I would never have thought that the Winsdor Spitfires would have gone undefeated as the host team of the 2017 Memorial Cup, and yet they did just that whilst defeating the offensive juggernaut that are the Erie Otters twice within a week. This tournament served as a coming out party for many players on the Spitfires’ roster, primarily for Jeremy Bracco of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Jeremiah Addison of the Montreal Canadiens. The aforementioned forwards led the team offensively, while former exceptional player Sean Day and powerhouse Mikhail Sergachev led the Spitfires defense with the task of shutting down a team that scored 316 goals in 68 regular season games (almost 5 goals per game). The Otters continued their scoring trends into the OHL playoffs and the first two games of the Memorial Cup, but met a wall on the two occasions they faced their OHL rival Spitfires in the round robin and the finals. After a ridiculous 2016-2017 calendar year for these young prospects, which also included the World Junior Championships during the holidays, let’s look at players who really stuck out during the season and this tournament.
The 16th overall pick in the 2015 draft left many wondering why he wasn’t already in the NHL playing with the Islanders behind superstar John Tavares. After making the Islanders out of training camp, the team management sought to return the raw Barzal down to the Dub in favor of fellow 2015 first-round pick Anthony Beauvillier. In his return to Seattle, Barzal posted a ridiculous 79 points in 41 games. Although Barzal led his team in points per game by a large margin, he left many worried about his scoring touch at the next level with only 10 goals on the season. However, with 69 assists on the season and 26 points in 18 playoff games, Barzal looks poised to slot in as the team’s third line center next year behind Tavares and Brock Nelson. He will instantly become a third line scoring threat on a team that has been ailing down the middle since the loss of Detroit-bound free agent Frans Nielsen last summer. The potential “Kid Line” of Beauvillier, Barzal and 2014 5th overall pick Michael Dal Colle would be a welcomed injection of youth for a franchise seeking long-term stability.
Islanders GM Garth Snow has scooped up some serious talent up front in the last few years to compliment the likes of with Tavares, Anders Lee, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson. Dal Colle, Barzal, Beauvillier and offensive upstart Josh Ho-Sang have all been drafted over the last three years and looked poised to make the jump. With the long-term progression of the franchise seemingly assured due to its quality forward depth and excellent player development, the chances of resigning their impending free-agent superstar John Tavares increases by the day. Barzal will certainly be able to come in and lighten Tavares’ often overwhelming offensive responsibilities as early as the 2017-2018 season.
In Junior, Dylan Strome has been nothing short of dynamic for the Erie Otters. Counting on forwards Taylor Raddysh, Alex Debrincat, Strome and, in the not so distant past, Connor McDavid, the Otters looked like their excellent and timely drafting would result in an eventual OHL championship and Memorial Cup title. Sadly, they were only able to acquire one of those titles, and thus their rebuild will commence anew. With Strome and Raddysh making the jump to the pros next year, with the possibility of losing Debrincat to Chicago Blackhawks (if they trade Anisimov), the Otters went all in this year in order to secure the coveted title of best Junior team in hockey. Dylan Strome (Arizona, 3rd overall, 2015) is the prototypical top center prospect that every team covets, which he proved by leading his team in points per game this season with 75 points in 35 games and exploded in the playoffs for 34 points in 22 games. Strome came into the Memorial Cup as the captain of the most offensive team in Junior hockey, and he delivered as the leader of the team with a whopping 11 points in 5 games. However, 7 of those 11 points came in one game against the putrid Saint John Sea Dogs when the Otters destroyed them by a score of 12-5. In his two games against the Windsor Spitfires, Strome was limited to a goal and an assist. He was matched up against the defensive behemoth that is Mikhail Sergachev, which should encourage many concerned Canadiens fans going forward. Throughout the tournament, Strome was watched closely by Windsor head coach Rocky Thompson and was consequently met with either Sergachev or Winnipeg Jets 2016 first-round Logan Stanley as he came down center ice.
Being named the MVP of the Memorial Cup in a losing effort is a great way to close out an eventful Junior career for Strome, as he will most likely slot into Arizona’s 3rd line center spot, behind the likes of 2016 first-round pick Clayton Keller and former Junior dynamo Cristian Dvorak. Arizona’s center depth is set for the next decade with this trio of players, whom, to the credit of young Arizona GM John Chayka, are all under the age of 22. Strome has to overcome his lack of high-end speed and defensive awareness if he wants to climb up the ranks in Arizona, as Clayton Keller has already presented himself as a sound two-way player coming out of the NCAA this year. Similarly, Cristian Dvorak benefitted from his time with the London Knights prior to his pro career, as he seamlessly integrated into Arizona’s lineup and became a regular contributor by this season’s conclusion. Strome will have work to do going forward, but, by all intents and purposes, he should turn out to be a high-end second line center in the same ilk as a Ryan Kesler.
Recently named the Best Defenseman in the CHL, Thomas Chabot has had one heck of a calendar year. The Ottawa Senators’ 2015 18th overall pick led the Saint John Sea Dogs to a QMJHL title, while also being named the MVP and Best Defenseman of the World Junior Championships during the holidays. After starting the year with the Senators, Chabot was returned to his Junior team, where he recorded 45 points in 34 regular season games and 23 points in 18 playoff games. It should be noted that Saint John stocked up for their eventual playoff run and eventual Memorial Cup participation, as they acquired Canadiens defensive prospect Simon Bourque (5th round, 2015), and World Junior standout Julien Gauthier (Carolina, 21st overall, 2016). With all of the aforementioned players turning pro, it was the time for the resurging Sea Dogs to push for a title, which they won after sweeping the Blainville Armada in the QMJHL finals.
Chabot played an essential role in the Sea Dogs’ march to a QMJHL title, as he drove the play in the same style as his future defensive partner and captain Erik Karlsson. Chabot has to be the best overall defenseman not playing in the NHL right now and will immediately slot into Ottawa’s defense corps, especially after the expansion draft and the potential loss of either Cody Ceci or Marc Methot on the blueline. Chabot’s speed, insane possession numbers and high Hockey IQ will allow him to having a similar impact as that of Aaron Ekblad’s rookie season for the Florida Panthers, with many already penciling Chabot in the mix for 2017-2018 NHL Rookie of the Year ballots ahead of rookies like Nolan Patrick, Nico Hischier and Clayton Keller. The adjustment period necessary to adapt to the NHL speed will certainly be short for this intelligent player, as he will make the Ottawa Senators even more dangerous next year (after having reached the Conference Finals this year).
Chicago has often been credited with finding gems in the 2nd round of the NHL draft, as they’ve scooped up the likes of Duncan Keith, Brandon Saad, Graham Knott of the Memorial Cup winning Spitfires and now CHL Forward of the Year Alex Debrincat over the years. Drafted 39th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft by the Blackhawks, a pick acquired from the Montreal Canadiens in the Andrew Shaw trade, the diminutive forward immediately followed up a solid 101-point sophmore season (in 60 games) with an even more impressive 127 points in 63 games this season. Furthermore, Debrincat led his team in playoff scoring en route to the OHL championship with a staggering 38 points in 22 games. The most intriguing part of Debrincat’s production is the fact that, out of all the Otters superstar players, he is the youngest of their core and the only forward likely to return to the Otters next season for his final Junior season before turning pro. However, it would not be outlandish to pencil Debrincat into the third line center role (or wing depending on Hawk’s Head Coach John Quenneville’s preference) for Chicago as early as next year.
Debrincat’s fate could also rest on if Chicago decides to unload Artem Anisimov’s contract, which would open the 2nd line center spot for either Debrincat or former 2014 first-round pick Nick Schmaltz to claim between Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. The only real knock on Debrincat is his 5,7” stature, as many scouts don’t see him translating his Junior scoring prowess in the pros mainly due to the faster pace and tighter coverage. Take this knock with a grain of salt, because Patrick Kane or Johnny Gaudreau had the same label (with Debrincat having very similar stats to Kane) and they have reached the superstar status every young player dreams of attaining. Furthermore, unlike high scoring Junior players that have fizzled out in the pros, Debrincat has the speed, stickhandling and smarts to carve himself an NHL career and can easily be called upon to inject some energy in a quickly aging Chicago forward group.
This recent Memorial Cup must surely have cemented Montreal Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin’s untouchable label on stud defensive prospect Mikhail Sergachev, as he was named to the Memorial Cup All-Star team due to his dominant offensive presence and his drastically improved defensive game. Since being drafted 9th overall last year by Montreal, many hockey fans questioned the young rearguard’s work ethic and nonchalance in the defensive zone. Spitfires’s coach Rocky Thompson immediately began working with Sergachev to better his defensive zone coverage and offensive zone pinches after he was reassigned to Windsor by Montreal in late October. Many blamed Sergachev for the Spitfires’ early exit at the hands of the London Knights in the OHL playoffs to the lack of desperation in his game. Similar to current Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov, Sergachev simply picked himself up and answered his critics with a solid Memorial Cup and essentially nothing left to prove in Junior Hockey.
Sergachev’s offensive abilities and quick offensive zone entries have drawn comparisons to former Russian All-Star defenseman Sergei Gonchar, but Sergachev’s game is far more physical (standing at 6,3” and weighing 212 lbs at 18 years of age) and more rounded to the North American game than Gonchar’s. The young Russian’s sophomore season in the Dub resulted in 43 points in 50 games, with more than 50 % of those points coming after the World Junior Championships from January to April. Sergachev’s late season surge up the points list has been credited to his quicker decision-making and use of his size to create space for his forwards while entering the offensive zone with his quick feet. Lastly, Sergachev’s shooting ability is most likely the best in Junior hockey for a rearguard, as he posted 17 and 10 goals in both of his junior seasons, while racking up the assists with rebounds from his heavy shots. Most notably, he dented the post in the Memorial Cup finals against Erie and scored off a similar shot in the first Memorial Cup encounter between Erie and Windsor. Needless to say that Sergachev should be challenging for a spot on Montreal’s left side come September, and this would become even more likely if Bergevin trades pending RFA Nathan Beaulieu or preemptively trades a defenseman prior to the NHL Expansion Draft. Sergachev’s emergence as one of hockey’s best prospects will certainly allow the Canadiens the flexibility to focus on developing forwards going forward with a total of 5 second round picks in the next two drafts.
This tournament has certainly brought out the best in many highly touted prospects, while providing hope that other top names would eventually pan out in high tempo situations. With the NHL moving towards a younger and faster game, the development of these players can essentially sink a team or turn them into a powerhouse. Overall, it seems like the Leafs, Canadiens, Senators and Oilers were well represented at this tournament, as each team’s top prospect in the CHL was on display in this tournament with each player impressing. It looks like the evil memory of the 2015-2016 Canadian team playoff exodus will soon be far behind us, as the future seems particularly bright for the aforementioned clubs going forward.