As we begin to peer over the shoulder of the summer, the CHL pre-season is once again in full swing. The cyclical nature of Canadian Junior Hockey means that every season begins with excitement and optimism, even for the lowliest of teams. As the 20- and 21-year-old players pack their bags and head on to new cities, an influx of 16- and 17-year-old players will fill the void. It’s an exciting time for each of the 60 teams.
For those of them who have been fortunate and wise enough, however, to manage their assets in such a way that they have fewer of those changes, the year ahead is likely to be the more exciting than for the others.
Looking forward to the year ahead, stark contrast separates two of the major junior leagues from the third. Despite owning a heavy portion of the NHL draft’s first-round talent this summer, the WHL could have a tough year ahead. Teams like the Edmonton Oil Kings, Kamloops Blazers and Victoria Royals will be looking for their now 18-year-olds to take massive strides so that the league as a whole can remain competitive into the spring.
The Oil Kings will be led by 2019 Rangers draft-pick, defenseman, Matthew Robertson as well as projected 2020 first-round draft-pick, left wing Jake Neighbors. The team will also welcome 2018 first-overall bantam draft selection Dylan Guenther into the fold on a full-time basis. With a large and strong group of returning players, Edmonton could be one of the WHL’s best teams out of the gate.
The 2020 Memorial Cup host Kelowna Rockets enter the fall campaign with a trio of budding 18-year-olds in Kaedan Korczak, Lassi Thomson, and Nolan Foote. In order to be competitive throughout the regular season and as they approach the year-end tournament, the Rockets will almost certainly need to move some of their younger bodies in order to bolster their lineup.
If I had to put my money on one WHL team this year though, it would be the Spokane Chiefs. Disclaimer: this is assuming Ty Smith doesn’t find his way into a New Jersey Devils uniform. Despite a supreme offensive season as an 18-year-old, Ty Smith will likely be a casualty of the CHL-NHL agreement. The Chiefs will also return with a trio of uber-talented forwards: Minnesota Wild draft-pick, Adam Beckman, 19-year-old Eli Zummack, and undrafted 18-year-old Luke Toporowski.
As exciting as Spokane’s roster may be, there is a much larger group of up and coming teams in Ontario and Eastern Canada that will make the West, and specifically Kelowna cringe, if not for some serious adjustment in the next eight months.
The Ontario Hockey League will kick off the 2019-20 campaign with a hand full supremely talented teams, in particular the Peterborough Petes, Oshawa Generals, Saginaw Spirit and the London Knights. Besides the two will-be giants, the Flint Firebirds and Ty Dellandrea could be a sneaky pick to finally make an impact on the league after several years of turmoil.
The Petes’ returning lineup includes their core from a season ago, which features offensive starts like San Jose’s Ryan Merkley, as well as two Toronto Maple Leaf drafted players in Semyon Der-Arguchintev and Nicholas Robertson. They’ll be joined by returning English forward Arizona draft pick Liam Kirk and Winnipeg-drafted defenseman Declan Chisholm. The Petes’ roster graduated very few significant players this offseason, leaving the returning roster with a strong sense of familiarity – something that often goes underappreciated in major-junior hockey.
Saginaw’s opening night lineup will feature the likes of newly drafted New York Islander Bode Wilde on defense, as well as Gretzky-Hlinka breakout and 2020 draft eligible forward Cole Perfetti. Outside of their big-two, the Spirit will also look to another Islanders prospect in forward Blade Jenkins as well as Minnesota Wild draft-pick, center Damien Giroux
Least surprising of all to have success in the upcoming year, however, could be the London Knights. The team’s biggest loss will come in the form of losing Swedish defenseman Adam Boqvist to either the Chicago Blackhawks or their AHL affiliate, the Rockford Ice Hogs. Boqvist, who if drafted from the CHL would have been ineligible for the AHL this year, is a major loss for the Knights. As they typically do, however, London will continue to pull from their seemingly endless supply of talent. Most importantly, they’ll look to Detroit Red Wings defenseman Aled Regula to fill the void left by Boqvist. The 2018 third-round draft-pick has had marginal success since being selected by the Wings, but this could be his purest opportunity to break out. Regula will depend on the finishing power of 2019 first-round draft-picks Connor McMichael and Liam Foudy to bring him to the next level.
For the first time, though, since the 2004-05 season, the QMJHL, and Rimouski in particular, will be home to Canada’s most intriguing prospect – Alexis Lafreniere. The Oceanic’s season will hinge almost exclusively on Lafreniere’s progress as a current draft-eligible prospect. In addition, he’ll be supported by Calgary’s 2018 seventh-round draft-pick Dmitri Zavgorodny who has begun to perform more like a second- or third-round pick as opposed to a seventh.
The most likely impedance to Rimouski’s President’s Cup will likely be the Moncton Wildcats, Sherbrooke Phoenix, Halifax Mooseheads and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar.
The Wildcats will likely present one of the strongest oppositions with their balanced core that includes top Edmonton prospect netminder Olivier Rodrigue, Calgary’s 2019 first-round draft-pick Jakob Pelletier, and Los Angeles defensive prospect Jordan Spence. Moncton’s biggest loss will be that of 20-year-old center Jeremy McKenna, who signed with the Stockton Heat this summer. His place in the lineup will surely be filled by Minnesota forward prospect Alex Khovanov, who concluded his 18-year-old campaign with an impressive 74 points in 64 contests.
The Sherbrooke Phoenix will be led assuredly by the Pittsburgh Penguins 2019 first-round draft-pick, Samuel Poulin. His supporting cast will include a large group of undrafted 18 and 19-year-old forwards such as Benjamin Tardif, Taro Jentzsch and Patrick Guay. If for some reason, however, the Phoenix fail to make an impact our of the gate, Poulin could become an immediate trade target for a team like the Wildcats or… Baie Comeau.
The Drakkar will feature a more acute offense than either the Wildcats of the Phoenix, with the clear majority of their offense likely to stem from three returning players: On forward, Tampa Bay Lightning second-round draft-choice from 2018 Gabriel Fortier, and Pittsburgh Penguins 2019 third-round draft-pick Nathan Legare. On defense, the Drakkar will be led by Los Angeles prospect Xavier Bouchard.
In summary, we’re on the brink of yet another exciting CHL season. The teams mentioned today are simply my picks for who I expect to be the most fun to watch this year, however, I also think they’re the most likely to have success. It’s almost certain that by Christmas time we’ll have witnessed at least some turnover in these lineups, especially the Kelowna Rockets. Most importantly, I hope this helps readers and CHL fans to focus their own personal fantasy scouting efforts in the right places this year. To bring this week’s edition of The Journey full circle, I also give you a few honorable mentions, as well as the teams that I expect to be the least competitive in the year ahead.
Niagara Ice Dogs – Akil Thomas & Philip Tomasino
Lethbridge Hurricanes – Calen Addison, Dylan Cozens, & Logan Barlage
North Bay Battalion
Thanks for reading – @olaf1393
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