The Sherbrooke Phoenix enter the new season with unfinished business.
When the 2019-20 campaign paused and later shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Phoenix stood atop the QMJHL marked by a 13-game win streak and a 51-8-3-1 showing, good for a franchise record 106 points and first overall across the Canadian Hockey League. The then eighth-year organization was a dominant force throughout the season, earning a spot in the Kia CHL Top-10 Rankings in all 26 weeks.
Starting anew, the Phoenix carried last year’s success into the 2020-21 pre-season, winning four of five contests that included big-game performances from several returning talents like team captain and Pittsburgh Penguins first-round pick Samuel Poulin, who potted three goals in as many games.
Among the most dominant offensive presences from coast-to-coast, Poulin wrapped up his third season with a career-high 77 points in only 46 contests. That stretch included a franchise record in which the Blainville, Que., product posted a single-game high of eight points versus Shawinigan last October. In doing so, Poulin broke the previous high-water mark of six points he shared with Daniel Audette and Marek Zachar, in addition to becoming the first QMJHL player in nearly 11 years to score eight points in one game.
This season, Poulin will once again be looked toward to lead the team offensively, particularly following key departures like graduated forward Felix Robert, who after leading the squad with a single-season franchise-record 92 points to finish third in the league-wide scoring race inked a minor-pro deal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Robert hopes he can one day be reunited with his former linemate, though he believes Poulin is on the fast track to the highest level.
“Sammy is not just a talented, skilled guy,” Robert told Michelle Crechiolo of PittsburghPenguins.com. “He’s also a hardworking guy. He’s always in the gym. He’s a good leader. He was our captain. He was a good captain. He wanted to get better every day, and that’s what is going to make him successful in the NHL. He is going to play in the NHL. For me, there is no doubt about it. He’s strong, he’s fast, he’s skilled. He could play any role.
“Honestly, I don’t know if I’m going to play with him in the AHL because I think he’s going to have a spot in the NHL early in his career. He deserves it. He’s working for it. He’s going to achieve it.”
While Robert is among the team’s since departed two top scorers from last season, much of Sherbrooke’s core remains, a group that in addition to Poulin includes forwards Patrick Guay, Bailey Peach, and Benjamin Tardif, all of whom finished last season north of the 40-point plateau. There is also 19-year-old centre Xavier Parent, the fourth-overall selection from the 2017 QMJHL Entry Draft who showed flashes of success in notching 19 points during an injury-shortened 25-game campaign last season.
That impressive collection will now be surrounded by the club’s new wave of exciting, young talent.
“We have a good mix of young guns and veterans, such as Samuel Poulin, Patrick Guay, and Bailey Peach. We have integrated a lot of kids this year,” 2019-20 QMJHL Coach of the Year Stephane Julien told the QMJHL. “Our identity from the past four years has not changed. At training camp, our veterans showed up in terrific shape, which set a great example for our rookies. This year, with a good attitude and good work ethic, we are going to have a nice season. Our team culture won’t change. Attitude, character, and engagement will be at the heart of the team’s philosophy.”
Among those young players is 18-year-old right-wing Karl Vaillancourt who after putting up a lone point in a nine-game trial with the Phoenix last season is poised to earn a spot after notching a team-leading five points in pre-season play. The Sherbrooke native will be joined up front by fellow young talents like 2003-born forwards Jaheem Lagace-Aurelien as well as Israel Mianscum, the 10th overall selection from the 2019 QMJHL Entry Draft who put up two goals and two assists in four pre-season showings.
On the blue line, fourth-year rearguard Jaxon Bellamy is ready to take on a leadership role – particularly following the graduation of New York Islanders prospect Samuel Bolduc – offering invaluable guidance to the club’s up-and-comers as it looks to claim a franchise-first championship. Bellamy, who impressed with four points across four exhibition showings, headlines a defensive core alongside fellow veteran defender Xavier Bernard that hopes to grow emerging talents like 17-year-old rearguard Christophe Rondeau.
“With the veterans from last year, our mentality was winning,” Bellamy told the QMJHL. “It has always been like that since I have been here. That is where we are going to try to help with the younger guys to make sure that they have the same mentality going through the season.”
Like many clubs across the QMJHL, the Phoenix are set to start the season without some familiar faces including star netminder Samuel Hlavaj, the 2019-20 Jacques Plante Trophy recipient who remains in his native Slovakia due to COVID-19 restrictions. Another foundational piece for the franchise, Hlavaj was dominant in 39 appearances in the blue paint last season, finishing among the top-three in all major goaltending categories including wins (33), save percentage (.915), and goals-against average (2.25), helping the 19-year-old rank second among all North American netminders ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft.
The intention is for Hlavaj, as well as American-born blue-liner Gregory Kreutzer and Russian defenceman Pavel Grishin, the club’s top pick in the 2020 CHL Import Draft, to join the team in the coming weeks following a quarantine period. In the absence of Hlavaj, the Phoenix will turn to hulking netminder Jasmin Simon, a third-round selection from the 2020 QMJHL Entry Draft who impressed with a 3-1 record across more than 200 minutes of pre-season play.
The action gets underway Friday when the Phoenix drop the puck for their first game in a home-and-home regular-season opener versus the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the expanded West Division that will begin with a presentation of the Jean-Rougeau Trophy in recognition of last year’s regular season success and will also be marked by a championship banner raised to the rafters of the club’s home rink.