With the Ontario Hockey League final series getting underway tonight, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League is awaiting its own championship kick-off tomorrow. The winners of both series, while league champions in their own right, also earn a spot in the Memorial Cup Tournament, where they’ll try to assert themselves as the top team in all of Canadian junior hockey.
While the QMJHL doesn’t feature quite as much star power as its OHL counterpart this year, there are plenty of names taking part in the finals who could be making an impact in the NHL as soon as next season. Behind a stalwart defensive pair and consistent scoring, the Saint John Sea Dogs cruised to a 48-14-5 record in 2016-17, which gave them the regular season crown by a whole nine points over the closest contender. The Sea Dogs’ impressive pace has not slowed down at all in the postseason; they went 12-1-1 on their way to a title berth. Now, Saint John has to get the job done when it matters most, as they know too well what falling short feels like after a semifinal exit last season. Their opposition for the championship is the upstart Blainville-Boisbriand Armanda. The Armada finished second in the West Division behind defending champion Rouyn-Noranda, but had the fourth-best record in the league at 43-19-4. Armed with two elite trade acquisitions, the Armanda charged through the playoffs and capped off their run to the title match-up with an upset over the #3-seed Charlottetown Islanders.
These two teams have been nearly unstoppable in the QMJHL playoffs and are charged up and ready to go. Who should you keep an eye on when the series starts tomorrow?
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada/Columbus Blue Jackets
A player who most hockey fans have heard of by now, Dubois was the third overall pick in the NHL Draft last June by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Although many expected that he would make the team out of camp, the Blue Jackets brass felt he was not ready and returned the young center to his junior team, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. Although he scored 18 points in his first 20 games of the season, it was far off his pace from 2015-16, when he finished with 99 points in 62 contests. Cape Breton decided to trade Dubois to Blainville-Boisbriand for a package that included two high draft picks. Dubois returned to his high-scoring ways with the Armada, posting 37 points in 28 regular season games and added 21 more through 15 postseason games thus far. Dubois is a well-rounded player with great offensive skill and strong two-way ability. If the Armada hope to knock off the Sea Dogs, Dubois will have to be the difference-maker.
Thomas Chabot, Saint John Sea Dogs/Ottawa Senators
Another star prospect many felt would be in the NHL this season, 2015 first-round pick Chabot has instead dominated the QMJHL since returning from his brief stint – one game played, -2 rating – with Ottawa earlier this season. An excellent possession defenseman who has speed and puck-moving ability, Chabot racks up the points from the blue line. In 34 regular season games in 2016-17, he accumulated 45 points. He also took a brief break to dominate the World Juniors with ten points in seven games as the alternate captain for Team Canada. Yet, he has still been able to take his game up a notch in the playoffs, posting 19 points in 14 games. Not only does that top all defensemen in the postseason, it’s also good enough for ninth overall. Chabot is a difficult player to match up against and will likely continue to score in the upcoming final series as he works to win a championship for the team he has played for since 2013.
Mathieu Joseph, Sain John Sea Dogs/Tampa Bay Lightning
GM Steve Yzerman picked a good one in the fourth round in 2015, as Joseph has been a revelation for Saint John the past two seasons. A multi-skilled winger who apparently was just slow to develop, Joseph went from a 42-point campaign in 2014-15 to 73 last year and 80 this year. Centered by recent Chicago Blackhawks signee Matthew Highmore, Joseph put up career numbers and finished tied for 12th in scoring in the QMJHL. To top off an incredible season, Joseph is second in postseason scoring with eleven goals and eleven assists already through just 14 games. No one has slowed Joseph down thus far and the Armada have their work cut out for them.
Alex Barre-Boulet, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
The only player scoring more than Joseph in the postseason has been Barre-Boulet. Passed up in the NHL Draft last year, the small, shifty center has done just about everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen again. After scoring 89 points in 65 games last year for the Drummondville Voltigeurs was not enough, Barre-Boulet requested a trade midway through the season to a team with championship hopes in an effort to extend his season. Adding on to his 48 points from Drummondville, he registered 33 points in the Armada’s final 28 games and finished 11th in league scoring with 81 points total. In the playoffs though, he is alone in first by quite a margin. Barre-Boulet has 29 points, including 13 on the power play, in just 16 games. A player with a point to make, unlike many of the top players in the series, Barre-Boulet will perhaps be the most dangerous competitor that Saint John has to face.
Jakub Zboril, Saint John Sea Dogs/Boston Bruins
Luckily, the Sea Dogs have had an answer for some of the top offensive talent in the QMJHL this year (and last year and the year before that) in Czech defenseman Zboril. A 2015 first-round pick of the Bruins, Zboril is known as one of the best two-way defenseman in the league. A dominant force in the neutral zone, Zboril can carry the puck and fire a hard shot on goal and then speed back to his own end for a hard check as well. In a league that has historically been fast-moving and high-offense, Zboril has helped to keep scoring down in Saint John for the visitors. He also gets on the board himself with 41 points in 50 games this season. One of a number of elite Boston defensive prospects, enjoy Zboril dominating the juniors while you can, because he’ll be turning pro after the season.
Julien Gauthier, Saint John Sea Dogs/Carolina Hurricanes
The rich got richer at the QMJHL Trade Deadline this season as the Sea Dogs acquired 2016 Carolina first-rounder Gauthier from the Val-d’Or Foreurs. A big power forward who isn’t afraid to use his 6’4″, 225-lb. frame, but also has a surprising finesse game, Gauthier is a valuable weapon. However, while he managed to score more than a point per game for both Val-d’Or and Saint John en route to a 51-point season, the Sea Dogs know that Gauthier has more to offer. With 11 points in 14 postseason games, he’s made his presence felt, but if Gauthier plays to his potential in this final series, he could really tip the scales in Saint John’s favor.