Jimmy Oligny was slated to attend Montreal Canadiens training camp prior to the lockout (The Canadian Press)Jimmy Oligny is confident his big break will come yet, since a rising tide raises all boats in junior hockey.
A minds-his-own-end defenceman's name recognition often hinges on his team's record and its media visibility. The P.E.I. Rocket came up short on both counts while finishing in the QMJHL cellar last season, but Oligny showed enough to earn an invitation to the Montreal Canadiens training camp, nirvana for a St-Michel, Que., native. The lockout dashed that, but Oligny has helped P.E.I. break out as one of major junior hockey's most improved teams. The Rocket have shot up from last place to the fifth-highest point percentage (.700, with 10-4-1-0 record) as the season nears the quarter-pole. It's not the sexy stuff that gets a junior team on Sportscentre, but the Rocket's rise owes greatly to a deep and diverse defence corps headed by the likes of 19-year-old Oligny and 18-year-old rookie Alexandre Chénier-Allard, who was once unsure whether he could play in the Quebec League,
"It was hard for me that I couldn't go this year because it's my [age] 19 year so it's getting pretty late," the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Oligny says. "I'm trying to work harder so I can get to another [NHL] camp next year ... I'm known for being a good shutdown defenceman, I try to make that a big part of my game. I'm also trying to put some points on the board, that's been going well [with 10 in 15 games].
"It's great to win after a season like that," Oligny adds, referring to P.E.I.'s 44-point finish in 2011-12. "It's way better this season."
Overages Josh Currie and Ben Duffy are 1-2 in league scoring with 29 and 28 points, respectively. That pair has always been productive over the course of their time in Charlottetown.
"We have a really good group of guys," Chénier-Allard says. "All of the 20-year-olds are really doing a good job of leading the team."
Goalie Antoine Bibeau also ranks second in the Q with both a 2.26 average and .922 save percentage while splitting time with veteran Maxime Lagacé. However, a big climb up the league ladder usually can be traced to the back end. Rocket coach Gordie Dwyer has a capable D-man in every age cohort — from overage Alex Micallef, the No. 2 defenceman, through hulking 2011 first-round pick Ryan Graves and on to fresh-faced 16-year-old Kevin Laliberté.
The group gives the Rocket a big boost in a Maritimes Division overrun by Nathan MacKinnons, Jonathan Drouins, Dmitrij Jaskins and Jonathan Huberdeaus. There is really only one of each, but sometimes it might not seem that way.
"We feel our division is probably the strongest in the league," Dwyer says. "Halifax, they've obviously got a great team. Moncton's got a very deep team with some top-end players. Bathurst has some good offensively players. Saint John as well with [Stephen] Macaulay, [Ryan] Tesink and [NHL lottery pick Jonathan] Huberdeau, who's probably the best player in Canada. So to have those guys on the back end with our goaltending really gives those guys a chance to succeed."
Oligny, while undrafted, has emerged as a bona fide No. 1 defenceman.
"I have a big role on this team and I need to be there every night," he says. "We play a certain system in the defensive zone and it's working well with the team we have."
'Top shutdown guy'
Dwyer is confident Oligny will elicit further interest at the next level. Shutdown defencemen who stand shy of six feet tall often face more doubters than someone more genetically blessed, but there's little arguing with the results.
"Jimmy has certain strengths," Dwyer says. "He's a very powerful individual, he's a great skater, he plays physical, With his experience and his progression, he's starting to add that offensive side to his game as well. He's ultracompetive, very strong and very tough to play against.
"I think nowadays that a lot of teams aren't afraid to look at players who are 19 or 20, This past NHL draft's proved that where they were some guys [that age] who went pretty high. Jimmy's a guy who should garner some interest. He's a top shutdown guy who plays against the other team's top line every time."
Chénier-Allard, who's from Châteauguay, Que., becomes a more intriguing prospect when one notices the Sept. 5, 1994 birthdate. He just fell short of the Sept. 15 cutoff that would have meant this season would be his first crack at the NHL draft. He attended Rocket camp last season, but opted to return to Châteauguay for one more season.
"I just wanted to make that I'd be ready to play good hockey when I came into the league," he says. "That's why I came back last year and then decided to come back to the Rocket this year. It was good timing. Everything's going well now."
The 6-foot, 185-pounder's emergence means the Rocket do not have to overplay their top four defenders. Every bit of rest can pay off later in the season, especially for a team with the travel burden P.E.I. handles.
"Last year we liked what we saw out of Alex but he felt he was kind of overwhelmed with major junior," Dwyer says. "We brought him up at Christmas break to evaluate him and felt he was a capable player at this level. We didn't know where he was with his commitment to playing major junior, especially down in Prince Edward Island, but since Day 1 he's been a good surprise for us. Alex is a very headsy, he skates very well and he's a real all-around player."
The MacKinnon and Drouin show in Halifax makes the Mooseheads an irresistible force. It is early yet, but another team in a provincial capital could be that immovable object.
"Our team is deeper and our best players are playing the way they should," Oligny says. "I think that helps."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.