeremiah Addison (Montreal, 207th, 2015) have been the ones to pull out the clutch goals for the surging Spitfires. Logan Brown, the enormous 6,6” Ottawa-bound (11th, 2016) center, and Logan Stanley, the towering 6,7” defenseman drafted by the Winnipeg Jets 18th overall in 2016, have severely underperformed since the end of the OHL season and have been dragging the team down from a defensive perspective since early April.
Luckily, after having his name thrown in every single trade scenario the Montreal Canadiens can possibly concoct in their quest to acquire a number 1 center, Mikhail Sergachev has been able to showcase all of his talent during this tournament and challenge Ottawa prospect Thomas Chabot (18th, 2015) for the title of most dynamic rearguard in the dub. Sergachev’s defensive game has improved by leaps and bounds over the last calendar year. Rocky Thompson, the head coach of the Windsor Spitfires, credits Sergachev with having risen to the challenge of his increased defensive responsibilities. Thompson applauded Sergachev’s defensive awareness, which became a real focus for the young defenseman once he was re-assigned to the Spitfires after his stint with the Montreal Canadiens early in the season. Already displaying great poise and vision, Sergachev and his teammates Bracco and Addison have carried their team so far in this tournament and that has to reassure both Leafs and Habs fans.
Erie: What more can be said about this team? Imagine if they still would have McDavid on their roster instead of losing him to the Edmonton Oilers and have him win the Art Ross trophy as the leading scorer in the NHL. Led by captain Dylan Strome (Arizona, 3rd, 2015), the Otters were the biggest offensive powerhouse in all of junior hockey this season. Strome score an impressive 75 points in 35 games, which are numbers that are identical to those of Alex Galchenyuk’s post draft and lokout-shortened 2012-2013 OHL season. However, Strome wasn’t necessarily the offensive catalyst for the Otters all year, as he started the year in Arizona and was called upon to represent Canada at the World Junior Championships along with teammate Taylor Raddysh (Tampa Bay, 58th, 2016). In fact, it was the diminutive Alex Debrincat (Chicago, 39th, 2016) who led the team in scoring with 127 points in 63 games, followed by Taylor Raddysh at 109 points in 58 games and over-age defenseman (and brother to Taylor) Darren Raddysh with 81 points in 62 games.
Debrincat’s 38 points in 22 playoffs games led Erie to the OHL championship and a spot in the Memorial Cup, and they have not disappointed right out of the gate. The high scoring Otter trend seems to have carried over into the Memorial Cup, as four Otters occupy the tournament scoring at this moment, especially after Dylan Strome’s record setting 7-point game against the Saint John Sea Dogs (12-5) on May 22nd. In as much, Jeremy Bracco’s 4 points are the highest of any player in the tournament that doesn’t play for the Otters, and half of the total points accumulated so far by Dylan Strome and Taylor Raddysh. With the upcoming clash between the Spitfires and the Otters fast approaching, many are wondering if this will be a highly contested bought, or if the combination of Debrincat, Raddysh and Strome will continue to plough through junior hockey.
In short, the Erie Otters have made themselves the team to beat in this tournament, and this comes to a head when the Windsor Spitfires meet the OHL champions prior to the end of the round robin. This will determine who will play in the final, while the loser of the bout will be the first of two teams to meet in the semifinals. Rest assured that the best is yet to come, but, until then, enjoy this yearly tournament and learn about the future stars of the NHL.