The puck drops on the 2015 Memorial Cup Friday and here’s a look at the four teams vying for the Canadian Hockey League’s ultimate prize:
It comes as a surprise to no one to see the Kelowna Rockets at the 2015 edition of the Memorial Cup. They were consistently one of the best teams in the CHL all season long and went through the WHL playoffs relatively unscathed. Their sweep over an excellent Brandon Wheat Kings team in the WHL final showed just how strong the Rockets are.
Kelowna’s biggest obstacle came in the Western Conference final, when they finally outlasted their old nemesis, the Portland Winter Hawks. The alarm bells had to be going off in the Okanagan when Kelowna fell behind two games to one to the team that had eliminated them in the three of the last four seasons. The Rockets then went ahead and put all doubts to rest by rallying to win the series in six games and have won seven in a row since that point.
Kelowna scored the most goals per game in the playoffs and only Medicine Hat allowed fewer per game in the post-season. As always seems to be the case, Kelowna has a couple studs on the back end in the form of Madison Bowey and Josh Morrissey, who are the catalysts of an exceptionally strong back end. It really is a staple of the Rockets franchise to be anchored by a dynamic defence corps that sets the pace for the rest of the team.
Up front the top line of Leon Draisaitl, Rourke Chartier and Nick Merkley causes all kinds of trouble for the opposition. In a tournament that doesn’t feature a lot of high end 2015 draft prospects, Merkley is clearly the best of the bunch. Most of the offence runs through the aforementioned trio of Draisaitl, Chartier and Merkley, with Tyson Baillie also contributing heavily. If a team can find a way to shut down Kelowna’s big line, particularly in a one game elimination situation, they could be in trouble.
Another key to beating Kelowna is finding a way to get quality shots against them. They have a solid netminder in veteran Jackson Whistle, but he had a couple of lapses during the post-season run. If a team can find a way to break through the Rockets top notch defence and create some quality scoring chances, they will have a chance to beat them.
Leon Draisalt, C – The German import was the biggest prize at the WHL trade deadline and he has not disappointed. The Edmonton Oilers would likely admit they made a mistake in keeping him with the team for the first part of the season, but he took the demotion to junior and piled up the points with Kelowna after his rights were acquired from Prince Albert. He’s a big, strong center who has a high hockey IQ and is the focal point of Kelowna’s top line. He was also named the MVP at the conclusion of the WHL playoffs. The Rockets will once again need him to be that top line player in Quebec City in order to take home the ultimate prize.
Madison Bowey, D – The Washington Capitals prospect led all WHL defencemen in points during the playoffs and was only five off the pace for top spot during the regular season. He contributed four points in seven games to help Canada win gold at this past World Junior Hockey Championship. The offensively minded Bowey is a good skater, moves the puck well and has a great shot from the point. His offensive game is what sets him apart and has enabled Bowey to make a name for himself at the junior level. He still needs to refine the defensive side of his game, but that aspect is something that can be improved in the AHL next season.
When the Erie Otters knocked off the CHL’s #1 ranked team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, in the OHL’s Western Conference final, many had them pegged for a trip to Quebec City. The Oshawa Generals had other things in mind. They effectively contained Connor McDavid and his running mates and took out the Otters in five games to win the OHL championship. No small feat for the team from Canada’s Motor City, as they become the first Eastern Conference team to win the title since the 2005-06 Peterborough Petes.
Much like with Kelowna, the Generals toughest task might have come during the conference final. They fell behind two games to one before eventually taking out a very tough North Bay Battalion squad in six. There is a very stark contrast between the defensively minded Battalion and the high flying Otters, but the Generals showed they can win any style of game.
Oshawa’s biggest strength is in their great depth throughout the line-up. They often roll four lines up front and get contributions from almost everyone, with Michael Dal Colle and Cole Cassels leading the way. There are no real stars on the back end, but it’s a solid crew led by the overage duo of Dakota Mermis and Josh Brown. Combined with the outstanding goaltending of Ken Appleby, the Generals allowed the second fewest goals against during the playoffs. Oshawa is a team that is not afraid to sacrifice the body in order to block shots.
The Generals play a very heavy game and are physically punishing on the opposition. Their style of play wore on opponents during the playoffs and was a big factor in their success. While it’s hard to find any weaknesses in their game, there is always the potential for players like Hunter Smith to cross the line with the physical play. In a short tournament like the Memorial Cup, discipline is key and the Generals can’t afford to get into penalty trouble.
Players to Watch
Ken Appleby, G – The 19-year-old netminder was thrust into the starter’s role this season and has turned into one of the best goaltenders in the entire CHL. He had a great numbers in both the regular season and playoffs and was a big factor in Oshawa’s success. Appleby is a big guy who covers the net well and has a good glove hand. He also maintains a calm and composed demeanour which will serve him well during the pressure cooker of the Memorial Cup. If he is on top of his game, the Generals are going to be very tough to beat.
Michael Dal Colle, LW – The fifth overall pick in last season’s NHL draft is the biggest star on this Generals team. He’s a top notch playmaker and also possesses a deadly wrist shot that causes nightmares for opposition goaltenders. Fueled by the disappointment of being a late cut for Canada’s World Junior entry, he will be a lock next season if he’s back in junior. Look for him to make a big mark on this tournament as one of the top forwards at the event.
Perhaps more so than anyone, the Rimouski Oceanic enter the 2015 Memorial Cup on an emotional high. They defeated the tournament host Quebec Remparts in a grueling seven game series, to capture the President’s Cup as QMJHL champions. Not only did they win, but they did so while overcoming a ton of adversity along the way. The Oceanic trailed two games to nothing after dropping the first two contests at home and were down 4-1 in Game 6 with the series on the line. They managed to overcome those odds and were eventually crowned winners, thanks to Michael Joly’s double overtime goal in the final game.
The Oceanic will certainly have no qualms about heading on the road for the Memorial Cup. They won all 10 games in enemy territory during their post-season run. Not only does that record include three wins at the Colisée Pepsi, but also three straight wins at the venerable Centre Robert-Guertin in their five game quarter-final victory over the Gatineau Olympiques. Special teams were a big key to Rimouski’s success as they finished second on both the power play and penalty kill in the playoffs.
Rimouski is similar to Oshawa in the sense that their success hinges more on their depth than any particular star players. That said, the Oceanic are certainly blessed with some highly skilled offensive players up front. Alexis Loiseau, Christopher Clapperton, Michael Joly and Anthony Deluca all have the ability to pile up the goals for Rimouski. They boosted an already strong defence corps with the addition of overage defenceman Charles-David Beaudoin at mid-season. Beaudoin, along with Flyers prospect Samuel Morin and Jets prospect Jan Kostalek, have been the key leaders on the blueline for Rimouski during the post-season.
After acquiring Louis-Philipe Guindon from Drummondville at mid-season, the Oceanic went with a platoon system in goal along with Philippe Desrosiers. While both put up good numbers in the playoffs, it would have to be said that there were mixed results in the final against Quebec. The Oceanic were forced to make a change in goal during three of the seven games in the championship series. They went with Desrosiers in Game 7 and he came up with a spectacular effort, but Rimouski will need much more consistent play to be a threat in Quebec City.
Players to Watch
Samuel Morin, D – It will be hard to miss Rimouski’s mammoth defenceman at the 2015 Memorial Cup. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect is a big presence on the back end and logs significant minutes for his team. While he’s not considered to be a flashy offensive defenceman by any means, he is able to contribute at both ends of the rink. He’s really at his best though when he keeps his game simple and doesn’t try to do too much. There were times during the final when Morin and the rest of the Oceanic defence corps looked out of sorts against Quebec’s high end speed and skill up front.
Christopher Clapperton, LW – The Oceanic acquired Clapperton from Blainville-Boisbriand in the off-season and were hoping for him to be a difference maker when it really mattered. He provided that with 25 points in 18 playoff games, including a goal in the Game 7 win over Quebec. He is not a big guy and does not possess great speed, but the Florida Panthers fifth round pick in 2013 makes up for that in determination and great hockey sense. Rimouski will need him to once again be a difference maker for them to have success at the Memorial Cup.
If there was ever a case of a team coming together in the nick of time, this would be it. For much of the season, the Quebec Remparts were a dysfunctional hockey club who sorely lacked consistency and identity. Even entering the playoffs, no one was quite sure what to expect from the Memorial Cup hosts. They got a huge scare in the opening round of the post-season, needing seven games to defeat a Cape Breton Screaming Eagles team that was better than their record indicated. The Remparts recovered from a two games to one deficit and also trailed 2-0 in the first period of Game 7, before eventually rallying for a convincing 6-3 win.
The opening round scare seemed to propel the Remparts, as they swept past Charlottetown and Moncton in the next two rounds before their encounter with Rimouski. There is little doubt they will look upon the QMJHL final as a series of missed opportunities. Quebec was up two games to none in the series and were also just over a minute away from winning the title in Game 6. Fortunately for the Remparts, they will have a chance for redemption on home ice at the Memorial Cup.
Quebec’s biggest strength by far is the array of offensive weapons they possess up front. The trio of Adam Erne, Anthony Duclair and Kurt Etchegary were nearly unstoppable at times during the post-season. Erne was named the QMJHL playoff MVP and led the league in goals with 21, eight more than his next closest competitor. The offence does not stop there for Quebec with the likes of Guillaume Gauthier, Dmytro Timashov, Marc-Olivier Roy, Vladimir Tkachev and Jerome Verrier all averaging at least 0.75 points per game in the playoffs. This is a very fast group of forwards, who love to score off the rush and are deadly in the transition game.
The Remparts have a solid top four group of defencemen with Ryan Graves, Nikolas Brouillard, Matt Murphy and the serviceable Raphael Maheux. After that there is a significant drop off and this is where the loss of Maple Leafs prospect Cody Donaghey, injured in December, may come back to haunt Quebec. They went exclusively with four defenceman during the overtime in Game 7 and one has to wonder if that top group of defencemen will eventually wear down.
Players to Watch
Zach Fucale, G – There were plenty of concerns in goal entering the playoffs as Fucale, acquired from Halifax, found himself on the bench for the opener against Cape Breton. He eventually entered the fray in Game 3 and despite some erratic play in that series, got the job done. Aside from a lapse in Game 4 of the final, the Montreal Canadiens prospect played very well for the remainder of the playoffs and quieted the doubters for the time being. As long as the Fucale from the second half of the regular season does not show up, Quebec should be in good shape between the pipes for the Memorial Cup.
Anthony Duclair, LW – To say it’s been a whirlwind season for the Arizona Coyotes prospect would be an understatement. After starting the season in the Big Apple with the New York Rangers, he was loaned to Team Canada for their gold medal winning entry at the World Juniors. Following that success he was assigned back to junior with the Remparts and was then involved in an NHL trade that saw his rights go to Arizona. He got off to a slow start back with Quebec and was even a healthy scratch for a late season game in March. Luckily for the Remparts, the 19-year-old has been playing his best hockey of the season in the playoffs and has become the force everyone envisioned he would be in junior.
Look for the overall depth of the Generals to win the day at the Memorial Cup. They’re solid in all aspects of the game and can play any style that their opponents throw at them.
Semi-Final: Quebec 4 Kelowna 3
Final: Oshawa 5 Quebec 3