One of junior hockey's conundrums is the first and less publicly prestigious step is more difficult, requiring winning four best-of-7 series instead of a 10-day tournament. In another one of the CHL's cruel inventions that has essentially happened organically (it better have!), the ability to win a league title does not actually confer the ability to hoist the Memorial Cup. For starters, the CHL lets a host team which is often less playoff-weary into the tournament, plus some teams simply cannot reprise the energy, the edge that helped them mow through the league playoffs.
A lot of dust flew around during the trade deadlines in all three leagues this week. It will still take time to settle as teams blend in their big acquisitions. At best, it's only a guess at how how the Kitchener Rangers will look by March with Frank Corrado on their blueline and Josh Leivo on the wing or whether adding crafty centre Vince Trocheck helps the Plymouth Whalers vault from sixth in their conference to contention in the OHL. There is a honest heartfelt belief that a team has to be doing something.
As Owen Sound Attack general manager Dale DeGray put it to Sportsnet's Patrick King, "You have to send a message to your dressing room what we want to compete... We want to try to win this whole thing and if you don't, I think the feeling in the dressing room can sort of go awry." So, now that it's out of the way, who looks like it has a legitimate argument for raising the Memorial Cup in Saskatoon on May 26?
Portland Winterhawks, WHL — Like our man Kelly Friesen said, the Winterhawks did not have to do anything. Portland, at this writing, has lost only one game since interim coach-GM Travis Green replaced the suspended Mike Johnston. Any letdown from seeing winger Ty Rattie and defencemen Seth Jones and Tyler Wotherspoon off to the world junior championship wasn't reflected in the results, as Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic covered for the absence of Rattie offensively.
Jones has steadily improved as he's become more comfortable with his new team and the Western League. The top draft prospect's presence might have been what Portland lacked when it lost the past two WHL championship series, including last spring's seven-gamer against Edmonton. Plus goalie Mac Carruth is an overage who will be rested by playoff time, since the Winterhawks may have enough of a cushion in the standings to judiciously work in some time off. As reviled as the Winterhawks are in WHL circles, they are the league's best shot at its first Memorial Cup in five years.
Edmonton Oil Kings, WHL — The defending WHL champion faces a tougher conference to win than it did a season ago. The rival Calgary Hitmen, Brent Sutter-resuscitated Red Deer Rebels and the small-market upstart Prince Albert Raiders and Swift Current Broncos should each pose a threat by spring. Plus the Coach Derek Laxdal's Oil Kings, like many teams which have won and still retained enough of its nucleus to talk repeat, went through an early-season phase where it had to absorb that it doesn't get any automatic credit for last season. Their core that features New York Rangers prospect Michael St. Croix, coulda-been-the-Team-Canada-goalie Laurent Brossoit and pals are 17-3-1-1 since early November. Please keep in mind that their top six defencemen did not even practise together until Thursday, when Martin Gernat laced 'em up.
Kelowna Rockets, WHL — They have reached 30 victories faster than the franchise's 2004 Memorial Cup championship team (which went through the side door as the host team). The franchise would have to catch lightning in a bottle like it did in 2009, when it turned expectations upside down by upsetting the Calgary Hitmen in the WHL final. Kelowna, led by converted defenceman Myles Bell, scores a better than a four-goal-a-game clip, has a game-stealer in goal with Jordon Cooke and is well-coached under Ryan Huska. Including the Rockets is a safety lest one get caught napping like certain Easterners did two years ago when another B.C. team, the Kootenay Ice, won the WHL.
Saskatoon Blades, WHL — Regardless of how the Western League playoffs unfold, the tournament host Blades are still four wins away from a Memorial Cup. That means BTN is obligated to mention them, even if they might only be the fifth- or sixth-best team in their conference. Trading for former 47-goal scorer Michael Ferland buys the Blades another month or so of plausible deniability about whether they will be competitive as the hosts in May.
London Knights, OHL — London should not necessarily be handed the J. Ross Robertson Cup four months in advance, but no one else in the vicinity of the centre of the universe looks nearly as Memorial Cup-good. The league takes its turn hosting following the WHL's, so there is a tendency to wait a year to pounce, especially when there's a bid to host the whole shootin' match in play. The league-leading Knights also did very little tinkering via trade since their focus is on hosting and winning the 2014 tournament.
Coach Dale Hunter's club might have a tougher time winning the conference than the OHL, depending on how Kitchener, Owen Sound and Plymouth pick it up after making major additions. London, led by Boston Bruins prospect Seth Griffith and 17-year-old Max Domi, can score by the bushel and has a superior defence corps led by two-time Team Canada member Scott Harrington. They might be balanced enough up front to avoid a cold spell that could send their season awry.
Moncton Wildcats, QMJHL — Cagey coach Danny Flynn's swung for the fences — most likely by owner Robert Irving's most likely by owner Robert Irving's edict — in a bid to keep the President's Cup in News Brunswick, trading for Chicago Blackhawks first-rounder Phillip Danault. It
seems like a potential overpay, but some space should go to the devil's advocate argument.
Moncton now boasts a veteran coterie up front in Danault, overage twins Alex and Allain Saulnier and Czech sniper Dmitrij Jaskin that could take it deep into the playoffs. It has that all-important Memorial Cup experience on the ice through wing Yannick Veilleux and defenders Jonathan Narbonne and Jonathan Racine (who each earned rings with Shawinigan in 2012), plus through Flynn behind the bench. Moncton won the QMJHL in 2010 after finishing fifth in the league. Bear in mind, though, current goalie Alex Dubeau isn't as imposing as Nicola Riopel was back then. Hence the reasonable doubts.
Halifax Mooseheads, QMJHL — Looking past the obvious, namely Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon, the one caveat is the Halifax is young. They are a little like the Edmonton team which stalled at 2012 Cup. Or the 2011 Portland Winterhawks crew that sputtered in a conference final. Halifax has made the Quebec League look silly on a semi-consistent basis for much of the season, but things can turn against younger teams in the new year. Please keep in mind Halifax actually counts on more 17-year-olds (8) than 19-year-olds (7) for regular contributions.
The experience question will be posed at every step along the way with the MacKinnonites, just like it was during the Saint John Sea Dogs' heyday in 2009-10 and 2010-11. Saint John lost one six-game league final, then won the league and Memorial Cup the next time. Halifax has already had its one rite of turning hurt into hunger when it lost a six-game semifinal series last season. Meantime, he typed sarcastically, you just know MacKinnon will lead his team into the Memorial Cup at age 17 because a certain other centre from Cole Harbour, N.S., did so in 2005 with the Rimouski Océanic.
One other comparison between MacKinnon and a previous Next One might be more germane. The Mooseheads are at the top of their league followed by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, who drafted MacKinnon in 2011 and flipped his rights to his hometown team. That's a similar shade to what happened in the OHL in 1991. Eric Lindros and the Oshawa Generals, the popular favourite, made the final against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, whom he had refused to report to two seasons prior.
A Baie-Comeau vs. Halifax final would be a scene, man.
For what it is worth, Sault Ste. Marie won that '91 series. Flynn was an assistant coach of that team. You could look it up.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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