The annual Memorial Cup tournament begins this Friday in Red Deer, featuring the OHL, QMJHL and WHL champions as well as the host team, the Rebels. The Memorial Cup is given to the champion of the entire 60-team Canadian Hockey League, so for major junior hockey players, it’s a pretty big deal.
In less than two weeks, one of the final four teams will claim the trophy from the defending champion Oshawa Generals (who didn’t make this year’s tournament). But before it gets underway, let’s look at which teams have the biggest advantages to win the championship.
Advantage: London Knights
Well this is obvious. Mitch Marner took the OHL by storm in the postseason, scoring an unreal 44 points (16G, 28A) in 18 games and drawing comparisons to Connor McDavid’s revered 2015 playoff performance. He was also named playoff MVP, and rightly so — it was well-deserved with such a torrid scoring pace to lead the Knights to a championship.
First-year forward Matthew Tkachuk finished right behind him, totaling 40 points, including 20 goals, in just 18 games. And Christian Dvorak, the final piece of that dominant top Knights line, notched 35 points (14G, 21A). That means London’s top line scored a combined 119 points through 18 games.
That’s just ridiculous.
The Knights even have heavy offense coming from the back-end; rock-star rookie/2016 draft prospect Olli Juolevi tallied 14 points, Victor Mete finished not far behind at 11 and Jacob Graves – a usual defensive defender in the middle of an offensive break-out – registered 10 assists, all through 18 games.
But it’s not just about the statistics – London absolutely has the most talented roster, offensively.
Advantage: Brandon Wheat Kings
It’s scary to think that even with the exceptional defensive core already in place, the Brandon Wheat Kings’ blue line could have been even better this year, had CHL Import Draft selection and Calgary Flames prospect Oliver Kylington opted for juniors over the AHL in 2015-16.
It would have been nice, but they certainly don’t need him — Brandon is hands-down the best defensive team in the 2016 Memorial Cup field.
It starts with Ivan Provorov, of course, whose meteoric rise in the 2014-15 season saw him challenge top-rated 2015 draft defense prospect Noah Hanifin as the potential first defender off the board. He would eventually go seventh overall to the Philadelphia Flyers and is pegged as being the future cornerstone of the NHL club’s defense.
The offensive defender scored 73 points in the regular season, but he has actually been outplayed in the postseason by teammate Kale Clague, who has tallied 15 points (6G, 9A) in 21 games. The 2016 prospect’s break-out has definitely helped his draft stock, but it was only made possible by a keen focus on mastering his defensive game for the past two seasons. And captain Macoy Erkamps, in his final year of junior eligibility, has also been quite the dominant figure on the back-end.
The Wheat Kings possess quite the staunch defense which, collectively, seems more than capable of getting involved in the offense. They’ll have to rely on their blue liners to stop London’s incredible offense — that’ll be quite the spectacle to watch.
Advantage: London Knights
London’s top scorers took most of the spotlight from their red-hot goaltender, Tyler Parsons, who has earned himself a 2.15 goals against average and 0.925 save percentage in the postseason. Heading into the Memorial Cup, the no. 3-ranked goalie in the upcoming draft crop has certainly solidified himself as a much better player than scouts previously thought he was. That may have a lot to do with the team around him, but still – he was poised, confident and excellent throughout the OHL playoffs.
Without Parsons, the Knights may not have gotten through the postseason so easily – shutting-out three consecutive opponents, including top teams like the Kitchener Rangers and Erie Otters, is no easy task, and the Knights goaltender was a huge reason why it was possible.
Advantage: London Knights
London has the advantage once again here. We wanted to give someone else the benefit of the doubt, but the Knights are just too deep a team.
Behind the ‘big three’ on offense, they have Cliff Pu, J.J. Piccinich and Aaron Berisha, all of whom eclipsed the 10-point mark in the run to the OHL championship. Owen Macdonald and Chandler Yakimowicz have also been impact players, with several others getting on the score board pretty often.
But the real x-factor here is Max Jones, the super-talented forward who missed about half the OHL playoffs due to suspension. Finally back and getting back in the swing of things, the winger may explode offensively — something that’s been long overdue.
Whatever the case may be with Jones, though, even the defense is filled with reliable, skilled defenders. Essentially, the Knights will be rolling all four offensive lines and all three defensive units. They’re just that good, up and down the roster.
Advantage: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
Starring for perhaps the least-recognized team in the round-robin cast, Francis Perron was named the QMJHL playoff MVP when his team won the league championship. At 20 years old, this past season was his fourth and final in major junior hockey, and he will be moving on to the AHL — specifically with the Ottawa Senators’ minor league affiliate, the Binghamton Senators.
In fact, fellow Huskies stars Martins Dzierkals, Timo Meier, Nikolas Brouillard and A.J. Greer, among others, are all 19 or older, so this is a very veteran-heavy roster.
Greer started his 2015-16 season at Boston University, but decided to make a mid-season jump to the QMJHL and join the Huskies when the NCAA was not quite working for him. It proved to be an excellent decision, as he finished the season strong and scored 12 goals and 10 assists in 20 postseason games.
And of course Meier — former Halifax Mooseheads sensation and 2015 ninth overall pick by the San Jose Sharks — is a well-seasoned forward whose excellence in his junior career thus far makes many wonder just how remarkable he will be on junior hockey’s biggest stage.
Advantage: Red Deer Rebels
The tournament hosts didn’t win any of the above categories, so we created one for them.
The Rebels obviously have home-ice advantage, and it will be interesting to see if vying for the ultimate junior hockey prize in front of their fans will improve their chances of becoming the unlikely 2016 Memorial Cup champions. The WHL club is only in the tournament because they were selected to be the host team, so winning would be quite the impressive feat.
Still, with big names like Jake DeBrusk, Adam Helewka, Haydn Fleury, Michael Spacek and many others, the Rebels built their 2015-16 roster with the intent to go far in the playoffs. They lost to the eventual WHL champion Wheat Kings in the Eastern Conference Final, but taking part in the Memorial Cup tournament proves as a second chance — and they’ll have their own fans there to support them.