The Mastercard Memorial Cup tournament will feature host Windsor, Seattle, Erie and Saint John in 2017. Here is a look at each of the teams:
Saint John Sea Dogs
There are often two kinds of management styles in junior hockey. Those who put together one five-year plan and those who try to use five one-year plans.
The five-year plan is the tougher of the two. It takes patience, commitment and a whole lot understanding from fans and ownership, but it is often the most rewarding.
It’s the route that the Sea Dogs took in making it to the Mastercard Memorial Cup for the third time since 2011.
Matthew Highmore and Spencer Smallman have been with the team for five seasons. Smallman is the captain. Highmore is an alternate. Saint John added five more players the next year, including Thomas Chabot and Mathieu Joseph that helped to create a core that they have kept together ever since.
With eyes on this season, president and general manager, Trevor Georgie, added Simon Bourque and Julien Gauthier during the QMJHL trade window.
Saint John is as deep a team as the tournament has and that is saying something this year. All four clubs can roll lines. They fell two wins shy of 50 in the regular season, but zipped through the playoffs, going 16-2. Both of those losses came in the third round against Chicoutimi. One game went to double overtime and in the other, the game winner was scored with 14 seconds left. It was about as tidy a run a team could have.
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In the post-season, the Sea Dogs scored 4.6 goals per game and allowed fewer than two goals against per game.
The only thing that doesn’t match the description of a championship contender right now is their power play. It was fantastic during the regular season and led the QMJHL at 29.9 per cent, but has clicked at just 17.6 per cent in the playoffs.
In goal, Callum Booth is a big goalie at 6’4 and a third-round pick of the Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe most importantly, he had a fantastic seat to learn how the Memorial Cup tournament works in 2015 when he was a 17-year old backup to Zach Fucale with the Quebec Remparts, who hosted that tournament.
It’s always difficult to pick a favourite heading into the tournament because teams will not always much up like everyone expects and there always seems to be one club that loses its mojo somewhere between winning a title and touching down in the host city, but if you are looking for a safe pick, Saint John is that team.
There is an old story about the Edmonton Oilers. In 1983, they made it to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time. Edmonton had taken over the NHL offensively that year. They had scored 424 goals in the regular season, just 22 shy of the all-time record that they would set the year after. They were the best bet anyone could see to stopping the dynasty of the New York Islanders.
That didn’t happen.
New York shut down the Oilers. The Islanders gave up just six goals in a four-game sweep of Edmonton, on their way to winning a fourth straight Stanley Cup.
As the legend goes, the Oilers had to walk past the New York dressing room on their way out of the building. As players got closer, they wondered why they couldn’t hear all kinds of cheering and celebrating. As they passed by the open door, they saw a group of guys who were happily exhausted. There were as many ice packs as there were cigars. It had taken everything the Islanders had left to win.
Edmonton came back the next year with a bit more lunch bucket to their game and won four of the next five Stanley Cup championships.
The moral of the story is that sometimes you have to get close to the top of the hill in order to figure out how to get over it.
The Thunderbirds fall into that category.
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Last year they made it to the WHL finals against the Brandon Wheat Kings. They battled hard against an excellent Brandon team, but lost in five games and although the first three went to overtime, they ran out of gas, losing 8-4 in Game 5.
The road back to any championship series is an incredibly long one, but Seattle had enough players who remembered what it was like to come close in 2016 and they rode that motivation past a red-hot Kelowna Rockets team in the Western Conference finals and then through the Regina Pats, the WHL’s best team in the regular season, as the Thunderbirds captured their first Ed Chynoweth Cup.
Seattle’s roster is not filled with NHL draft picks. They only have four. The best-known is Mathew Barzal, who was selected 16th overall by the Islanders in 2015. Much of the Thunderbirds’ success comes from their togetherness and their willingness to win. They are well-coached by former NHLer, Steve Konowalchuk.
Perhaps, the most incredible story of their season can be found in net. It is rare to see starting goalies under the age of 18 at this tournament, but there will be two. Windsor’s Michael DiPietro is 17 and in his draft year and rookie Carl Stankowski just turned 17.
Stankowski took over the starting job during the regular season and never let it go. He posted a .911 save percentage in the playoffs.
The Otters’ road to Windsor is geographically the shortest, but it has been a long time coming. There are similarities to both Seattle and Saint John. Erie put a long-term plan in place and they had to come close a couple of times in order to finally get to the top.
Two years ago, they were in the OHL Championship series with a very similar core of players to the one they have now. Nine guys are still on their roster from that team that also included Connor McDavid. Still surprisingly to some, the Otters lost in six to the Oshawa Generals in 2015.
Many expected them to get right back there last year, a year older and a year wiser, only they ended up bowing out to the eventual Memorial Cup champions, the London Knights in the second round.
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This season, Erie had to find a way through London again, beating them in overtime in Game 7 in round two of the OHL playoffs. Then they had to deal with a very good Owen Sound team in the Western Conference finals and then a highly offensive and suddenly defensive, Mississauga Steelheads’ lineup in the finals.
Erie passed every test and earned their way to Windsor with maybe the toughest road any team had to travel.
The Otters have an excellent and experienced core, led by Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat and Darren Raddysh, but two trade deadline pickups by GM Dave Brown have played outstanding for them. Warren Foegele and Anthony Cirelli have been huge additions. Both come through in clutch situations. Cirelli will go down in junior hockey history as one of the most clutch performers ever. He actually played for Oshawa in 2015 and scored both goals, including the overtime winner in the Memorial Cup final. He also scored the title-clinching OT winner in Game 5 of the OHL Championship.
Don’t expect them to take the opportunity lightly.
The hosts of this year’s MasterCard Memorial Cup have been off almost as long as any team ever to take part.
They were defeated in seven games back in the first round of the OHL playoffs.
Windsor will be an interesting team to watch for the fact that this is a tournament.
Consistency was always Windsor’s enemy this year. Some games, they would be unbeatable. Others, they just couldn’t find their game.
In a series of one-offs, you don’t need true consistency. You just need to force things your way. Opponents do not have time to exploit your weaknesses.
That will work in Windsor’s favour.
The Spitfires are a classic “heavy” team. They are big. They will hit. They can wear you down, even period to period.
They also have Michael DiPietro in net and he is as fiery a competitor as you will find. He is also on major junior’s biggest stage one month before the NHL Entry Draft. His name will be called early. A big performance in Windsor could have it called first among all goaltenders.
The Spitfires are good at limiting opportunities. They can frustrate you. They are rested and they are ready to play in a real game and that will make them just as tough an opponent as anyone else.