One of the nice things about the start of any sports season is seeing the developing storylines.
Every year there’s a new star, a team that emerges as an upstart and, of course, there are those franchises or players that disappoint or underperform.
That’s especially true in amateur or collegiate leagues like the Canadian Hockey League where there is massive turnover from year-to-year and the players themselves are still maturing and developing.
This past week is a great example of that turnover.
Whereas last year the CHL was dominated by the Calgary Hitmen, Moncton Wildcats, Saint John Sea Dogs, Barrie Colts and Windsor Spitfires, new powers like the Drummondville Voltigeurs, Owen Sound Attack and Oshawa Generals have stepped forward.
In terms of hot new prospects, all the buzz surrounded Tyler Seguin and Taylor Hall. New stars like Alain and Alex Saulier, Alex Aleardi and Jonathan Audy- Marchessault have already started to make some noise just weeks in to the new season.
Perhaps most refreshing is some signs of parity in the league. Teams that really struggled last season like the Halifax Mooseheads and Prince George Cougars are already doing better, guaranteeing more exciting and competitive hockey.
As long-time readers of this blog know, I’m pretty awful at predictions. Therefore, I won’t make myself foolish and try to make any kind of prognostication about the rest of the junior hockey year. What I will say is that I’m enjoying the new directions this season has already started to go in.
Friday, Oct. 1st 2010
QMJHL: GATINEAU OLYMPIQUES STUN DRUMMONDVILLE VOLTIGEURS
It was an unlikely victory for the Gatineau Olympiques on Friday night.
Maxime Clermont made 23 saves to stun the Drummondville Voltigeurs and lead Gatineau to a 3-0 in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League action.
OHL: ATTACK TURN THE TABLES ON KNIGHTS WITH WIN
The Owen Sound Attack got a monkey off their backs Friday night.
Joey Hishon scored twice for Owen Sound as the Attack earned a 4-2 victory over the London Knights in Ontario Hockey League play.
WHL:OIL KINGS PREVAIL OVER PATS IN PHYSICAL AFFAIR
The Edmonton Oil Kings pounded the Regina Pats in every sense of the word Friday night.
Cameron Abney scored twice and added an assist to help the Edmonton Oil Kings handle the Regina Pats 7-3 in Western Hockey League action.
Saturday, Oct. 2nd 2010
QMJHL: HYNES SCORES TWICE, VICTORIAVILLE EDGE GATINEAU IN OT
Brandon Hynes took charge of the Victoriaville Tigres' game Saturday night.
The 18-year-old winger scored twice, including the overtime winner, as Victoriaville snuck by the Gatineau Olympiques 3-2 in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League action.
OHL: MCKEGG LEADS OTTERS TO WIN OVER KNIGHTS
After surrendering 12 goals in their last two games, the Erie Otters looked a lot more confident Saturday night.
Greg McKegg scored two short-handed goals as the Otters stymied the London Knights to snap a three-game losing streak with a 5-2 victory in Ontario Hockey League play.
WHL:BEACH SCORES WINNER AS HITMEN EARN FIRST WIN OF SEASON
Last year's Western Hockey League champions are finally shaking off a slow start to the new season.
Cody Beach scored the winner and added an assist as the Calgary Hitmen beat the Moose Jaw Warriors 6-2 for their first win of the 2010-11 season Saturday night.
Sunday, Oct. 3rd 2010
QMJHL: ACADIE-BATHURST EDGES DRAKKAR IN SHOOTOUT
It took all kinds of extra time for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan to come out on top Sunday afternoon.
Zach O'Brien, Gabriel Levesque and Bryce Milson scored in the shootout as the Titan sunk the Baie-Comeau Drakkar 4-3 in Quebec Major Junior Hockey League action.
OHL: GRAOVAC FINDING PLACE AS OTTAWA BEATS MISSISSAUGA
Tyler Graovac is gaining confidence as a key part of the Ottawa 67's attack.
Graovac had a hat trick as the Ottawa 67's stomped the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors 7-2 in Ontario Hockey League action Sunday afternoon.
WHL: WINTERHAWKS OVERPOWER HURRICANES
Sven Bartschi scored twice and Ty Rattie, Taylor Aronson and Ryan Johansen all had a pair of assists to lead the Portland Winterhawks over the Lethbridge Hurricanes 6-2 in Western Hockey League play on Sunday night.
Bartschi scored the first goal of the game and his first of the season and then scored on the power play in the third period.
In any playoff final there is the expectation that the teams will be pretty evenly matched. After all, they’ve survived the regular season and the first few rounds of the post-season.
This year though, the Canadian Hockey League finals across the nation are all well in hand. In fact, they could all end up as four-game sweeps.
Here in Ontario, the focus has been on the Windsor Spitfires’ dominance of the Barrie Colts.
The defending Memorial Cup champions looked to be dead in the water after falling behind the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors 3-0 in their Ontario Hockey League semifinal match-up. But the Spitfires rallied to win that series 4-3 and now they are up on the Colts 3-0.
I covered the second game of that series for the Canadian Press and it was clear from the action what the problem is: Windsor absolutely owns the neutral zone. Several of their goals came from turnovers between the blue-lines and Barrie could barely get the puck over half.
Out in New Brunswick, the Moncton Wildcats have also quickly established a 2-0 lead over the Saint John Sea Dogs in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League final, including a 9-3 thumping in Game 2.
Things are even more lopsided in the Western Hockey League, as the Calgary Hitmen opened their series against the Tri-City Americans with a resounding 7-0 victory. They followed that up with a 4-1 victory to take a two-game lead in the series.
As a fan, I’m disappointed that these series are going by so quickly. Ideally, all series would be close with lots of back-and-forth between the two teams.
That said, good for the Moncton Wildcats, Windsor Spitfires and Calgary Hitmen. They should be proud of themselves for coming out so strong in the crucial step to the Memorial Cup. It's too bad that it comes at the expense of some high drama.
Don’t call it a comeback, the Windsor Spitfires have been here for years.
The Spitfires reeled off four-straight wins to rally from a 3-0 series deficit and dump the Kitchener Rangers on Sunday afternoon and move on to the Ontario Hockey League championship.
They’ll be meeting the Barrie Colts for the John Ross Robertson Cup and the chance to repeat as the Memorial Cup champions.
There is a blend of confidence and desperation surrounding the Spitfires, as they have one of the most loaded rosters in junior hockey, but most of their key personnel like Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler are going to graduate to the National Hockey League.
Windsor was also supposed to easily dispose of Kitchener but struggled mightily against the surprising Rangers. This combination of hope and fear will make them a determined squad when they meet Barrie on Friday.
The Western Hockey League also followed the script, with the top-seeded Tri-City Americans besting the Vancouver Giants in six games and the Calgary Hitmen topping the Brandon Wheat Kings in five games.
It’s worth noting that Wheat Kings fans shouldn’t despair – as Brandon is hosting the Canadian Hockey League’s top tournament they’ll still get a shot at the Memorial Cup.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is the only CHL division that hasn’t sorted out its final, with the Saint John Sea Dogs and Victoriaville Tigres still engaged in their semifinal series.
Whoever wins that team will go on to face the Moncton Wildcats for the QMJHL’s President’s Cup.
Moncton should be fresh after dealing with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in just five games.
Longtime readers will know that this is something of a disappointment to me. I had a great deal of faith in Drummondville and their goaltender Jake Allen, picking them to advance to the Memorial Cup.
Aside from that hiccup, everything else is playing out correctly in my early predictions. I’m pleased to say that the remaining teams really are the cream of the CHL crop. When action picks up again on Friday it should make for some exciting hockey.
Now things get interesting.
I made some predictions in this space last Wednesday, and, well, as far as prognostication goes I guess I shouldn’t quit my day job.
The biggest shock is that the Windsor Spitfires, favoured by me to win the Ontario Hockey League’s Western Conference, looks dead on arrival, already trailing the Kitchener Rangers 3-0 in their semifinal match-up.
Most shocking of all is that the third loss came on a heartbreaking goal when Kitchener’s Gabriel Landeskog dumped the puck into Windsor’s end where it bounced past Troy Passingham to stand as the winner.
(Check out of 3:54 of this video to see for yourself.)
It’s shocking to see last year’s Memorial Cup Champions, featuring a host of all-star talent including Taylor Hall and Cam Fowler, struggling like this. They're a stocked roster that most liked to win the John Ross Robertson cup.
If anything, this just opens the door for an easy Barrie Colts victory in the final, as they will surely finish off the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.
Similarly, the Drummondville Voltigeurs, my favourites to win the Quebec Major Junior hockey League, are down 2-0 in their series with the Moncton Wildcats.
It gets worse for Drummondville too: the next two games of the season will be in New Brunswick, with Moncton having home ice advantage.
I thought that the stellar play of goaltender Jake Allen would be enough to sustain the Voltigeurs, but it looks like an all-New Brunswick final is the QMJHL’s destiny, with both Moncton and the Saint John Sea Dogs looking strong.
Meanwhile, both series in the Western Hockey League are all tied up at 1-1. The Calgary Hitmen and Brandon Wheat Kings will meet again on Tuesday night in Manitoba, while the Tri-City Americans and Vancouver Giants will hook up in British Columbia the same night.
I should note that I have some good news and some bad news. The Good: I have been moved to the pagination department for the duration of the summer and will return to the junior hockey beat in September. The Bad: This means that I will not be writing or editing Canadian Hockey League copy for the rest of the playoffs.
Fear not dear reader! I will still write about the goings-on in Canadian junior hockey every Monday. It's a drug; I'm addicted.
The Toronto Maple Leafs edged the Nashville Predators 4-3 Monday night, getting a late game-winning goal from young Phil Kessel, Brian Burke’s shiny acquisition, the cornerstone of the Age of Truculence.
Since he started playing for the Leafs (about six weeks after the trade that brought him to Toronto from Boston) he has scored 15 goals and 13 assists, and is easily the best player on the Leafs.
But I think the trade has been a terrible mistake. He doesn’t have enough help on the ice, he’s not a franchise player, and ultimately, the price was too high for Toronto.
Don’t get me wrong, he is a great player. He finds open space, sees plays developing and makes intelligent decisions with the puck. He can score from anywhere in the offensive zone and demands that the other team cover him tightly, giving his teammates room to breathe.
Unfortunately, his teammates don’t seem to know what to do with that space. As a result, opposing defences have begun to take advantage of the Leafs lack of depth. They have, as defensive coaches say, begun to cheat on Kessel.
Defensive strategy relies heavily on reactive responses to an offence. Obviously, a good defence reacts to where the puck is, where the players are. But because Toronto does not have a strong secondary scoring threat, defences have taken to sealing off Kessel as soon as he’s on the ice. They know that should he pass the puck, the Leafs probably aren’t going to be able to score.
Now, there are some players who would be able to overcome that, who could make the players around them better. The kind of players that only need to be identified by their surnames: Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, Ovechkin, Brodeur, Roy. Unfortunately, Kessel just doesn’t belong there. He’s a very good hockey player, but his shoulders aren’t broad enough to carry an entire franchise.
And that, ultimately, is why trading two first round picks and a second round pick was too much for Kessel.
That’s an awfully high price, jeopardizing the Leafs for the next five or more years. Frankly, I’m not sure that I’d trade that much for any of the franchise players mentioned above, let alone Phil Kessel.
With the Leafs toiling near the bottom of the standings, the trade looks even worse. There’s a good chance that the division rival Boston Bruins landed themselves a top three pick that could mean Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin, both quality players that would’ve helped the Leafs considerably, and at the rookie maximum salary instead of Kessel’s $27 million over five years.
When there were rumours that Toronto was going to trade with the Boston Bruins, that Burke might land Kessel, a proven sniper, I was ecstatic. At last, the Leafs were going to start to turn it around. Most people I knew thought that too, but my good friend Ruben and my dad both held out, saying that it was a bad trade. It took me a while, but now I see it too. Phil Kessel is a quality player, but the price the Maple Leafs paid was way too high.