Is it possible for the number one ranked team in the CHL to come in under the radar?
The Rouyn-Noranda Huskies dominated their way through their QMJHL competition, running the table in the regular season with a 54-9-3-2 record, blasting their way through the playoff bracket with a 16-5 record, and a 2016 MasterCard Memorial Cup berth in the process.
The goal is in sight, but the Huskies aren’t done. They won their first President’s Cup in their history – the first in their franchise’s history since 1970 as the Montreal Junior Canadiens – and they will march on, led by head coach Gilles Bouchard.
While the top line of the London Knights, Christian Dvorak flanked by Matthew Tkachuk and Mitch Marner, may get the most attention, the Brandon Wheat Kings as western champs after reaching the finals a year ago and with 2017 NHL draft hopeful Nolan Patrick in tow, and the Red Deer Rebels hosting the first Memorial Cup tournament in Alberta since 1974, it can be easy to forget the Huskies as the team from the Quebec league that won their first President’s Cup.
Don’t sleep on the Huskies, though. They will be going for a feat only eight teams in the QMJHL have ever done – win the triple crown of the league as champions of the regular season, playoffs and the Memorial Cup. The last of the eight were the 2013 Halifax Mooseheads, and that team was stacked with future NHL stars Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin up front.
The Mooseheads were also only the second team in QMJHL history to win the Memorial Cup in a WHL-host’s barn. The other was the Cornwall Royals in 1980. It’s also the last time a QMJHL team hoisted the Memorial Cup.
Defence leads the way
This Huskies team may not be able to match the Mooseheads’ offence from that season, but they would have a better defensive corps, and that defence got a boost this week.
Jérémy Lauzon was given the go-ahead to practice with the team on Monday, a month to the day after he was cut in the neck by a skate. The team was hoping with his prognosis that the Boston Bruins second rounder would be able to return for the tournament, and they were correct.
Lauzon, who had eight points in nine games before he went down in the second round, heads a very deep and mobile defence group that was the backbone of the CHL’s best team. Philippe Myers and Nikolas Brouillard are the other noticeable offensive blueliners, with 16 and 20 points in the playoffs, respectively.
It’s the pairing of Allan Caron and Bruno-Karl Denis to keep watch for, though. They helped the Huskies hold the Drummondville Voltigeurs and the Blainvile-Boisbriand Armada to only six goals combined in the first two rounds, held Conor Garland to only three points in their third round six-game victory over the Moncton Wildcats, and they only gave up two goals as a pairing in five games against the Cataractes.
They can keep up with the speed of the other teams and steer forwards to the outside lanes quickly and efficiently. They will see the Marner-Dvorak-Tkachuk line, at least to start. They will see the hottest of the Wheat King offence, be it Patrick or Jayce Hawryluk or John Quenneville. They will tangle with Adam Helewka, Jake DeBrusk, Ivan Nikolishin and the host Rebels.
But the best part of the blueline is that head coach Bouchard doesn’t have to use Denis or Caron in a shutdown role. He can roll Lauzon, Myers or Brouillard in those spots, or Zachary Lauzon, Jérémy’s younger brother, or Jacob Neveu, a mainstay on the penalty kill. They can all skate, hit and play solid positional hockey in transition. If big brother Lauzon can’t play at 100%, he can be sheltered or sit out a game or two and the rest will pick up the slack.
Offence isn’t anything to sneeze at either
The Huskies have a very solid counter-attack offence led by their top line of Francis Perron, Timo Meier and Jean-Christophe Beaudin. Perron led the Q playoffs in scoring with 33 points in 18 games. Meier was the big acquisition for the Huskies during the mid-season trading period, and Beaudin is a quiet but steady contributor and third rounder of Colorado in 2015.
Behind that is a boatload of secondary scoring threats. A.J. Greer came into his own in the playoffs with 22 points in 20 games. Martins Dzierkals added 17 points of his own. Gabriel Fontaine brought in 16 points with strong two-way play. Mathieu Boucher was thrown onto the top line with Perron and Beaudin in game 6 of the Moncton series and potted five points in a little over a period’s worth of time.
The Huskies were the only team in the regular season in the Q to break the 300 goal mark with 302 goals, and they boast one of the league’s two 100-point scorers in Perron. They roll all four lines and each line has threats to score.
Not only that, but all of their regular centers – Beaudin, Fontaine, Alexandre Fortin and Peter Abbandonato – were above 50% in the faceoff circle. The Huskies get the puck off the draw and control the play from the get-go.
Marchand had record-breaking playoff
Their netminder, overager Chase Marchand, had a huge playoff statistically. He set the Q playoff record with six shutouts in his 19 appearances, set the league’s playoff shutout streak record at 223 minutes and 23 seconds, put up a goals-against-average of 1.35, and a save percentage of .946. He got stronger as the series rolled on, and kept the Huskies in position to win.
Marchand was a wildcard heading into the season. He was a middling starter with the Victoriaville Tigres last season, and split his 2013-14 season three-ways, with appearances for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the Mississauga Steelheads of the OHL and the Amherst Ramblers of the MHL in Junior A. A 29-6-1 record in the regular season convinced the Huskies that they could stand pat in goal, with the market for goaltending set very high.
He only faced a shade under 25 shots a game in the playoffs, though, which you can look at in one of two ways. Either he has a really good blueline and team defence in front of him, or he was very good despite not being tested as much as most goaltenders.
The former point is true; the Huskies were the second best defence in the league in the regular season, and by far the best in the playoffs, but the shots average was bumped up several shots in the final two rounds as Marchand kept his team in the game against the Wildcats and the Cataractes.
Behind Marchand is Samuel Harvey, who had a respectable playoff in his own right, with a .907 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA in four appearances. Harvey just turned 18 in February, so he is the goaltender of the future, soaking up valuable experience for the starting job next season. It’s Marchand’s job for the tournament.
Huskies boast 16 of their own picks
Any GM will tell you that building your team starts at the league draft, and the Huskies are no exception.
16 of their 22 players who dressed in the playoffs were Huskies property for their entire junior careers. Add in Dzierkals, who was a CHL import pick last summer, and that number bumps to 17. Key contributors up and down the lineup were honed by Bouchard and his coaching staff.
From top picks like Jérémy Lauzon, Beaudin and Perron to Greer, who was an 11th rounder picked on a whim in the rare chance he reported, and he did, aborting his Boston University career in his sophomore season to join the Huskies in January. He potted five goals in the President’s Cup final alone.
That can be a double edged sword in this case though, as the Huskies are treading new ground in playoff experience. Only Perron, Caron and Julien Nantel were members of the team when the Huskies marched to the third round in 2012-13. The team has won one playoff round in between that run and this one.
Adding Brouillard and Meier is a big help in the experience department, with Memorial Cup experience from the former, but this is a lineup that is largely inexperienced on the big stage, especially compared to the London Knights, who are attending their fourth Memorial Cup in five years.
That may be their biggest weakness, but their two-way strengths and a hot goalie can overcome inexperience. It worked for Shawinigan in 2012 - a hot goalie in Gabirel Girard, a deep D led by Brandon Gormley and Morgan Ellis, and a strong top two lines, led by captain Michael Bournival, Michael Chaput and hero Anton Zlobin.
The Huskies are built similarly to that Cinderella Shawinigan host team in 2012, and they hope for the same result in Red Deer.
The Huskies open the tournament May 21, when they take on the Wheat Kings.