Hockey Prospectus at the Memorial Cup

With the Memorial Cup in accessible London, Ontario, Hockey Prospectus has been out in force in the early going with Editor in Chief Timo Seppa taking in the first two matches and your author attending games two and three while planning to return for the final next Sunday. Hockey Prospectus wunderkind Matt Pfeffer is also in attendance although for far different and potentially far more groundbreaking reasons.

The atmosphere in London, a city of over 300,000 souls, has been electric, with hockey, both from the junior level and beyond, taking the forefront. The city has taken ownership of the tournament and their custodianship has been well earned.

As discussed in an article last week, the Guelph Storm followed the host London Knights by booking their berth to the Cup by virtue of running the table in the OHL playoffs, winning 16 postseason games against only four losses. In the days leading up to the final, the WHL berth was awarded to the Edmonton Oil Kings, who took down the favored Portland Winterhawks in a back-and-forth final round, while the QMJHL spot went to the Val d’Or Foreurs, who upset both the second and the first seeds in succession, knocking off the defending Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads in the semi-finals and then taking down the top seed Baie-Comeau Drakkar in the Q finals. Both series lasted the full seven games and the Val d’Or goaltender, Maple Leafs’ prospect Antoine Bibeau, was awarded with the playoff MVP trophy as a result of his efforts.

Game 1 – Val d’or (1) vs London (0)

*Notes from this game supplied by Timo Seppa

The hometown Knights were the superior team, a fact clearly reflected in the shot counter, as they nearly doubled that of the Foreurs, finishing with a 51-28 edge. Other shot attempts not being publically tracked, those numbers are damning taken subjectively. A more objective spectator, such as Timo, would note that the shot clock was at least mildly misleading. While London had no compunction in directing the rubber at Antoine Bibeau in the Val d’Or crease, as they generated fewer strong scoring chances than should be expected from the raw shot totals. Bibeau was very good, but a near gaffe, where he was caught staring at the action on the large overhead screen almost resulted in an embarrassing goal for London, as the netminder recovered at the last moment to block a bouncing puck that was sent in from the neutral zone. While the concentration lapse may be telling, it should also be noted that the Centre Air Creebec, the home arena of the Foreurs, now in its 65th year of existence, has no center ice screen.

The game’s only goal was scored late in the first period by Val d’Or’s amazing sniper, Anthony Mantha, a first round pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 2013. Not the prettiest goal, he crashed the net after coming up the right wing and pushed the puck past Flyers prospect Anthony Stolarz in the London net.

Outside of the one goal against, Stolarz was solid in net for London in this game, his first coming off a truncated eight game suspension that has kept him out since the third game of the first round of the OHL playoffs. Also of note among the many Knights who have already been drafted by NHL teams or project to be, former Phoenix first rounder Max Domi showed explosiveness in his movements both with and without the puck, suggesting an even more dynamic player than was apparent to the Phoenix braintrust when they drafted him less than 12 months ago. Another 2013 first rounder with the Knights, Michael McCarron, drafted by Montreal last year, was more notable for his impressive frame than his skills, coughing up the puck on more than one occasion and not showing sufficient speed to recover from his mistakes. Ryan Rupert, one of a pair of twin pests on the Knights and, like Bibeau, a Maple Leafs prospect, showed his typical high energy, sparkplug game, although it is still uncertain whether he will be able to overcome his small stature. Whatever happens, it certainly will not be for lack of effort. Russian blueliner Nikita Zadorov, yet another 2013 first rounder, belonging to the Buffalo Sabres, for whom he played a few games earlier this year, did not play to his A-game,  displaying unsure stickhandling and a surprising lack of physicality. Chris Tierney, a Sharks prospect, and Josh Anderson, property of the Blue Jackets both had below average games as well, with a number of poor reads/decisions that negated potential chances for the Knights. Finally, a 2015 draft eligible prospect of note, Mitchell Marner, showed some offensive skills, including plus puckhandling and skating, but avoided the heavy areas of the ice and sometimes passed when the better play would have been to shoot, possibly as a sign of deference to older teammates.

In spite of the victory, there was little to note from Val d”or’s players of interest outside of the aforementioned Bibeau and Mantha, although third time eligible forward Louick Marcotte showed some initiative during one possession when he attempted to carry the puck past the entire London team and first time eligible Nicolas Aubé-Kubel showed good patience and vision, and could become a good power play weapon at a higher level. The skills are evident, but he will have to tone-down some of his high-risk ways before moving onwards. Anthony Richard, an undersized skill forward who will not be eligible until 2015 had a rough game and was culpable on the skewed shot counter with repeated missed coverage on defense.

Antoine Bibeau stopping Mitch Marner

Credit Aaron Bell/CHL Images

Game 2 – Guelph (5) vs Edmonton (2)

Like in game 1, the winning team was once again outshot by the vanquished, although this result was not nearly so drastic, as Edmonton won the shot clock 39-32. The difference was nearly entirely after the Storm took a 3-2 lead before the midway point of the second period.

This game started off very physically, which came to a head around the four minute mark as Guelph’s Ryan Horvat and Edmonton’s Blake Orban dropped the gloves. Guelph’s prized prospect Robby Fabbri, eligible for this June’s draft, was already checked hard twice, a measure both of his fearless game as well as Edmonton’s eagerness to stake their territory.

The teams traded chances early on, with Fabbri missing an open net after drawing Pittsburgh prospect Tristan Jarry out of the Edmonton crease, while the Oil Kings’ draft eligible blueliner Dysin Mayo showed a solid shot, but failed to find twine. It was another draft eligible blueliner from Edmonton, Aaron Irving, who allowed Guelph to open up the scoring after taking an unnecessary roughing minor with 59 seconds remaining in the first period. Former Columbus first rounder Kerby Rychel took advantage with less than five seconds to go in the period, picking up a rebound from a Zach Leslie shot, moving away from the net to open up some space and burying the puck between Jarry’s arm and body.

Edmonton came out of the intermission firing on all cylinders and scored twice in the first two minutes. It started with Guelph’s Ben Harpur, a fourth round pick of the Ottawa Senators, being forced to pay the price for a sloppy exit pass that was picked off by former Phoenix first rounder Henrik Samuelsson. The son of Ulf skated in with the puck on his backhand and slipped it past Strom goalie Justin Nichols from a poor angle – a goal the netminder would surely love to have back. This was not the only egregious giveaway from Harpur on the night, but the only one that had a cost. Moments later, the Oil Kings entered the Guelph zone on a three-on-two rush. Former Ottawa first rounder Curtis Lazar, near the right corner made a very nifty cross-crease pass which was picked up by blueliner Ashton Sautner, who joined the rush and had an easy time of converting the chance into a short-lived 2-1 lead.

Not even six minutes, in fact. As bad as the Samuelsson goal was from a netminder perspective, Rychel scored again through a highlight reel worthy gaffe. Mads Eller had the puck behind his own net on a penalty kill and tried to clear the zone with a long pass, seemingly oblivious to a sweeping Rychel. The clear struck the Guelph sniper, ricocheted from him to the Edmonton netminder and past the red line.

With just over five minutes remaining in the second, the Storm regained the lead. Leading a Guelph rush, offensive defenseman Nick Ebert, property of the L.A. Kings, deftly dropped the puck to a trailing Brock McGinn, a former second round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. McGinn quickly showed the skills that enabled him to score over 40 goals during the regular season, as he fired a wicked wrist shot past of the glove hand of Jarry in the Edmonton net. As the second period drew to a close, the physicality that shadowed both teams after the opening faceoff had returned with bodies flying faster than pucks for a few minutes.

Mayo gave more for scouts to chew on early in the third period, displaying good passing skills and a physical side to his game as he upended Jets prospect Scott Kosmachuk in the neutral zone with a hard bodycheck. It was not enough to get his team back in the game however, as even though the Oil Kings controlled possession for much of the final twenty minutes, the Storm were the only ones to bulge the twine. Specifically it was only Red Wings draft pick Tyler Bertuzzi. A quality wrist shot reminiscent of the earlier McGinn goal gave Guelph a 4-2 lead at the 5:46 mark. Bertuzzi scored again almost exactly 10 minutes later, after being the beneficiary of a great defensive zone check by Ryan Horvat which separated the puck from the Edmonton defender. Bertuzzi skated in nearly alone and scored on another high wrist shot. In general, Jarry showed a weakness to high shots at his glove side, although he somewhat makes up for it with a strong low game, which was evident between the two Bertuzzi goals as he did well to stop Rychel and Fabbri who had some nifty passes looking destined to trigger a red light were it not for Jarry’s good reactions.

A few other quick notes on players of interest with the Oil Kings. Griffin Reinhart, formerly a fourth overall pick of the New York Islanders was on the ice for both Edmonton goals and finished the game a +2. That said, his game was tilted very heavily to the defensive side as he tended to be the last man to join the attack and the first to drop back to the neutral zone. There may be skills there, but his defensive responsibility prevented him from displaying them. Brett Pollock, who projects as a second or third round pick next month had little effect on this game. He is happy to skate with the puck and can weave, but seemed to avoid the dirty areas and shied away from physicality.

Henrik Samuelsson of the OIl Kings battling with Guelph blueliner Phil Baltisberger in front of Storm netminder Justin Nichols

Photo credit: Aaron Bell/CHL Images

Game 3 – Edmonton (5) vs London (2)

Like the previous night’s game, this game began with a physical flair, with London’s Nikita Zadorov involved early with two big hits, first rubbing out Brett Pollock along the boards, leading to a turnover, and very shortly afterwards putting his hip into the body of Mads Eller in the neutral zone. Fellow former first rounder Max Domi also had an inspiring shift early, showing the great acceleration which allowed him to overcome his small stature to rise up prospect rankings, although it was for naught. The same two Knights, Domi and Zadorov nearly gave the game away with a shift in which both men coughed up the puck under little pressure multiple times.  While the Oil Kings could not capitalize on those chances, a better one was right around the corner as, in quick succession, Matt Rupert and Josh Anderson took two silly penalties and gave Edmonton a 65 second 5-on-3 advantage.

To the credit of the London penalty killers – Zadorov, Zack Bell, fresh off a broken leg, and 2013 Vancouver first rounder Bo Horvat – the penalties were killed, but, having smelled blood, the Oil Kings opened the scoring 23 seconds after Anderson returned to the ice. Brett Pollock did well to maintain possession of the disc by the boards, got the puck to the top of the slot to Edgars Kulda, who ripped a wrist shot that deflected off of Reid Petryk and past Anthony Stolarz. Kulda’s effect on the game was just getting started.

The two sides traded power play opportunities in the last quarter of the first, but Edmonton held the lead going into the break in spite of gifting a penalty shot to London. With the Oil Kings on the power play, Chris Tierney gained the puck in his own zone and sprung teammate Ryan Rupert with a great lead pass. Skating in on a breakaway, Rupert was hauled down blueliner Ashton Sautner. On the penalty shot, Rupert showed shiftiness in getting Jarry to open his legs, but the netminder displayed his own great stickwork, putting the paddle down just where Rupert was sending the puck to deny the forward an equalizer.

Jarry came up big a few more times early in the second, first stopping a strong wrist shot by Dakota Mermis, who has joined a rush immediately upon leaving the penalty box. He also deflected a great chance by Ryan Rupert, which pinged off the crossbar on the way back into play. Six minutes into the period, Edmonton extended their lead, with Kulda taking the reins, a great individual effort as he wove through the O-zone past two defenders and beat the London goalie with a wrist shot high. Kudos to Sautner, who began the play with a sharp looking zone exit pass. To this point in the game, London was simply failing to find the right place at the right time, making it too easy for the Oil Kings to clear the defensive zone.

Of course, a statement like that above can only be foreshadowing a turn of events. With less than four minutes to go in the second, Matt Rupert, Ryan’s twin brother, made a great play to strip the puck away from Dysin Mayo  inside his own blueline and pushed the puck up to Tierney, who skated with the rubber through the neutral zone and into the Edmonton end, upon which he passed the puck back to a trailing Alex Basso who finally got the Knights on the board for the first time in the tournament, waking the hometown crowd up.

The life of the crowd was short-lived though, as Kulda struck again, this time through no real genius of his own, but a gaffe by Stolarz. The Latvian Oil King had the puck by the side of the net, and he banked a shot off the goalie and in to restore a two goal advantage for the westerners.

Draft eligible Christian Dvorak, who missed much of the year to injury failed on a late chance to get London back within one when he fanned on a great feed from Mitch Marner from behind the Edmonton net. Dvorak has looked tentative for much of the round robin, likely still rusty from his long layoff.

The third period began with a change of netminders for London, as Jake Patterson took over for Stolarz, who could be clearly blamed for at least one of the goals allowed. Edmonton greeted the new netminder with lengthy sustained zone pressure, forcing the new tender to prove his chops early and often. The undersized winger Luke Bertolucci finally beat him just past the six minute mark with a strong wrist shot immediately upon gaining the zone. When the WHL champs failed to capitalize on a power play advantage, London snuck back into the game as Mermis beat Jarry on a second shot after cycling in tight following pressure from Chandler Yakimowicz and Max Domi. The goal did more than just wake up the crowd, but also led to a period of increased pressure as the Knights tried to get control of the game. Tristan Jarry had to stand on his head for a few minutes to bail out his teammates. Enough time passed without London being able to score a third, while Patterson was intermittently tested by counter-attacks, stopping good chances from the likes of Bertolucci, Riley Kieser and Henrik Samuelsson. Finally, with just over 90 seconds to go in regulation, Bertolucci scored again, a goal similar to the last London marker. Through two games, the host Knights were on the verge of bowing out of the Memorial Cup in front of a partisan and loyal crowd.

Following Guelph’s victory over Edmonton, Hockey Prospectus asked coach Scott Walker about the potential lessons that could be gleaned from a victory and what, if any, adjustments should be made for the forthcoming matchup against Val d’Or. His response:

“I don’t know if there are adjustments. We just hopefully get better every game. Our goal is to improve every game, move forward and take care of each other and be efficient with practices. We’ve got a game day skate and make sure we’re ready to go every game. Like I said, it’s a tough tournament to win and you’ve got to be ready every game. “

He needn’t have worried. Guelph scored after 59 seconds against Val d’Or and led 4-0 before the mid-way point of the first period on their way to a 6-3 final score and an automatic berth in next Sunday’s Cup final.