QMJHL West Division preview: Huskies still hungry, return as strong favourite to repeat

·Mike Sanderson
Jean-Christophe Beaudin is the only remaining member of the President's Cup-winning Huskies' top line, but he will lead a solid offence with an even better blueline. (CP)

Yahoo Sports’ Buzzing the Net blog will preview the upcoming 2016-17 QMJHL season, going division by division and asking the biggest question of each team. The season opens on Thursday with the defending President’s Cup champion Rouyn-Noranda Huskies hosting the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, then a full slate of games Friday with all 18 teams in action.

ROUYN-NORANDA HUSKIES

2015-16 record: 54-9-3-2 (113 points)

Division finish: First place

League finish: First place

Result: Won President’s Cup

Can the Huskies win it all again?

Their blueline could be the deepest in the league, and while Chase Marchand isn’t back to set playoff records, they should be poised to be a contender again.

Marchand was a Jr. A goalie in the Maritime Hockey League two seasons ago. He became a star goaltender for the Huskies behind coach Gilles Bouchard and his system, and while Marchand was a very solid contributor and got hot at the right time, Samuel Harvey was the starter of this Huskies team two seasons ago when they made a surprise run to the second round. He is two years older now, two years wiser, and experienced a Memorial Cup run, albeit from the bench.

He is a solid incumbent, and the blueline only lost it’s overagers – Allan Caron and Nik Brouillard. Which means, yes, friends, the top pairing of Jeremy Lauzon and Philippe Myers is back, pending NHL camps, to take over as the dominant pairing of the league. They are still deep without any additions to the back end, as Zachary Lauzon and Jonathan Legault will step in on the bottom pair without skipping a beat, and the rocks Jacob Neveu and Bruno-Carl Denis will do what they do best.

They are missing weapons up front from last year’s championship-winning squad, as Francis Perron, Timo Meier, Julien Nantel and AJ Greer aren’t returning, though Jean-Christophe Beaudin is back to lead the offence, joined by Martins Dzierkals, Antoine Waked and Gabriel Fontaine.

This is still a deep team, without its top weapons, though they may make a push to get another impact forward at midseason.

GATINEAU OLYMPIQUES

2015-16 record: 46-19-2-1 (95 points)

Division finish: Third place

League finish: Fifth place (third in total points)

Result: Lost to Moncton in second round of playoffs

Will the Olympiques trade a goaltender?

They come into the year having two of the league’s best – Mathieu Bellemare and Mark Grametbauer.

Both were solid in the regular season, propelling the Olympiques to a third-place finish in the division and the league (in total points). Bellemare got the nod in the playoffs, and he was very good, though the team collapsed in a second-round loss to the Moncton Wildcats.

Bellemare is the smaller of the two, and edged out Grametbauer for the GAA lead between the two – 2.43 to 2.48. Bellemare also had 43 appearances to Grametbauer’s 33, and had four shutouts to Grametbauer’s two. Interestingly enough, Grametbauer was the one invited to an NHL training camp (Tampa Bay) and not Bellemare.

Both would fetch quite a price on the market, with them both being 18, and the time to strike may be at the midseason trading period, as teams that might potentially need goaltenders like the Saint John Sea Dogs or Halifax Mooseheads, coming in with unspectacular starters behind young, potential star backups, are looking for a starter for the next couple of seasons.

They could grab a pretty penny from a team for two years of solid goaltending, and either make a big run this season, or grab a young player or two for upcoming seasons. The Olympiques also have Tristan Berube waiting in the wings, so they aren’t too worried about goaltending depth.

As far as the rest of the team goes, Nic Meloche could be the league’s top defenceman, and they have some depth surrounding him, but they will miss Guillaume McSween. Up front, weapons return in leading scorer Vitalii Abramov, Alex Dostie and Yakov Trenin, and Zack MacEwen is a great depth scorer.

They will miss Benoit Groulx behind the bench, but Mario Duhamel has paid his dues in both the QMJHL and in the NHL and brings a very smart mind to the job, and Marcel Patenaude was a competent team-builder in Halifax in their early years.

BLAINVILLE-BOISBRIAND ARMADA

2015-16 record: 26-32-8-2 (62 points)

Division finish: Fourth place

League finish: 13th place

Result: Lost to Rouyn-Noranda in second round of playoffs

Is there more to this team than Samuel Montembeault?

For the second season in a row, the Armada will go as their starting goaltender goes.

Samuel Montembeault was a key contributor in the first-round upset of the Val-d’Or Foreurs and willed the team past the juggernaut in green and gold. He also was a huge factor in stealing a game from the league-champion Huskies.

But as junior hockey goes, the team needs a little help from the NHL. In this case, the Florida Panthers need to determine if the QMJHL is the best place for Montembeault to continue his development. As a 20-year-old, he could move up to the professional ranks, if the Panthers want him to.

The Armada certainly hope not, and they acquired Jeremy Roy from the Sherbrooke Phoenix to anchor the back end. Most of their defence returns, including TJ Melancon and Pascal Corbeil, to create a very deep team on the back end.

Much like last year, the Armada will have trouble scoring, especially without leading scorer Kristian Pospisil and star forward Philippe Sanche, but Alexandre Alain will provide some help scoring goals. William Gignac, Joel Teasdale, Alexander Katarinakis and Yvon Mongo are ready to make a step forward and join in on the offence, and Europeans Axel Simic and Christian Wejse will punch it forward.

But the biggest key is in goal, where the whole popsicle stand could blow if they have to rely on backup Francis Leclerc and rookie Jacob Stewart. While the Armada play a style that lends itself well to defensive play, they will be in tough without their star goaltender.

VAL D’OR FOREURS

2015-16 record: 49-15-3-1 (102 points)

Division finish: Second place

League finish: Fourth place (second in total points)

Result: Lost to Blainville-Boisbriand in first round of playoffs

Can the Foreurs make another run with this core?

They could channel the embarrassment of being beaten in five games by the 13th-best team in the QMJHL as fuel and fire themselves up for a final kick at the can, though it will have to take one final push. Or they could cut their losses and trade off their players for the highest bidder.

Thankfully, they are built for it, if they wanted to take that last chance. Julien Gauthier is the best goal-scorer in the QMJHL, and his 41 goals are back this year. Newly acquired winger Adam Marsh is looking for a bounce-back season after getting bitten by the injury bug last year. If this is the year Alexis Pepin can harness his big frame and drive into an offensive force, he will be a beast.

Both goaltenders – Etienne Montpetit and giant Dereck Baribeau – are back to tend the net, and their defence corps is the tallest in the QMJHL, with captain Olivier Galipeau patrolling the ice along with 6-foot-4 David Henley, 6-foot-5 Tyler Higgins and 6-foot-7 Jack Van Boekel.

Though, missing is five of their top six scorers from last season – Anthony Beauregard, Anthony Richard, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Jan Mandat and Shawn Ouellette-St-Amant. Samuel Houde, a fixture on defence, left the team in camp and will be replaced by Jason Bell, who couldn’t crack the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles last season and wrapped up the year playing as a forward with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.

Who will feed Gauthier the puck? Francois Beauchemin is the incumbent first-line centre, though he’s more of a two-way, defensive type. Other than that, Euro pick Maxim Mizyurin and his 11 points in the Russian junior league could be a candidate, or Marsh moving over to the pivot.

They will need to sort that out to be a contender, or blow it all up. They could cash in huge on their stars.

SHERBROOKE PHOENIX

2015-16 record: 24-35-7-2 (57 points)

Division finish: Fifth place

League finish: 15th place

Result: Lost to Shawinigan in first round of playoffs

Can the Phoenix salvage anything out of their first rebuild?

Short answer: probably not.

The symbol to indicate the turnover to a new era is the off-season trade of Jeremy Roy to division rival Blainville-Boisbriand.

Daniel Audette, the team’s first-ever pick, graduated to the pro ranks, leaving a massive hole at centre. There isn’t a hopeful to fill it. Hugo Roy will do his best, flanked by three rookies – Nicolas Roy (not that one), Brock MacLeod and Marek Zachar, the incoming favourite for the top line.

Julien Pelletier is back for his 20-year-old season, and he will look to leave the junior ranks on a high note after a so-so year last season.

The best chance for the Phoenix to do some damage is on the blueline, even without Roy. Former ‘Q’ first-rounders Carl Neill, Julien Bahl and Thomas Gregoire are all back, as is 2015 Chicoutimi first-rounder Alexander Krief, acquired at the draft this summer. Their ‘D’ is deep once again.

Evan Fitzpatrick is also back between the pipes, fresh after getting drafted by the St. Louis Blues. He struggled at times last year in front of an underachieving team, and will be in a position to succeed this time around with a worse team in front of him, but still a very solid defence corps. If Sherbrooke surprises at all, it will be at least partly because of their goalie. 

DRUMMONDVILLE VOLTIGEURS

2015-16 record: 27-39-2-0 (56 points)

Division finish: Sixth place

League finish: 16th place

Result: Lost to Rouyn-Noranda in first round of playoffs

Will the Voltigeurs make the playoffs?

We asked that question last year, and it still applies this year.

Yes, the Drummondville Voltigeurs made the playoffs last year, as the 16th seed. They were promptly spanked 4-0 by the eventual President’s Cup champions -- and outscored 33-4 in those four games.

One main reason to be happy for the future is the man behind the bench, as Dominique Ducharme left his post in Halifax to be closer to home and do the dual role of head coach and general manager. There’s no Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin in his bag of tricks, though, so who knows what to expect this season.

Forwards Alex Barre-Boulet, Joey Ratelle and Charley Graaskamp are back to lead the team, as is Mathieu Sevigny to take a step forward in his development. Pavel Koltygin is an intriguing pick from the 2016 CHL Import Draft. Matthew Newbury led the team in preseason scoring with 10 points in nine games. But there’s no real deep threat here. No big-time scorer. They miss Michael Carcone and his 47 goals. They only scored 189 as a unit last year, and there are no signs that they’ll improve that number this year.

On defence, Frederic Aube returns as a 20-year-old anchor, and thank Gretzky he does, because it is a very young blueline beyond that. Xavier Bernard, a first-rounder from the most recent draft, will have a prominent role on the back end, almost by default.

A three-headed monster in goal for the Volts, as third-overall pick Olivier Rodrigue will battle it out with playoff starter Anthony Dumont-Bouchard and backup Frederic Foulem for playing time. Rodrigue could be this year’s Fucale, the top-ranked goaltender who could have an immediate impact. He may have to in order for the Volts to make the playoffs again.

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