The London Knights were favored to win the 2016 Memorial Cup before the 2015-16 season even got underway. They eventually defeated all their OHL, QMJHL and WHL opponents (in the playoffs and in Memorial Cup round-robin play) to take home the CHL’s crown, fulfilling all their expectations and then some.
Now, heading into the 2016-17 season, it’s a lot less clear who will emerge as junior hockey champions next spring. There is only one team we know for certain will be in the Memorial Cup tournament, and that’s the host team, the Windsor Spitfires. And while there are quite a few teams that will be big contenders this coming season, here a few teams to watch for as potential Memorial Cup clinchers.
Mississauga Steelheads (OHL)
A slew of Steelheads players were just drafted into the NHL at the 2016 NHL Draft, including captain Mike McLeod, top wingers Alex Nylander and Nathan Bastian, and top defender Sean Day. It’s a testament to how talented the team is right now — its core is in the middle of its prime, mostly 17- and 18-year-olds who are all ready to break-out in a big way in 2016-17.
Pending the decision with regard to Nylander’s return to Mississauga, the offense really isn’t losing much, save for some depth forwards like Mason Marchment and Josh Burnside. In fact, they are actually gaining quite a bit in the form of maturity with two exceptional young forwards, Owen Tippett and Ryan McLeod; the former, a renowned sniper, will be looking to expand upon his 15-goal rookie campaign and become a premier OHL goal-scorer, while the latter will make a push for the second-line center role behind his brother.
Mississauga’s seventh overall pick at the 2016 OHL Priority Selection Draft, Kirill Nizhnikov, will be looking to replace some of the aforementioned lost depth. Much like Tippett, he has a talent for scoring big goals, and he will be surrounded by a fantastic veteran lineup in his first year of junior hockey.
But the Steelheads are not just heralded for their offense – the defense is looking equally as impressive heading into the season.
Sean Day seems ready to finally live up to his billing as an ‘exceptional’ defender, and he will share top pair responsibilities with the newly-acquired, highly-touted Vili Saarijarvi. Behind the obvious top-two, though, sophomore behemoths Nicolas Hague (6’6″) and Austin Osmanski (6’4″) look to emerge as sure-fire top-four defenders. Both left-handed shots, Hague is more offensively-inclined while Osmanski provides more of a reliable, stay-at-home defensive game.
The one week spot will be in goal, where the Steelheads are the most inexperienced. But if they can figure that out, watch out for Mississauga.
Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL)
The defending WHL champions won’t have it so easy this time around. Having lost their top scorer in the regular season, Jayce Hawryluk, as well as captain Macoy Erkamps and alternates John Quenneville and Tim McGauley to ineligibility (they graduated to the pros), there is much work to be done to supplant the scoring and leadership they took with them.
It shouldn’t be too difficult, though, considering the fact that Brandon possesses the top 2017 NHL Draft prospect, Nolan Patrick.
The Manitoba native was a top-five scorer in the regular season, notching 102 points (41G, 61A) and impressively ranked first in WHL playoff scoring with 30 points (13G, 17A). A scoring machine, he’s also a big-game player – the alternate captain led all WHL postseason scorers in game-winning goals with four.
Reid Duke, one of the higher-scorers, will return to the roster in 2016-17, but much of the veteran presence will now fall to the younger guys, like Patrick, forward Tanner Kaspick and defender Kale Clague. Clague, a highly-regarded two-way defenseman, had a bit of a slow start to his 43-point 2015-16 campaign. He finished strong with 14 points in 21 games and his defensive game got better as the year progressed, but he is still mostly a question-mark at this point because of his previous inconsistencies.
Also on defense, Ivan Provorov is perhaps the biggest x-factor for the Wheat Kings. The high-scoring star blueliner has yet to decide his fate for the 2016-17 season — does he return to Brandon for one more year or does he join the Philadelphia Flyers organization (whether in the AHL or the NHL)? That question will be answered most likely around the start of the regular season, but right now his future is unclear.
Provorov’s presence on the team could make or break their chance to repeat in the postseason, but either way, Brandon is going to need some additions in order to make it back to the Memorial Cup tournament.
With a solid foundation, though, they’re already off to a great start.
Saint John Sea Dogs (QMJHL)
Heading into the 2015-16 season, the Saint John Sea Dogs had seen little postseason success since their back-to-back Memorial Cup appearances (the first of which they emerged victorious in 2011). The following three years featured the team getting swept, missing the playoffs entirely, and then mustering up just one win in a quarterfinal series, so they were due for a bit of luck.
Their big break came when 15-year-old Joe Veleno became the first underaged draft-eligible QMJHL prospect last summer. Now former general manager Darrell Young was ecstatic to learn just days before the 2015 QMJHL Draft that the supposed best ‘Q’ prospect since Crosby could be had by Saint John, and he wasn’t going for the ‘safe’ pick though some had suggested that he should.
Veleno is an all-around solid two-way center who posted 43 points (13G, 30A) in his rookie campaign, adding six goals and an assist in 17 playoff games. Those may not be Connor McDavid-type numbers, but the impact he made on his team in his underage season was mostly the same. He helped the Sea Dogs along to a third-round appearance in the postseason, where they fell in five games to the Shawinigan Cataractes, and he provided something to look forward to in the future.
And the future is now for both Veleno and the Sea Dogs, who will look to advance to the President’s Cup this year and vie for a Memorial Cup berth. Thanks to Veleno’s quick rise, Nathan Noel will slide to second line center, where he is better-suited anyway. Having just recently been drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks — following a snub last year, when he first became draft-eligible — Noel will have a lot more confidence entering the season, so he is primed for a great year.
Luckily for the Sea Dogs, most of their team is returning. They will have top-six wingers Matthew Highmore and Mathieu Joseph, both of whom scored 70-plus points, as well as Daniel Del Paggio, Spencer Smallman and Adam Marsh. Bokondji Imama is primed for an offensive break-out year on offense and will likely challenge for a permanent top-six spot among that group.
The defense will take a slight hit as Matt Murphy has graduated from junior, but he was a mid-season acquisition in 2015-16 — they’ll survive without him. Thomas Chabot, the team’s top-scoring and arguably best all-around defenseman, will lead the way, followed by Jakub Zboril and Luke Green. All three were regarded as high-potential defense prospects in each of the last two drafts, and they form the core of a defensive juggernaut that is now going three years strong.
This is now Veleno’s team, and he is surrounded by an exceptional veteran presence that likely has just one year left together. They will look to make the most of it in 2016-17.