Inside the Q
|Peter Assaff||Craig Eagles||Peter Roumeliotis|
Back to Basics: Behind the Mask with Evan Fitzpatrick
by Craig Eagles – March 30, 2018
The crease is your only sanctuary. Your skill and confidence, your only allies. When you’re the last line of defence, there’s no place to hide.
Behind the mask your expressions and emotions are guarded and never exposed. Nerves and a lack of trust are the only aspects that make you vulnerable.
Goaltenders are always behind the mask, but they’re always in the spotlight.
For Evan Fitzpatrick, he’s had that spotlight on for his entire career.
Unfortunately, the spotlight can expose the slightest of imperfections. But the 20-year-old from St. John’s, Newfoundland, fully understands the spotlight and is starting to embrace it.
The St. Louis Blues second round pick in 2016 has stared down adversity throughout his four-year QMJHL career. But the veteran netminder relishes his career path thus far, and has settled in nicely to his new surroundings with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
“I started out in Sherbrooke when I was sixteen and obviously played there my whole career loving every second of it”, said Fitzpatrick. “I made so many good friends over the years and had great coaches. Their entire organization is first class.”
“I don’t have enough good things to say about Sherbrooke”, he added. “But the start of this year didn’t go how I wanted, so it was a mutual agreement to give me a fresh start somewhere else. I was lucky enough to get picked up by a contender.”
After the trade from the Phoenix, Fitzpatrick went back to basics to rediscover his game.
“I came into Bathurst and went back to the basics and had fun with it. I’m having the time of my life right now”, he admitted. “There isn’t a better group of guys that I’ve played with, that all want to win and that are all on the same page. The energy is really good here, I’m enjoying it and just trying to soak it all in.”
Fitzpatrick had been under the microscope given his numbers over the past few seasons in Sherbrooke. Although it’s now evident he has regained the poise, confidence and swagger of a number one goaltender, the veteran netminder did feel some added pressure and nerves after being acquired by the Titan.
“Definitely there was a little pressure, I felt it in my first game and I was nervous starting there. You always want to make a great first impression,” Fitzpatrick said. “After that first game, I settled in pretty good. I feel like I’ve been playing well and contributing when I have to”, confessed the Blues Prospect. “For me it’s just playing hard every second and leaving it all on the ice.”
Fitzpatrick credits none other than Titan goaltending coach David Kennedy for his improved performance during his brief time in Bathurst.
“He’s been great for me. I had great goalie coaches in Sherbrooke with J.-F. Labbé and Brad MacCharles”, explained Fitzpatrick. “But Dave, he’s really passionate about the game and really cares about Joe [Murdaca] and I.”
Fitzpatrick is also quick to credit what he believes to be the best defence corps in the QMJHL when it comes to his recent success.
“Our Top-4 are obviously unbelievable and could be number one d-men on any other team”, admitted Fitzpatrick. “And all of our other guys are very good and can play big minutes in their own right.”
“I’m enjoying it, they play so hard in front me I can’t get over it,” said Fitzpatrick of his blueliners’ performances. “They eliminate so much. They give the opposition one, maybe two options, and they bail me out so many times.”
After posting a 17-4 record in the regular season, as well as career-bests with a 2.24 GAA and .915% save percentage following his arrival in Bathurst, Fitzpatrick seems poised to carry his new team deep into the playoffs.
And after putting up two wins in eight postseason starts with Sherbrooke, Fitzpatrick has already matched that total in half of the games played with Acadie-Bathurst
While he may be behind the mask, all eyes are once again on him during the Titan’s 2018 playoff push… something he obviously learned to embrace.
Day by Day
by Craig Eagles – March 16, 2018
It’s one of hockey’s greatest clichés. It’s become so commonplace that it’s often ignored, but highly valued to the players that use it:
“I’m going take it day by day.”
Nicolas Beaudin of the Drummondville Voltigeurs believes wholeheartedly in that moniker and has channelled that mantra throughout his time in the QMJHL.
The highly skilled 18-year-old defenseman from Châteauguay, Quebec, takes pride and appreciates the day-to-day process of development and progression the game has to offer.
The 2018 NHL Draft Prospect has certainly experienced his fair share of ups and downs throughout his journey in the QMJHL. From playing on a rebuilding Voltigeurs team, to experiencing the rigours of the league and the position as a 16-year-old, to the pressure of his draft year… Beaudin has seen it all.
“When I arrived in the league at sixteen, we were rebuilding the team. Dom [Ducharme] and Steve [Hartley] are very good coaches and when they arrived last year, I bought into their system and now this year I’m continuing to improve,” said the young soft-spoken defenseman
The highly touted young rearguard only saw action in 26 regular season games and three playoff games in his rookie season, and only came away with two points to show for it.
However, the 2016-2017 campaign would be a break out one for Beaudin after he amassed 41 points in 64 regular season games for the Voltigeurs.
Beaudin boasts tremendous individual skating ability comprised of top-end speed and edge control. The skilled puck-moving defenseman possess outstanding vision, offensive instincts and hockey sense. Beaudin has an active stick defensively and has really improved that aspect of his game this season.
The blueliner is currently tied for third overall amongst the QMJHL’s top-scoring defensemen with 64 points (12goals, 52 assists) through 66 games.
Quick to downplay all the attention he’s been garnering this season, he believes it hasn’t been a distraction as of yet.
“I’m taking things day by day, I’m just trying to get better every day”, Beaudin said. “I have good teammates, and they are definitely helping me in that area as well.”
Beaudin credits the unwavering family support he’s received throughout his journey in the game for his success. And though he may downplay the attention he’s getting, he is aware of the significance and opportunity being drafted into the NHL will mean to him and his loved ones.
“It means a lot. My dad was a coach at the Junior AAA ranks for two decades [and he] is very passionate about the game, so I do talk to him about the draft sometimes”, he admitted.
“From a young age I learned a lot from him”, Beaudin added. “But both my parents sacrificed a lot of things for me, so I’m just trying to go day by day and enjoy every day.”
Beaudin feels he has grown and matured into a more accountable two-way defenseman this season and believes that process has to continue to make the jump to the pro ranks.
“At the beginning of the year, Dom didn’t like my start in my own zone. He told me that I have to be a two-way defenseman to play pro, and to play in the NHL”, he said.
“I’ve taken more pride in playing defensively, but I’m still trying to get points and help my team offensively. I’m trying to be good in my zone, and after that jumping into the rush”, explained the blueliner.
While June’s NHL Entry Draft may be in the back of his mind, Beaudin remains focused on the stretch drive and the potential of a long playoff run towards the President Cup.
“It’s exciting, we have a good young team and I think we have a shot [at winning] this year and next year”, he said. “There’s [a few] games remaining in the season and playoffs are going to be big for the team and me personally.”
One thing is for sure. Beaudin, along with his fellow Voltigeurs teammates, are definitely gearing up for the post-season with the best possible playoff mentality: by using a day-by-day approach.
by Craig Eagles – March 2, 2018
Veterans provide leadership, presence and possess invaluable experience. Veterans rely on those attributes and intangibles to be difference makers for their teams.
Moncton Wildcats goaltender, Mark Grametbauer, epitomizes the very essence of a veteran.
Despite the fact that the 19-year-old Halifax, Nova Scotia, product is playing with his fourth team in three years, he is using his unique QMJHL experiences to courageously backstop and carry the rebuilding Moncton Wildcats.
Grametbauer has no regrets when reflecting on his personal journey in the league, but does admit that having to move around so much has taken its toll.
“It’s always difficult to leave a team, because you build great relationships with all the guys”, Grametbauer mentioned. “I have some experience that most guys don’t have [from] travelling to different teams and cities. I think every team gave me something over that time. From [having] different coaches and points of perspective, it’s truly amazing.”
As of this year though, it appears that Grametbauer has finally found a permanent residence with the Wildcats.
“When you come to a new team you don’t know as many guys”, he admitted. “But everyone here welcomed me with open arms, and I think I clicked pretty quickly with the team.”
Grametbauer has arguably been the Moncton Wildcats most valuable player this season, and currently leads the QMJHL in games played with 51. The goaltender strongly believes that maturity and changes he’s made off the ice have paid dividends this season.
“The biggest change that I had to personally make was paying more attention to my diet, and really making sure that I take care of my body after practices and games,” Grametbauer said.
“I knew when [Matthew] Waite got hurt, I was going to see most of the games”, he stressed. “So, I definitely know taking care of my body was a big part. And always staying positive, even though you’re tired, and coming to practice with a good mind set.”
Over Grametbauer’s career, he’s obviously had to work with a plethora of goalie coaches, but he welcomed the opportunity to work with Joey Perricone in Moncton.
“As soon as I found out that Joey was going to be the goalie coach here, I was really excited. Working with him has been amazing”, said Grametbauer. “He did such a great job in Rouyn-Noranda with Harvey and Marchand.”
“Joey is such a great guy on the ice. He’s always smiling and always there to push you a little further and give you the right advice”, he added.
Grametbauer is known to bring tremendous compete level and intensity to the position, and undoubtedly practices what he preaches.
“You definitely have to practice like you play. I think the more you practice competitiveness, and making athletic saves, the more your body will get used to it”, said the veteran netminder. “When it comes time to applying that in a game, you are ready to make that type of save. You always have to battle for those extra saves and extra pucks, because you never know if it’s going to be a difference maker in a game.”
Grametbauer currently holds a 22-25 record with a 3.56 GAA and 0.886 save percentage, good enough to help the Wildcats hold on to the 14th spot in the standings and clinch a playoff berth.
With all the wear and tear of the position, and despite logging that much playing time, Grametbauer still isn’t worried about fatigue becoming a factor come the post-season.
“I wouldn’t really say I’m tired out, it’s definitely a long process and season,” confessed Grametbauer. “But it’s not my first season in the league, I kind of knew what to expect by looking up to older goalies through the years, and watched what they were doing to stay sharp every game.”
Grametbauer understands the impact he has had on the Wildcats this season and is embracing his role as a veteran leader moving forward.
“Honestly, it means a lot. You always want a challenge and the bigger the challenge, the more enjoyable it is”, he says. “Trying to be that guy, to make a difference on the ice and having the opportunity to do that night in night out, is just great.”
Rookie race coming down to the wire
by Peter Assaff – February 23, 2018
With a month to go in the regular season, it looks like the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year award is going to come down to a trio of players from a pair of teams who are no stranger to having top notch first-year players on their rosters.
Halifax Mooseheads forward Filip Zadina and a pair of teammates from the Rimouski Oceanic – winger Alexis Lafrenière and goaltender Colten Ellis – have all been putting up some pretty impressive numbers this season.
Czech-born Zadina, who was taken by the Mooseheads with the 11th overall pick in last June’s Canadian Hockey League European entry draft, led all first year players with 39 goals and 69 points heading into action on Feb. 21.
Lafrenière, who was taken first overall by the Oceanic in last June’s QMJHL entry draft, and only celebrated his 16th birthday in October, was tied with Zadina with 69 points, and just a pair of goals behind with 37.
Ellis, meanwhile, has been nothing short of outstanding between the pipes for Rimouski.
After seeing action in just three games with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles last season, thereby keeping his rookie status intact, the 17-year-old Whycocomagh, N.S., native is second amongst all QMJHL goaltenders with a sparkling 2.24 goals against average this season. Add to that a .917% save percentage and a stellar 27W-6L-5OTL-1SOL record, and Ellis has distanced himself from all other rookie goaltenders this season.
No other first year players, at least at this point of the season, have come close to the impact these three have had on their respective teams. Zadina has helped the Mooseheads climb to first in the Maritime Division, while Lafrenière and Ellis have helped Rimouski lay claim to top spot in the East Division.
Both Halifax and Rimouski have seen their players take home Rookie of the Year honours in the past, with some pretty impressive names on that list.
Just last season, Swiss-born forward Nico Hischier became the fifth member of the Halifax Mooseheads to take home the award. Hischier also took home the Canadian Hockey League’s Rookie of the Year trophy last year, before being selected first overall by the New Jersey Devils in the latest National Hockey League entry draft.
Prior to Hischier, current Winnipeg Jets forwards Nikolaj Ehlers (2014) and Philadelphia Flyers’ Jakub Voráček (2007), along with former NHLers Petr Vrána (2003) and Ladislav Nagy (1999), all laid claim to the Rookie of the Year award in the 24-year history of the Mooseheads franchise.
When it comes to the Oceanic, three players have won the award in the 23 seasons since the team set up shop in Rimouski. That group includes three-time Stanley Cup Champion and Pittsburgh Penguins captain, Sidney Crosby (2004), as well as Vincent Lecavalier (1997), who retired from the NHL last year after a 17-year career that included a Stanley Cup win with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The other member of the Rimouski Oceanic to win the QMJHL’s Rookie of the Year award was Petr Straka, who did so back in 2010.
Should Zadina wind up winning this year’s trophy, he will become the ninth European-born player in the last ten years to win the award. On the other hand, Lafrenière and Ellis are hoping to put an end to a string of six straight import players to take home the honour.
There is no question that Zadina, Lafrenière and Ellis would all be a very deserving choice as this year’s QMJHL Rookie of the Year award, but one thing is for sure, with just five weeks left in the regular season that honour is still very much up for grabs!
The Moncton Phenom
by Craig Eagles – February 15, 2018
Jakob Pelletier was the highest drafted player chosen by the Wildcats in nearly a decade when they made him the third overall pick in the latest QMJHL Draft.
With Moncton in the midst of a massive overhaul, the diminutive youngster from Quebec City has not only shouldered the load of high expectations, but he has carried the rebuilding Wildcats back to respectability.
“Jakob has been even more impressive and impactful than I had anticipated,” said Wildcats Head Coach, Darren Rumble. “He’s a great teammate in the room and an even better person away from the rink. We are thrilled to have him as part of the Wildcats family.”
“It’s been great,” added Pelletier. “When I first came here I wasn’t expecting that. I was focused on having fun, but now it’s kind of like business.”
And business has been good for Pelletier and the Moncton Wildcats; the rookie has made the transition to the QMJHL with relative ease. In fact, the 16-year-old currently sits second in team scoring with 47 points in 44 games.
“I’m just trying to play the same way that I did in Midget AAA and Bantam,” said Pelletier.
And while he has brought unwavering enthusiasm, character and pride to the Wildcats this season, it’s the rookie’s proficiency to read the play as it develops and his uncanny ability to judge time and space, while controlling the puck in traffic and at full speed, that have already set him apart from other players in the league.
Pelletier, who will be turning seventeen on March 7th, has become one of the most complete players in the QMJHL and, skating alongside Mika Cyr and Jeremy McKenna, has formed a lethal offensive trio.
“Mika and Jer’ have a lot of speed and great vision,” confessed the young forward. “We try to move the puck around and great things happen. Jer’ is a sniper, so we try to pass him the puck as much as we can [so that] he can snipe whenever he wants.
“Mika is a sniper as well as a playmaker. It’s been a lot fun to play with those guys,” added Pelletier.
At 5’8’’ and 154 pounds, Pelletier hasn’t shied away from physical play throughout the season, almost embracing the challenge to play in traffic.
“For sure the guys are bigger, smarter and faster. They are quicker on you and they finish all of their checks,” confessed Pelletier about his first go at the junior level. “It’s been an adjustment for the first few months, but now I think it’s good. Again, I’m just trying to do what I did last year.”
Pelletier is spending more time in the gym this season and believes that it will pay dividends in the upcoming playoffs. He’s quick to credit Darren Rumble when it comes to the ease of his transition into the Q.
“Rums is a great teacher, he knows what you have to do to get to the next level,” said Pelletier of his bench boss. “He gives me a lot of ice time and, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting him to show that much confidence in me. It’s kind of cool, because I’m only sixteen!”
Pelletier’s spectacular rookie season hasn’t gone unnoticed either; the youngster is already attracting attention from NHL scouts. But the 2019 NHL Draft is the farthest thing from the young forward’s mind at this time.
“I’m not thinking about that right now. I’m trying to concentrate on the end of this season and the playoffs right now,” said Pelletier. “I want to have a great summer of training, and after that we are going to see what happens.”
One thing remains certain, the young phenom still has plenty of time and games to make a name for himself!
Making sense of hockey sense
by Craig Eagles – February 2, 2018
We hear about it all the time around the rink when people describe and analyze players. Unfortunately, the hockey market is oversaturated with clichés and buzzwords that misrepresent players all the time.
What is hockey sense? Why do we feel so compelled to label or mislabel players because of it? Are players more intelligent now then they were in the past?
You don’t have to watch a game for too long to pick out the select few players that have a high hockey IQ… or do you? It all depends on how you truly analyze the game; is it the winger that makes a nice play off the half boards for a clean breakout, or the defenseman that makes a solid first pass who is playing smarter?
We have overused the term so much that we think that it takes phenomenal hockey sense for players to pull some plays off. Sure, it takes skill and repetition, but most plays should be entrenched in a player’s DNA from the time they laced them up in youth hockey.
So how do we classify hockey sense, or a high hockey IQ?
For me, if a player can see the game two plays ahead, is spatially aware and can recognize where his opponents and teammates are at any given time on the ice, and can process all of that at top speed, he possesses a high hockey IQ.
Are players in this era smarter? Can hockey sense be taught?
One thing is clear: the junior game is a lot faster than it used to be, and players have to process the game differently. That is when a player with great hockey sense usually stands out right away.
I believe hockey sense can be taught. But the real question that should be asked is; is it being taught, developed and emphasized enough at the youth hockey levels? It’s clear the QMJHL is producing quality players and the overall skill level in the league is very high, but it could perhaps be better is players learned more of the fundamentals early on in their careers.
So what sets players apart? That’s easy: skill, speed and… hockey sense!
It’s not difficult to see who the best and most complete players are in the QMJHL because their skill is on display every shift. But it’s the future NHL stars that will go above and beyond the basics. Those players have an uncanny ability of playing the game, and thinking the game, on an entirely different level.
Nico Hischier was a perfect example of this last season. If Hischier was struggling offensively, he would make an outstanding defensive play that left you in awe. That’s the wow factor NHL scouts are looking for in a player.
Scouts see the game differently; they break down the player’s subtle nuances and analyze every aspect of their game. At the forefront of every scout’s analysis and projection in the game today are two intangibles: can the player skate? And can he think the game at the next level?
There are quite a few current up-and-coming QMJHL players that standout in those two areas. I first saw Alexis Lafrenière (Rimouski) and Samuel Poulin (Sherbrooke) play at the QMJHL Combine in Blainville, Quebec, last April. They stood out for a number of reasons, but it was their understanding of the game and their awareness on the ice that jumped out at me right away.
The third overall pick in last June’s QMJHL Entry Draft, Jakob Pelletier (Moncton) is another player who displays an innate ability to read, analyze, slow down or speed up the game when he has the puck on his stick. Pelletier, along with Poulin and Lafrenière, is a special player who possesses tremendous individual skill. When matched with their high hockey sense and IQ, they all display a lethal combination.
Sure, hockey sense can be taught through practices. It can be honed and refined with video analysis. But when it comes naturally, it’s truly a sight to behold and appreciate!
A shout-out for the Titan from one of the franchise’s best
by Peter Assaff – January 26, 2018
For every player who has a long career in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, there comes a time when they go from being a prospect to becoming a bona fide starter.
For former Acadie-Bathurst Titan netminder Adam Russo, that moment came during a meeting with then head coach Real Paiement midway through his rookie season.
“The moment that probably marked me the most was when Real brought me into his office,” recalled the 2003 QMJHL and Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the year. “He said to me ‘Adam do you want to be a number one? Or do you want to be a backup for the rest of your junior career?’”
That was December of 2000, when the 17-year-old Montreal native had been playing backup to veteran Simon Lajeunesse, who was a second-round draft pick of the Ottawa Senators.
Russo had been drafted by Acadie-Bathurst six months earlier; on the same day the Titan swung a multi-player deal with the Moncton Wildcats that included acquiring Lajeunesse.
The trade was supposed to help Acadie-Bathurst become a contender that season. But early on the team and Lajeunesse both struggled, leading to the firing of head coach Roger Dejoie less than two months into the start of the campaign.
Roughly a month after replacing Dejoie behind the Titan bench, Paiement summoned Russo into his office.
“(Paiement) saw that I was just trying to sit back and let Lajeunesse do his thing,” recalls Russo. “I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but he asked me ‘Do you want to be the guy that does everything?’
“I said that obviously I wanted to be a number one, so he said ‘to get in there and take the net. Don’t respect (Lajeunesse) as much as you do. Take it.’”
That conversation, Russo said, was the turning point of his career. By January, he had wrestled the number one spot away from Lajeunesse and wound up leading the Titan all the way to the President’s Cup final in his rookie season.
“I was 17-years-old and wasn’t sure what the coach was going to tell me,” said Russo, who returned to Bathurst this week to be honoured by the Titan as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations.
“But after that I finished the season with 35 games played. We did pretty well, finished the season strong and went to the finals.”
Now 34-years-old, Russo still plays professionally with Saint-Georges de Beauce of the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH). He also runs a goaltending school, where he passes along the wisdom he’s learned from his playing days.
Wisdom he learned from coaches like Paiement.
“It was all a learning process,” he said. “[Paiement] set me straight. He is probably one of the best coaches I ever had in my career. He’s got the hockey knowledge, but he also has the psychological knowledge too. He knows how to treat his players and how to get the most out of his players. I think he got the most out of me, of what I could do in my junior career anyway.”
Russo led the Titan to a pair of Presidents Cup final appearances in 2001 and 2002, the last time the club has gone that far in the playoffs. He also finished his career with a handful of league records, some of which still stand today.
Those records include 23 career shutouts, regular season and playoffs combined, as well as nine playoff shutouts. He is also still tied for the most regular season shutouts in a single season, with seven.
When his junior career was over, Russo played five seasons in Europe, four in Italy where he won a pair of league titles and represented that country at four World Hockey Championships, before returning home to North America to keep playing the game he loves.
He still follows the Titan too, and has some advice for his former team and their fans as they try to make a return trip to the league finals for the first time since 2002.
“The biggest thing I would say is just enjoy every moment of it,” said Russo. “Every single playoff run was amazing. That whole thing of bringing the team together and building [towards] something that was amazing, that ended up being pretty awesome.”
With two months left in the regular season, the Titan have a lot of hockey left to play before they can even think about making a long playoff run. That being said, as someone who’s been there before, Russo knows there is a lot of work to be done and there are no shortcuts along the way.
“To be honest with you, if you have that opportunity to take a run at it, just do every little thing possible,” he advised. “It really is the teams that do the little things right, that put in the extra little effort and the commitment and the dedication. It is all those little things that will make the difference in the end, especially in a playoff run.”
“As a player you only have four, maybe five years if you come in as a 16-year-old, to actually have an opportunity to win something – and not a lot of people do. There is only one championship every year, and 18 teams fighting for it, and you get fives chances max…so take advantage of every moment.”
That goes for fans too, who Russo said played a big part in the team’s success back when he was the final line of defence for the club.
“As fans, just enjoy every minute of it because you never know when, or if, you’ll get a chance [to see it] again.”
It’s been 16 years since the Titan made it all the way to the league finals, and nearly 20 since they earned a trip to the Memorial Cup. If they get a chance to do it again this year, one thing is for sure, one of the best players to ever play for the team will be cheering them along every step of the way.
They’re all watching
by Craig Eagles – January 18, 2018
A season ago, Nico Hischier was their main attraction. And again this season, the Halifax Mooseheads are one of the most watched QMJHL teams.
Why you ask? Easy. They boast a plethora of high-end NHL draft eligible prospects, almost forcing National Hockey League scouts to flock to Moose Country in hopes of landing a future star.
For Benoit-Oliver Groulx, Jared McIsaac, Alexis Gravel and Filip Zadina, it’s a matter of dealing with the pressure together, as a group.
“Obviously there are a lot of distractions”, admitted Groulx. “But we have a couple of guys going through the [same] situation, so we can help each other a lot. We are trying to eliminate every distraction possible.”
“There [are] four of us going through the process right now”, said McIsaac. “I think we are all leaning on each other for the most part, and helping each other through that. The team does a really good job minimizing the distractions as well.”
The players getting help from the team over their draft year isn’t all that surprising. Over the course of their history, the Mooseheads have had countless high-profile NHL prospects in their lineup and have done a fantastic job in managing any potential distractions associated with the extra attention they were getting.
Balancing the distractions, pressure and high expectations in a draft year can be daunting. Filip Zadina, the Mooseheads Czech Republic import star has already met with both the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers, but is trying to remain focused on his first QMJHL season.
Zadina has adapted quickly to the North American game; the 18-year-old sits third in the QMJHL scoring race with 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in 35 games. He also boasts a strong two-way game that has drawn comparisons to Nico Hischier.
However, the soft-spoken native of Pardubice, Czech Republic, is quick to point out that the current NHL rankings aren’t a distraction for him.
“I’m just focusing on my hockey life right now, not on some rankings”, he said. “I just want to focus and play hockey.”
Some NHL scouts have already planned their one-on-one meetings with the Halifax prospects to ensure their opportunity to get to know the Mooseheads players on more a personal level.
As for McIsaac, he credits Mooseheads head coach Jim Midgley for helping in the process as well. The pair has worked with each other since their days with the Nova Scotian team that participated at the Canada Games.
“I’ve known [Midgley] for four or five years now. He’s been really good for this program, and he’s been a huge part of my development through the years,” said McIsaac.
The quiet and confident McIsaac can play in any situation, and boasts a complete game from the backend. His offensive instincts, coupled with his strong defensive presence, make him arguably one of the best defencemen in the QMJHL.
On Benoit-Olivier Groulx’s end, he is aware of the expectations that come in a draft year, but feels he doesn’t necessarily have to change his style of play to get noticed.
“Obviously there is some pressure offensively, but I don’t want to put too much on myself. If I can play the way I’m supposed to play, the chances are going to come”, he stated. “I have to concentrate defensively in order to go in the offensive zone, so I don’t want to worry too much about my game.”
Groulx possesses a great two-way game and is one of the most complete players in the league at the center position. He is a strong skater with great edge control and balance, which makes him tough to contain in one-on-one battles all over the ice.
Despite that Groulx’s father, Benoit, coaches at the American Hockey League level, he is content handling the process on his own for now.
“My dad knows a lot about scouts and everything going into your draft year”, he explained. “But we haven’t talked a lot [about it] actually. He’s doing his thing, and I’m doing mine. And if I have some questions, I’ll ask him for sure.”
It’ll definitely be interesting to see where the Mooseheads players do end up going in the NHL’s upcoming draft. But for now, all eyes are on them to see if they can keep the Halifax squad atop the QMJHL’s overall standings.
A Memorable Journey
by Craig Eagles – January 9, 2018
Noah Dobson’s journey to the QMJHL has been unique to say the least.
At 15 years old, Dobson suited up for the Red Bull Hockey Academy based in Salzburg, Austria. The next year, he was being selected 6th overall by the Acadie-Bathurst Titan in the 1st round of the 2016 QMJHL Entry Draft.
“My European experience was great, the facilities at Red Bull were incredible,” said the Summerside, PEI product. “I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience Europe. Not many 15-year-olds get to live in Europe on their own for a year. You could say I lived a hockey player’s dream!”
There is no doubt living on his own, on a different continent, helped the young 2018 NHL Draft Prospect grow not only as a player, but as a person as well. However, Dobson is quick to point out the impact his parents have had on his life and career.
“Everyone has played a part in helping me grow in the game, most importantly my parents”, said the soft-spoken defenseman. “Without them I wouldn’t be where I am today. Whether it was getting me to the rink on time or just supporting me, I can’t thank them enough.”
Dobson burst on the QMJHL scene a season ago when he amassed 26 points in 63 games as a 16-year-old rookie. The 6’3’’ right-shooting defenseman possesses tremendous individual skills, a great hockey sense, and superb instincts. He provides a solid two-way presence for the Titan, and has really blossomed in head coach Mario Pouliot’s system.
“My experience in the Q has been great so far. I was able to get a lot of experience and playing time and learned a lot last year,” said Dobson. “Mario has been great for my development, he really gave me a lot of opportunities as a 16-year-old [and] I feel the experience I gained last year has helped me get off to a strong start this year.”
Dobson has already surpassed his point production from a season ago and, following the latest trade deadline, currently sits 4th in team scoring with 39 points in 41 games.
Dobson’s skill, size and style of play have certainly attracted many NHL scouts, but he understands the high expectations, pressure and potential distractions that may also come from having all those eyes on him.
“Getting drafted into the NHL would be a dream come true for me, it’s something I have dreamt of as a kid and something I’m continuously working towards”, he said. “Obviously there’s a lot of pressure and hype [with] this being my Draft year, but I’m trying not to pay too much attention to that and I’m trying to block out the noise.”
“My main focus is on what I can control and that’s my play on the ice. I just want to keep improving my game each year and help the team win every night,” said the blueliner.
The Acadie-Bathurst Titan looks poised to become one of top teams in the QMJHL this season and is building in hopes to land a President Cup title. The Titan is currently tied for sixth place in the standings with 50 points in 41 games, which is just seven points shy of the QMJHL’s top spot.
“I think after the [trade] deadline it’s an exciting time to try to put together a run. We have a great group of guys here, which makes it enjoyable coming to the rink each day,” said Dobson. “Last season’s playoff experience is really going to help us down the stretch.”
In the meantime, Dobson will try and close off the regular season by keeping nearly a point-per-game pace in the hopes of leading his team deep into the post-season, and hopefully adding a few milestones to his already memorable journey.
Here is an interview I recently conducted with Dobson:
On the move
by Peter Assaff – December 22, 2017
For many players in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, a trip home for the holidays could also be the start of a new chapter in their playing careers, with several being traded at this time of the year each and every season.
With the junior circuit’s annual holiday trading period underway since December 18, general managers are busy wheeling and dealing and looking for ways to improve their respective teams before the January 6 deadline.
For some, that help will come in the way of players that will have an immediate impact. While for others, prospects and draft picks acquired over the next few weeks will pay dividends down the road.
One thing is for sure, though, you can expect many moves to be made once again this year.
Last season, for example, a total of 50 trades were made over the three-week period. The Moncton Wildcats led the way with 11 moves, involving 18 players and 20 draft picks changing hands.
The Wildcats were at the beginning of a rebuilding process and saw several of their elite players move on to new destinations in exchange for pieces that will help them get stronger in the future. For other teams, the reason to make big moves is to help them get one step closer to contending for a President’s Cup championship.
Looking back over the past seven seasons, beginning with the 2010-2011 season, the Acadie-Bathurst Titan have been the most active on the trade front, making a total of 57 trades. That’s an average of just over eight moves during the holiday trade period each year. The Titan also holds the mark for most holiday trades in a single season during that period, with 14 coming in the 2012-2013 season alone.
This year looks to be no different for long-time Acadie-Bathurst general manager Sylvain Couturier, who had already pulled the trigger on five deals by the end of the third day of the current trading period. With the Titan expected to be among a handful of teams vying for a league title by season’s end, Couturier promised more moves over the coming days.
Other teams to keep an eye on, if history repeats itself, are the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. They are second only to Acadie-Bathurst for the amount of trades made between the 2010-2011 and 2016-2017 holiday trading periods, with a total of 52. That represents an average of 7.43 trades a season. The Quebec Remparts and Victoriaville Tigres follow with an average of 6.43 each; while the Chicoutimi Sagueneens and Shawinigan Cataractes are close by at 6.14 each.
On the other end of the scale are the Halifax Mooseheads, who are the least likely trade partners at this time of the year, averaging just three trades each holiday trade period. The Mooseheads have made just one holiday trade twice since the 2010-2011 season.
Interestingly enough, the 2013-2014 Saint John Sea Dogs is the only other QMJHL team to make just one holiday trade, with every other team making at least two deals each and every year.
A total of 16 trades were made during the first three days of this year’s holiday trade period, with 18 players already changing teams. With so much parity in the QMJHL and a trip to the Memorial Cup on the line next spring, expect a lot more moves by the time the holiday trade period officially comes to an end.
QTalk | Mitchell Balmas reflects on monumental performance at Outdoor Game
by Peter Roumeliotis – December 19, 2017
On Sunday December 17th, 2017, the Gatineau Olympiques got the chance to be involved in something special and historic.
With the NHL 100 Classic taking place at TD Place on Saturday, a Canadian Hockey League inter-league outdoor game between the QMJHL’s Olympiques and the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s took place the very next day.
The Olympiques won the historic bout by a score of 4-1, and a huge reason for that victory was forward Mitchell Balmas’ performance. The Sydney, Nova Scotia, native put on a show for the fans with a hat trick performance, one that will go down in the Canadian Hockey League’s record books as the first hat trick ever scored in one of its outdoor games.
Balmas, who is now playing in his fourth season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, originally began his career with the Charlottetown Islanders, before being traded to Gatineau last year. The 19-year-old is currently on pace to top his career high of 51 points in a Q season, having already racked up 37 points in 35 games.
Following his monumental performance at TD place, I had the honor and privilege to catch up with Balmas and chat about his experience in the Outdoor Game. Here is our Q and A.
PR: “Can you talk about the excitement surrounding the original announcement that your team would be part of this inter-league game?”:
MB: “Yeah, it was pretty exciting finding out we would be playing in the game against Ottawa. Even though they are a team from another league, there’s already a little rivalry between us and the 67’s.”
PR: “Is it safe to say that this event was circled on the calendar since the start of the season?”
MB: “Oh for sure. Ever since they announced the game and that there was a chance of it being played outdoors, it was on our minds. Very fun to be part of.”
PR: “Take us through your hat trick. What was going through your mind during the game and after scoring each goal?”
MB: “It was great to be able to help the team out like that. During the game you can’t think about it too much and have to stay focused on your next shift. But once the game is done, it is nice to look back at it.”
PR: “Do you think that this outcome will have a big effect on your game for the rest of the season? What about for the Olympiques as a whole?”
MB: “Yeah for sure it gives myself and our team confidence knowing we can play with any team in our league and now with another team in another league.”
PR: “Finally, can you talk about the atmosphere at TD Place? How cold was it?”
MB: “The Gatineau fans were awesome making the trip over. They were even the 7th player at an away game. It was cold for sure, [but] once you’re playing and get into the game, you warm up! It was a fantastic game to be a part of and I will remember it forever.”
A Road Less Travelled
by Craig Eagles – December 14, 2017
Drake Batherson has taken the road less travelled to accomplish his dreams in the game of hockey. His journey has been unconventional to say the least, but the nineteen-year old certainly has no regrets.
“It was a longer journey to the QMJHL for me compared to other players,” said the Fort Wayne, Indiana, product. “Being passed over in the Q draft [in] my first year eligible was tough, but I knew my time would come soon enough.”
Batherson has fully accepted and embraced his non-linear path in the game. “Playing another year of Midget at sixteen was great for my development,” he said. “I ended up getting drafted after that season, and finally got to attend my first QMJHL camp at seventeen.”
Batherson was selected in the 6th round, 97th overall, by the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in 2015. But his dream to play in the QMJHL was put on hold yet again when he didn’t make the Screaming Eagles out of camp.
“I had a strong camp but got cut late, and obviously was very disappointed,” he remembers. “But I moved on and had another year to develop, and got faster and stronger.”
At 18, Batherson was ready to leave his mark on the QMJHL. The late-bloomer had a dominant performance in 2016-17, amassing 22 goals and 36 assists for 58 points in the 61 games he played with the Screaming Eagles.
And Batherson’s body of work didn’t go unnoticed by NHL scouts, especially Ottawa Senators Chief Amateur Scout, Trent Mann.
“Drake worked extremely hard last [season] and progressed very quickly. He gained confidence early [on] and ran with it,” Mann said. “The play is never dead with Drake, something happens almost every shift. He possesses exceptional puck skills, great vision and offensive sense. Drake also shoots the puck well, so he can hurt you in a number of different ways,” Mann explained.
And Batherson’s ability to play the prototypical power forward style of game contributed to one of the top lines in the QMJHL a season ago. “Giovanni Fiore, Massimo Carozza and Drake did most of the scoring last year for the Screaming Eagles. They seemed to have complemented each other very well,” added Mann.
The Ottawa Senators ended liking Batherson’s play enough to warrant selecting him in the 4th round, 121st overall, in last June’s NHL Entry Draft.
“It was truly a dream come true to be drafted to the NHL and so surreal when it happened,” Batherson said. “Having my family there with me was amazing. They have done so much for me and my hockey career, I can’t thank them enough!”
Drake is quick to point to his father as a beacon of knowledge when it comes to the game of hockey and life. “My father has definitely been the biggest help to me from day one. Everything I learned growing up was from him,” said the Senators prospect.
It’s no coincidence Batherson’s father, Norm, also played professionally for fourteen years. “Anytime my dad wasn’t playing or on the road, he would bring me on the ice and just help me work on my game,” Batherson remembers.
Hard work and dedication is imprinted in Drake’s DNA, and that certainly paid off this off-season. “When I saw him in August at the NHL Rookie Tournament, I noticed the skill level,” Mann said. “[I] then double-checked to see if it was the same kid as he was significantly bigger than the year before,” Mann said.
“I worked out at Pro Edge Sports Conditioning and they were really beneficial on my strength and speed improvements on and off the ice,” explained Batherson. “Jill Plandowski helped my skating, while Darrell Plandowski helped me with my skill work.”
After a strong Development Camp and Rookie Tournament, the Senators’ organization felt there was no reason to wait before signing Batherson. “I would be surprised if he isn’t in Belleville next year, with our American Hockey League affiliate,” said Mann.
“With a good finish [to this season] and another strong summer, he could have a real impact at that level next year,” Mann went on to add. “Obviously some things need to happen before, but the potential is there.”
As for Batherson, he is well aware of what it’ll take for him to play hockey professionally. “I’m trying to develop and improve all aspects of my game this season. I want to be a consistent player every night,” he explained.
Batherson’s story of perseverance and dedication to his craft is truly remarkable.
“My advice to young kids being passed over, or being cut from teams, is just to keep chasing your dreams. Your time will come,” he says. “I knew I had it in me to make it to the next level, I just had to keep working and developing my game.”
Rebuilding with experience
by Peter Assaff – December 11, 2017
The Val d’Or Foreurs have one of the youngest teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season, with 11 of the 24 players on their roster aged 17 or younger.
What they lack in experience on the ice, though, they make up for behind the bench with the one of the winningest coaches in league history.
Current bench boss Mario Durocher made his coaching debut in the QMJHL over 20 years ago, and is on the verge of joining some pretty elite company. Entering action on December 11, Durocher was just two wins away from 500 career QMJHL regular season victories.
Only three other coaches, Richard Martel (589), Guy Chouinard (569) and Real Paiement (541) have reached that plateau. And with 498 wins in 941 games behind the bench, Durocher has the best winning percentage among all four.
“I’m still here,” he chuckled while visiting a familiar building last week, the K. C. Irving Regional Centre in Bathurst, where he coached from 2004 to 2006. “Everywhere I went was a good experience,” he added. “People are nice here and they enjoy their hockey. I have good memories [from] everywhere I went, and Bathurst is one of those places.”
Durocher began his Major Junior coaching career with Sherbrooke, when he stepped behind the bench for one game during the 1993-94 season. Since then, he has gone on to coach Victoriaville, Sherbrooke again, Lewiston, Acadie-Bathurst, Cape Breton, and Val d’Or. To nobody’s surprise, he leads all active coaches in games coached and in wins.
As a matter of fact, when the Foreurs hit the ice to play the Halifax Mooseheads last Friday, Durocher moved past Gaston Drapeau into sole possession of fourth place in games coached in QMJHL history. Again, he trails only Martel (1,171), Chouinard (1,121) and Paiement (1,101) in that department.
His 140 playoff games coached is also fourth in league history, behind the names of Benoit Groulx (166), Chouinard (153) and Paiement (150). His résumé also includes a pair of President’s Cup wins, with Victoriaville in 2002 and more recently with Val d’Or, in 2014.
With that many games under his belt, Durocher has been at the helm of a lot of different types of teams during his career. This year, Val d’Or is rebuilding with youth and nearly half of the players Durocher is coaching weren’t even born when he started his first full season behind a QMJHL bench, back in 2000-2001 with the Victoriaville Tigres.
A few weeks back, for example, the Foreurs had 10 rookies in their lineup against Bathurst – including six players who have yet to celebrate their 17th birthdays. “[Being] so young makes a difference in your team,” said Durocher, pointing out that a 68-game season is quite a jump from Midget AAA for rookies.
As rewarding as it is to help young players develop, it also comes with its own set of challenges.
“Travelling is also a big thing,” said Durocher. “We are lucky that we fly to the Maritimes, but we are the only team doing that. They are kids, they are going to school. We are close to exams, and we are close to Christmas, so there is a lot of stuff going on right now. It is not easy.”
Despite those challenges, Durocher is happy with the way his team is playing. “If you look at the game [against Acadie-Bathurst] it was 1-1 after two periods,” said Durocher, of the 5-1 Titan win. “We were there, but it was experience that made the difference at the end.”
And for Val-d’Or’s young players, they are gaining that experience from one of the best to ever step behind a QMJHL bench.
Alain and Barré-Boulet on a mission for the Armada
by Peter Roumeliotis – December 5, 2017
One of the hottest teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League right now is the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada.
The Armada is currently in first place in the Q, having already won 19 of its first 26 games. The team is also an outstanding 8-2-0 in its last 10 games, and boasts the league’s best power play percentage this season.
Up there with the Armada are teams like the Rimouski Oceanic, and the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. For Rimouski, their 2017 first overall pick, Alexis Lafrenière, has been nothing short of brilliant in his highly anticipated rookie season.
For Acadie Bathurst, NHL prospects Antoine Morand (Anaheim Ducks) and German Rubstov (Philadelphia Flyers) are playing key roles for their team. While these two teams have well-known players contributing for them, it’s a whole different story for the Armada.
So, who is leading the Blainville-Boisbriand squad? Look no further than two 20-year-old undrafted forwards named Alex Barré-Boulet and Alexandre Alain.
Barré-Boulet came over to the Armada last year in a trade from Drummondville where he had spent two full seasons. He had a career-high 89 points in 65 games in 2015-2016, and he is on pace to surpass that total this season. In 25 games, Barré-Boulet is now up to 22 goals and 23 assists. It’s also worth noting that he is only seven goals away from matching the amount of goals he had in all of last season.
On the other hand, team captain Alexandre Alain, formerly of the Gatineau Olympiques, has been absolutely explosive this season. He’s already scored 14 goals and has 20 assists in the 25 games he’s played. That puts him less than 20 points away from having back-to-back seasons in which he’ll have amassed 50 points or more for the Armada.
The production that these two 20-year-old forwards are delivering for Blainville-Boisbriand is at an elite level and “the Alex’s” are out to show that they can be relied upon as big-time players.
And so far, it’s mission accomplished for both Alain and Barré-Boulet!
by Craig Eagles – November 30, 2017
When Luke Green made the decision to move on from the Saint John Sea Dogs organization, he truly believed it was the right move for his career.
The Bedford, N.S., product wanted to take a different path in the QMJHL, even if it meant leaving behind his twin brother Matt, and a team destined for a President Cup. The highly skilled rearguard was traded from the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Sherbrooke Phoenix during the 2016 season.
The gifted offensive defencemen had flourished in the Port City, racking up 77 points through his first two seasons with the Sea Dogs.
“Deals of this magnitude, when you are talking about a former first overall pick and a player of Luke’s status, take months to consummate,” said Sea Dogs GM and President, Trevor Georgie.
“Trading Luke allowed us to accumulate assets to make other moves we felt [were] necessary to compete for a Memorial Cup. Sherbrooke’s first round selection in 2018 was a key piece to our acquisition of Simon Bourque,” he pointed out.
“The 2018 second round selection was a component of our trade to bring in Julien Gauthier for our President Cup run. And the final second round selection in 2020 is still in our possession,” Georgie added.
Considering the Sea Dogs depth on defence, along with Thomas Chabot’s ascension to the role of a number one defenceman, Green’s time on ice took a hit in 2016-2017. He felt a change of scenery would help his overall progression as a player. “The decision was difficult, but it was the right move for my hockey career,” said Green.
Georgie still remembers the phone call he made to the talented defenceman, informing him of the trade. “I like Luke a lot, obviously he has some incredible gifts. He was calm, polite, thankful for the opportunity, and optimistic about what was next,” remembered Georgie.
“He was looking forward to a fresh start with Sherbrooke,” said Georgie. “I am disappointed for him, and disappointed for Jocelyn [Thibault] that he was injured at [the] Winnipeg [Jets’] camp this year. I look forward to him being back in action soon.”
The Phoenix missed the playoffs a season ago and for the first time in Green’s QMJHL career, he wasn’t playing in the post-season. Instead, he ended up watching his former club win it all.
“I was excited for them to win the President Cup, the players earned it,” Green said.
Despite not having won a league championship, the blueliner’s strong play over his first two seasons in Saint John didn’t go unnoticed. As a matter of fact, the Winnipeg Jets selected Green in the 3rd round, 79th overall, of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
“Getting drafted was very exciting,” said Green. “I knew I just became a part of one of the best organizations and fan bases in hockey.”
Green was signed to an amateur tryout agreement with Winnipeg’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Manitoba Moose last March. And with the Phoenix held out of the playoffs, Green got to enjoy his first taste of professional hockey.
“It was an amazing experience, it was so much fun,” said Green. “It helped my game tremendously to see what it’s like at the pro level.”
Green entered the off-season with a new outlook on his career and was looking forward to having a massive impact with the Phoenix. “This was the best summer I had ever had in terms of training. I was in the best shape of my life before getting injured.”
The nineteen-year-old dislocated his shoulder while attending the Jets’ training camp in September. The injury required surgery, and nearly 20 weeks of recovery.
“I think the training that I did put in this summer has enhanced the quality of my recovery and expected timeline,” explained Green. “My rehab is going very smoothly so far, I don’t want to put dates out there for my return, but I can say that I’m on the [right] track.”
“Luke has worked tremendously hard to get back as soon as possible,” added Phoenix GM, Jocelyn Thibault. “If everything keeps going the way it has been, Luke should be back playing sooner than expected.”
At the time, the idea of missing half of the 2017-2018 QMJHL season was obviously extremely disappointing for Green. But his smile quickly came back when, a few days after his injury, the Jets officially signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
For now though, Green is anxiously awaiting the opportunity to get back on the ice. But he understands and accepts the rehabilitation process.
“I’m going to begin skating in two weeks, but I have been in the gym almost every day, building and maintaining my strength and conditioning,” explained the Jets prospect. “This is a big year for myself and the Phoenix [and] I want to help the team make a long run.”
Green isn’t shy when sharing his future plans and is trying to move forward from the injury that has kept him away from the game he loves.
“My goal is to play pro next year,” he admits. “Sure, the injury was frustrating. But it is part of the game and I’m focused on coming back even better.”
“Luke is a big part of our team and defensive core,” said Thibault. “His loss has been important for us, to say the least. He can log a lot of playing time because of his skating ability, stamina and overall talent and we sure look forward to having him back.”
Sherbrooke currently sits 9th overall in the QMJHL standings with 31 pts through 28 games. Green’s return would definitely bolster the team’s overall performance, and could propel the Phoenix into the upper echelon of the league.
The net view
by Peter Assaff – November 24, 2017
The view from the crease is unlike any other in hockey.
Rather than moving up and down the ice with the flow of the puck, a goaltender spends his time either under attack or watching the action from the other end of the ice.
A hero on some nights, it can be very frustrating, to say the least, on others. But one thing is for sure, it certainly offers a unique perspective on the game.
Nearly midway through his fourth season in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, 19-year-old netminder Reilly Pickard of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan has seen it all.
“My first year we weren’t a really good team. We were young and I was getting 40 or 50 shots a game, but now it is different,” said the Halifax, N.S. native. “Now there are five, 10-minute, stretches where we don’t leave the other team’s end and that is pretty cool to watch.”
Originally drafted by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar back in 2014, Pickard was traded to the Titan midway through his rookie season.
The Titan missed the playoffs that year, and Pickard went just 2-13 following the trade with a 3.82 goals against average and an .888 save percentage.
Still, he showed promise and followed that up with a solid sophomore campaign where he helped his squad return to the post-season with a 25-25 record, along with a 3.15 goals against average and a .902 save percentage.
After moving up to sixth in the league’s overall standings last year, and winning their first playoff series in close to a decade, the Titan are currently fighting for first place in the Maritime Division.
“It is great to watch the players work,” he said. “It is tough for me sometimes, not getting a lot of shots. But it is really fun to watch these guys go to work and I know that they are always going to have my back.”
That is especially true for the defence corps in front of him, especially with veteran Adam Holwell and sophomore Noah Dobson.
“It is really a pleasure to work with these guys. I have seen a lot of groups over the course of my career, but this one right now seems pretty special,” said Pickard. “Holwell has been around the block, five years in the league. He’s been far in the playoffs and he knows what it takes. I am always asking him what I can do better to help him out,” he added.
“And Noah [is] only in his second year, but he is mature beyond his years. He wants to learn, and I want to learn from him. He is an unbelievable talent so whatever I can do to help him out, and help him help our team, I am going to do.”
“It is not just those two though; it is all six of our D and all 12 of our forwards,” mentioned the goaltender. “We’ve just got to help each other out on the ice. That’s something that goes a long way.”
As for his own game, Pickard entered action on Nov. 24 sitting fourth overall with a 2.41 goals against average and says he is constantly working to get better every day.
“I am just trying to get better at all the little things,” he said. “Once you get to this level everybody is talented, but you want to be able to separate yourself with the little things. Obviously, I’m not the biggest goalie so I work on my battle level and being able to see pucks through screens.”
“This year, I think teams are trying to get to me [by] getting bodies in front of me and trying to get traffic and tips. That is something I’ve struggled with to begin this year, so I’m definitely working on that and just trying to get better every day,” said Pickard.
“Something I’ve learned in my four years here is that you’ve got to show up every day and you’ve got to be ready to go when the puck drops. Obviously, it is still early in the season, but right now we seem to have a good thing going. Hopefully we can build on that, and end up where we want to be.”
And while Pickard is currently enjoying the view from his crease, it’s the rest of the hockey world that is enjoying watching him play.
Big opportunity for a big player
by Peter Roumeliotis – November 21, 2017
The QMJHL regular season is long and full of opportunities for players to learn, grow, and flourish.
And for the past 15 years, the CIBC Canada Russia Series has been a dream occasion for some of the QMJHL’s best players to prove their worth. In this year’s Series – one that ended just under a week ago – Canada topped the Russians overall in the Series, with lots of help coming from Team QMJHL.
For players in the Q, this event has plenty of meaning and is an opportunity for each of them to write their own story. The younger players want to impress, but are also there to learn and build. The older players want to demonstrate that they belong, and that their time has finally come to show that they can play at the world-class level.
A player who is currently in between the learning and establishing stages is Gatineau Olympiques forward, Shawn Boudrias. Originally drafted by the Charlottetown Islanders, Boudrias is entering his fourth season in the Q and believes that the Canada Russia Series served as a purpose to elevate his game and help him reach the next level.
“It was great to play with some of the best players,” Boudrias stated. “Getting the opportunity to play with them helps me grow as a player.”
Boudrias impressed at the Series, putting up a goal in his two games for Team QMJHL. He also had six shots on goal, which tied him for most on the team with Peter Abbandonato and Pascal Laberge. But one element of Boudrias’ game which made him noticeable was his ability to play a big man’s game. At 6’4” and 212 pounds, he truly takes advantage of his size.
“I am a big body out there, so I tried to be more physical and use my body to not only get pucks, but to protect them,” he admits.
Boudrias is certainly learning and growing year after year. Currently on pace for a career high in the QMJHL, the Laval native has already posted 14 points in 18 games. With or without opportunities like the Canada Russia Series, the goal for Boudrias has never changed, and will not change; he’s aiming to make a living by playing hockey professionally.
“The series will help me because it showed me how people prepare themselves before games and how to be a professional,” said Boudrias, who wants to bring his learnings back to the Olympiques locker room. “The goal [now] is to have a good season, and try to get drafted [in the NHL]”.
With big opportunities coming the big player’s way, it’s safe to say that Boudrias is dialed in and well-equipped to face any challenge.
At Home Behind the Bench
by Craig Eagles – November 16, 2017
Darren Rumble is at home behind the bench. Most would say he’s a natural.
The charismatic bench boss from Barrie, Ontario is entering his fifth season at the helm of the Moncton Wildcats and has become one of the most respected coaches across the QMJHL.
In many ways, Rumble was a “marked man” upon his arrival to the Hub City five years ago. He would ultimately encounter the ever-present pressure to win, coupled with the normal high expectations of being the new coach in town.
With arguably the most passionate owner and fan base in the league, the pressure to produce a winner upon his arrival had to be daunting for the former Stanley Cup Champion.
“Any coach will always tell you there’s pressure, it’s a volatile way to make a living. But at the end of the day, we do it because we love it,” he explained.
Rumble’s enthusiastic style and passion for the game is infectious and it is clear that the former NHLer and American Hockey League Head Coach has brought a wealth of knowledge and experience to the QMJHL.
“Darren is a technical expert when it comes to the game,” said Wildcats Director of Hockey Operations, Roger Shannon.
Rumble led the Wildcats to back-to-back QMJHL semi final appearances in 2015 and 2016, only to endure junior hockey’s dreaded cycle a season later when the Wildcats decided to rebuild.
Rumble has since picked up the pieces of the rebuilding Wildcats and now has his squad playing inspired hockey; it currently sits 3rd overall in QMJHL standings with 28 points through 22 games.
When he faced the adversity of a season ago, Rumble continued to teach, reinforce and develop the Wildcats youthful core.
“Darren handled the rebuilding process well,” said Shannon. “It was obviously difficult to win games, but I think his positive attitude and ability to keep the spirits up was probably more important than any piece of the start of the rebuild.”
“Rums handled last season very professionally,” said Wildcats sniper Jeremy McKenna. “He always brought a positive attitude to the rink, and really focused on helping each guy get a little better every day.”
“Darren focuses on playing the game the right way, [by] making smart plays in both ends of the ice, and I think that’s how he helped me grow as a player,” added McKenna.
A fierce competitor in his playing days, Rumble brings the same passion, character and honesty to the role of head coach. “I think the rebuild has increased my inner drive and compete level,” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m just so motivated to do well this year.”
“We saw some good development in young players that we’ve moved forward with, they have all taken a huge step,” he explained. “And we have brought in some new young guys that are really high-end, and mixed in some good free agents.”
“The entire group is trending up and should be even stronger next year, which is quite exciting with the prospects of moving into a new building,” Rumble said.
On most nights, Rumble can be seen travelling up and down the bench intensely watching over and motivating his team. Very few coaches in the QMJHL are as engaged emotionally and fully invested as Darren Rumble.
Rumble’s attention to detail, intensity and trust in his players has built a team-first mentality in Moncton. His hands-on approach and defence-first system hold players accountable in all three zones.
His transparent coaching style and “in-game” teaching set him apart from other coaches across the league, and would translate well to a possible return to the professional coaching ranks.
Rumble’s talents behind the bench haven’t gone unnoticed either. Hockey Canada named named him as Head Coach of Canada’s National Men’s Under-18 Team for the 2017 IIHF U18 World Championship.
He was also an assistant coach for Team Canada’s Under-18 representatives at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Cup, where he won a gold medal in 2015 and renewed his spot behind the bench for the 2016 tournament.
And Rumble’s international coaching experience doesn’t end there. He won a bronze medal at the 2013 IIHF World Championship Division II as an assistant coach with none other than Team Iceland.
With the past and current success of the Wildcats organization, it’s only a matter of time before Rumble finds himself a new home behind an NHL bench. Nevertheless, his focus remains fixed on his current home.
“I’m focused on the Moncton Wildcats short term and long term. I’m extremely motivated this year [with] what we decided to do last year with the rebuild,” he said. “That furthermore enhanced my compete and inner drive. I’m just so motivated to do well this year.”
Rumble returns to familiar surroundings tonight. He is an assistant coach with Team QMJHL as it takes on Team Russia in Game 6 of the CIBC Canada Russia Series in Moncton.
A timely call
by Peter Assaff – November 10, 2017
Drop by the offices of Acadie-Bathurst Titan General Manager Sylvain Couturier and odds are you will find him on his phone.
But unlike so many people today, Couturier isn’t playing a game or checking his social media accounts.
No, the man they call ‘Sly’ spends most of his time talking to agents, scouts and other general managers – constantly working on ways to improve his Quebec Major Junior Hockey League team.
Couturier took over the role of general manager with the Titan in 2005, after having been both a player and coach with the team. Since that time, Acadie-Bathurst has consistently been one of the busiest teams in the Canadian Hockey League when trading period rolls around.
That’s why it should come as no surprise that Couturier managed to pull off a major trade well over a month before the league’s next trading period is set to begin. One that could have a major effect on the outcome of the QMJHL’s Maritime Division.
The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League has three trade periods each year; one at their annual entry draft, another just before the start of the regular season, and a third over the Christmas Holidays. This year’s holiday trading period runs from Dec. 18, 2017 to Jan. 6, 2018. Outside of that, only over-age players, draft picks, prospects, or European Imports can be moved from team to team.
“My job right now is to try to improve the team any way I can [but] I’m limited by what I can do,” said Couturier. “I am working hard to get more players here to help us improve our team. But besides free agents and (European) players, there isn’t much I can do.”
So, on Nov. 2, Couturier sent the rights to Russian forward Vladimir Kuznetsov, prospect Christopher Farmer, along with first, second and third round draft picks in 2020 to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens. In exchange, the Titan welcomed Russian forward German Rubstov and received a second-round pick in 2020.
For Couturier, it was time to make a move, and ultimately the trade came down to a pair of factors.
First, expectations remain high for the Titan this season, even though the team stumbled out of the gate. Secondly, Kuznetsov decided to stay in Russia this season after failing to generate any interest from National Hockey League teams during the two seasons he played with the Titan.
Rather than moving on from Kuznetsov right away though, Couturier continued to talk to the player and his agent in hopes of finding a way to get him to come back to the Titan. After months of talks, Couturier just couldn’t wait any longer and pulled the trigger on the deal.
The trade paid immediate dividends as well, with Rubstov helping the Titan to a pair of 6-3 wins over the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in his first two games with his new team on Nov. 3 and 4. Skating alongside veterans Antoine Morand and Jordan Maher, Rubstov, who was a first round draft pick of the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers in 2016, combined with his linemates for a goal and two assists in the first game.
In their second game with the Titan, the trio of Morand, Rubstov and Maher were respectively named the first three stars of the game and teamed up for a combined seven points and a plus/minus rating of +7.
The Titan hope that kind of production is a sign of things to come, and just the spark they need to make their way up in the standings.
With the league just past the quarter mark of the 2017-18 season, the Maritime Division looks to be very much up for grabs. Just a handful of points separate the top five teams in the division and, despite its tough start, the Titan is very much in the thick of things.
One week after making the trade to acquire Rubstov, the team trails the division-leading Moncton Wildcats by just three points in the standings, with a pair of games in hand.
For now at least, it looks like Couturier made the trade at just the right time. Just don’t be surprised if ‘Sly’ has a few more moves up his sleeve over the next couple of months.
One thing is for sure; you can bank on him spending plenty of time on his phone between now and then.
Morand looking to soar after training camp with Ducks
by Peter Roumeliotis – November 7, 2017
June 24th, 2017. This is a date that Acadie-Bathurst Titan forward Antoine Morand will never forget.
This was the day he got one step closer to his dream and was drafted to the National Hockey League, 60th overall, by the Anaheim Ducks.
For many players like Morand, the NHL entry draft will always represent a key moment of their hockey lives, because it’s the first chapter of a long novel career.
“It’s a feeling that you can’t really describe honestly” Morand admits. “Just hearing your name being called makes you realize that all the work you’ve done has paid off. And when you have a dream, you have to work for it and you will make it happen.”
Morand believes that his game has automatically been boosted after being drafted by the Ducks organization. A big part of this advance came from having the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere and experiences from both development camp and training camp this past summer.
“For sure being drafted elevates your game. You want to prove to the team that they made the right decision and I learned a lot in my first NHL camp.”
Morand put up 74 points in 67 games last season and is off to another good start this year with 19 points in 17 games for the Titan. While this is Morand’s third year in the Q, one could consider him a veteran in junior standards.
However, with his recent draft into the NHL, this year could involve the most learning and adapting the 18-year-old playmaker has ever had to make. And he is up for the challenge.
“I need to focus on the next objectives and keep working hard to bring my game to an NHL level” Morand states. “When you go to an NHL camp, you see what you need to do to be a professional and for sure I will try to bring that to my team this year.”
The little taste of NHL ambiance that Morand got with the Ducks seems to have been a refreshing and life-changing experience, one that he hopes to carry with him all year long in the Q.
“It was pretty cool to have that experience and opportunity” says Morand about a first taste of the NHL that left him in awe. “Corey Perry and Patrick Eaves came to see me. They told me that if I had any questions, to ask and to not be shy.”
Moving forward, there is no doubt that Morand will continue to do his very best to develop into an enhanced player, one who can one day make a permanent stay in the NHL.
A Different Kind of Pressure
by Craig Eagles – November 2, 2017
Joe Veleno has dealt with pressure and high expectations his entire life. Some would say he’s exceptional at handling it.
However, he has never felt the pressure and expectations that surround the NHL Entry Draft.
“I think the pressure is always going to be there, from now on in,” said Veleno.
A lot can happen in Joe Veleno’s world between now and June’s NHL Entry Draft.
The Saint John Sea Dogs Captain is trying to down play the increased attention and hype surrounding him this season.
“I’m trying not to think about it too much and worry about what you have to do, and focus on my own objectives and goals and try to help the team,” he said. “I think I’m doing a pretty good job at that, and trying to help the team win every night.”
Sea Dogs Head Coach Josh Dixon believes Veleno is handling the added pressure very well, but stresses the importance of not getting caught up in the hype.
“I think Joe’s maturity has really shown through. He’s our captain for a number of reasons; his leadership and his ability to demand excellence of himself each and every day raises the bar for our group,” said Dixon.
“Joe’s an individual in the moment. We’ve talked a lot this season about being where his feet are, about focusing on coming to the rink each and every day and enjoying the process of making himself a better hockey player in a number of different areas,” Dixon explained.
“June will take care of itself, the focus right now is being where his feet are and living in the moment,” he stressed.
Veleno is currently ranked in the first round of the 2017-2018 NHL Central Scouting Preliminary Players to Watch List. Most pundits are projecting Veleno to be a Top 5 selection come June.
Sea Dogs President and General Manager Trevor Georgie believes his young star isn’t phased by the current draft rankings.
“I don’t believe it is something that he follows or gives much attention to. Joe is confident, but very humble”, Georgie said. “He is focused on being our Captain here in Saint John and wants to get better and make his teammates better every single day.”
The Saint John Sea Dogs are struggling to score goals this season and Veleno admits he does feel a little added pressure to contribute offensively.
“I think our team is still coming along. We aren’t quite there yet, we still haven’t figured out some chemistry either, so that doesn’t really help,” explained Veleno. “But the guys are coming along well off the ice and we just have to put in the work on the ice, and I think everything will fall into place.”
Veleno credits the Sea Dogs organization for providing valuable advice and some time away given the potential distractions that come with NHL scouting meetings and interviews.
“The organization is helping me with that and making time for those meetings. Obviously they are trying to give me some breathing room and don’t want me going crazy with interviews and meetings with scouts, so they are doing a really good job with that,” said Veleno.
Similar to other exceptional status players, Veleno has grown accustom to the spotlight, which has followed him throughout his life and career. He hasn’t forgotten the importance of family and the sacrifices they made along the way to get him to this point.
“They have come up huge, they have made a lot of sacrifices from day one since I started playing hockey, and ever since I was born. A lot credit goes to them, not just me,” said Veleno. “They have put in a lot of work, they taught me a lot of good morals and values which really helped along the way.”
“My family has always been really big on leadership, and have always wanted me to be a leader in whatever situation I’m in. I really can’t thank them enough,” he explained.
“Joe is a very mature and focused young man. He is a tremendous hockey player and even a better person,” added Georgie.
Entering his third season in the QMJHL, Veleno admits that having been part of a veteran laden Sea Dogs President Cup Championship team has really helped his development.
“I learned a lot last year. It felt great winning the President Cup, it was a big honour and obviously I got to learn a lot from the older guys,” said the Montreal product. “I gained a lot of experience as a young player, I’m really grateful for that.”
“I learned a lot of different aspects of the game, like how to take care of yourself on and off ice, how to protect leads, different plays and different systems,” Veleno explained.
Every NHL team and scouting staff is unique, they evaluate and project differently. Veleno understands that process, but is confident that last season’s experience helped him become a more complete player.
“I think I’m a better 200-foot player this year than last. Obviously with those types of players and as a team we had tremendous success,” said Veleno. “I think it helped me tremendously, learning where to be on the ice.”
“He’s focusing on making himself a full 200-foot player, working on face-offs and focusing both on his ability to score and his ability to make plays, and to keep that as his focus,” added Dixon.
Georgie believes Veleno has handled the increased responsibility very well. “It is his first season as our number one center and he is playing in all situations; power play, penalty kill, and is almost at a point-per-game,” he claims.
After captaining Team Canada to Ivan Hlinka Gold, Veleno could be a consideration for the Canada’s upcoming World Juniors squad.
“It would be a nice opportunity for me to play for Team Canada, there’s no better feeling and no better way to represent your country,” Veleno said. “It would be a huge honour!”
No need for panic
by Peter Assaff – October 27, 2017
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that fans of the Acadie-Bathurst Titan are a little concerned about the team’s slow start to the 2017-2018 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season.
Those fans have been waiting a long time to cheer on a winning hockey team, and were confident this was finally going to be their year heading into this season.
After years of rebuilding, the team seemed poised to make a run at a President’s Cup.
At least that is what it looked like after the team won their first post-season series in nearly a decade when they swept the Quebec Remparts in the opening round of last spring’s playoffs.
Even a heartbreaking loss to the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the second-round series that went the distance in April didn’t seem to dampen spirits, with most believing that the best was yet to come.
Unfortunately things haven’t gone according to script in the first month of the season for the Titan.
After taking five out of a possible six points in their first three games last month, the team has struggled. Four straight losses followed that opening homestand, and heading into the final weekend of October Acadie-Bathurst found themselves in fourth place in the Maritime Division, with just six wins in their first 15 games.
But is it really time to panic? Veteran defenceman Adam Holwell, who was traded to the Titan from the Moncton Wildcats midway through last season, sure doesn’t think so.
“We aren’t in any panic at all,” said the St. John’s, Newfoundland, native. “Everyone is saying the Titan are supposed to be so good but we are not doing too well. It is 15 games in and everyone is counting us out already, but we have a really good team. We’ve had times where a lot of guys were out of the lineup with injuries or suspensions. Obviously, we have to learn to win like that. But I think we’ve done a good job with what we’ve got. When we have all of our guys we are a really good team, and I think everyone in the room knows that. Come playoff time, I think it is going to be a fun time for us.”
And Holwell has seen struggles get turned around before.
“My third year in Moncton, we did really well,” he explained. “We lost to Rouyn [Noranda] in six games in the third round [of the playoffs] and we had a chance there. But if you rewind three months before that playoff round, even two months, we were on a nine-game losing streak. That was in February, and at that point, everyone was counting us out. I think the message that I want to give the guys is…everything is a building process towards the playoffs. Obviously we want to be playing well, but we want to build towards the playoffs. That is the message I want to give to the guys.”
And that is the message fans need to take as well. Despite their sluggish start the Titan head into the weekend just five points out of first place overall. They have also just added a pair of new free agents, and Slovakian defenceman Michal Ivan has finally joined the team.
Yes, it has been a long time since the team has been to a President’s Cup final – 2002 to be exact – but there is still a lot of hockey left to play. And plenty of time before anyone needs to be hitting the panic button.
by Craig Eagles – October 19, 2017
Jeremy McKenna goes about his business quietly.
But the soft-spoken 18-year-old from Summerside, PEI, is making some noise for the Moncton Wildcats this season.
McKenna is coming off a solid rookie campaign where he scored 16 goals and added 10 assists in 66 games for the offensively-starved Wildcats.
The quiet and confident Islander is now lighting up the QMJHL with seven goals and ten assists in twelve games and sits third in league scoring. McKenna is quick to deflect the attention away from personal accolades and credits his linemates, rookie Jakob Pelletier and current top-scorer Mika Cyr, for his stellar start.
“Playing with Mika and Jakob is helping me grow as a player and I feel we have great chemistry together. We are always on the same page out there and encourage each other and I think that’s why we have been having success this season,” McKenna said.
“Mika is a great player and is an elite skater. Jakob has great hockey sense and he’s a fun player to play with because he makes plays.”
McKenna is focused on team success in his sophomore season with the Cats, and has taken on a leadership role with the young upstart club.
“Jeremy is simply one of those leaders who exemplifies leadership by example,” said Wildcats Director of Hockey Operations Roger Shannon.
McKenna’s intense workout regime caused a social media stir this summer. He attributes his great start to his commitment to his conditioning.
“I worked hard this off-season and it’s good to see it paying off,” McKenna said. “I was in the gym at least six days a week. I’m really motivated to win with this team and that’s what motivated me every day.”
“The team has come together quick and we are doing a good job night in night out and I’m happy that I can contribute to the team and keep winning”, he added.
McKenna is a bona fide sniper who possesses a pro release. He is a natural goal scorer who excels in high traffic areas and has great edge control. But his rededication to fitness in the off-season has added another dimension to his game, which makes him elusive and harder to contain below the hash marks in the offensive zone.
“Nobody worked harder in the off-season than Jeremy,” mentioned Roger Shannon. “He is proof of what a person can do when they truly are all in. When you have the skill and shot that he has, you evolve into an elite scorer when you put the work in. His release is in the Top 5 of the league.”
McKenna’s ability to spin off checks and battle for loose pucks creates time and space, and it also enables him to gain offensive position and access to seams that he couldn’t a season ago. His ability to read the play and his awareness to find the quiet zones of the ice make him a constant threat to score off the rush.
With his phenomenal start to the season, McKenna’s play may have him popping up on the radar of NHL scouts.
“Definitely getting drafted is in the back of my mind, it’s been a dream of mine my whole life,” said the young star who’s already making noise around the QMJHL. “I want to take this year day by day and game by game, and try to get better every chance I get.”
Worst to First
by Philippe Germain – October 18, 2017
One thing was clear about the Moncton Wildcats heading into the 2017-18 season – the only way they could go was up. One year removed from setting a team record for futility with only 14 wins and 31 points, the Wildcats have exploded out of the gate so far this season, sitting atop the overall league standings with an 8-1-2 mark to open the campaign.
All too used to being among the League’s top teams, the Wildcats have quickly circled the wagons after a single rebuilding season in 2015-16. Full marks go to Director of Hockey Operations Roger Shannon for making his flurry of offseason moves and for remaining loyal to head coach Darren Rumble in light of the club hitting rock bottom last year.
While the Wildcats still have a long way to go this season with just under 60 games to go in the regular season, they will be looking to make some history of far more positive kind in 2017-18. Should the Wildcats manage to go from worst-to-first and come away with a regular season crown and the Jean Rougeau Trophy, they will have managed a feat only twice achieved in the almost 50-year history of the QMJHL.
The most recent team to manage such an incredible reversal of fortune was the 2008-09 Drummondville Voltigeurs. Coached by current Senators bench boss Guy Boucher, the Voltigeurs were coming off a tough season the year prior that saw them scratch together a mere 14 wins and 33 points, and finish dead last in the QMJHL. The turnaround that would await them would, however, prove to be historic.
Led by their potent top line of Yannick Riendeau, Danny Masse and current Senators forward Mike Hoffman, as well as future NHLers Sean Couturier and Dmitri Kulikov, the Voltigeurs racked up a franchise record and league-best 112 points. That 79-point turnaround was only the beginning for Boucher’s team as it went on to win the President’s Cup that spring.
The first team to ever go from the League’s cellar to the penthouse was the, now defunct, Cornwall Royals. After stumbling through a 44-point season in 1970-71 to finish last of 10 teams, the Royals buckled down and put together an amazing season the following year. Head coach Orval Tessier pushed all the right buttons as his troops went on to post a 96-point season led by future NHL star goalie Richard Brodeur between the pipes. Like the Voltigeurs, the Royals also won the President’s Trophy that year.
Now back to the Wildcats. Again, it’s far too early to tell whether they will become the third team in QMJHL history to finish first overall after ending up last, but if they do manage it they may want to free up their calendar this spring. A President’s Cup run could also be in their future…