Today HockeyPoints presents the final entry of a five part series. In this piece we present our choice for who is the best contending team heading into the 2011 QMJHL playoffs.
During the last 4 entries we pick the Drummondville Voltigeurs at #5, the Quebec Remparts at #4, the Gatineau Olympiques at #3 and the Saint John Sea Dogs at #2. Now it's time to unveil our #1 pick:
#1 - The Montreal Juniors:
So I received some hate mail this week from a few of my followers in the maritimes, specifically the Saint John Sea Dogs region. picking the Montreal Juniors #1 was difficult to do for a number of reasons. Not only are they the team I follow most, but they also trail Saint John in both the QMJHL overall standings and the CHL Top 10 rankings....needless to say, my selection doesn't look so good. So why did I choose Montreal over Saint John? Let me tell explain.
Much of the decision cam down to one major factor; maturity. My opinion is that Montreal have more of it than Saint John. So what is maturity? Age and experience.
When you look down the Juniors roster you'll notice it’s filled with a lot of talented players, many of who are 19 years old and older. For the most part, it's these players who will be counted on most when the going gets tough. The Juniors are deep with these players throughout their roster.
Up front they’ve got Gouchie and Chouinard who are 20 years old. In terms of 19 year old they have Lefebvre, Parkes, Aubry, Fontaine, Rose, Anderson, Hertzberg and Leblanc. On defense Meilleur rounds out the Juniors group of 20 years olds, while Roussel, Landry and Beauchemin are each 19 years old. Between the pipes J-F Berube is another veteran with 19 years of age. That totals 15 players who are 19 years old or more….and many of those players are the core players who will be counted on by the Juniors.
Conversely, when you look at many of the players who make up part of the Sea Dogs core you notice many are under the age of 19. Top scorer Jonathan Huberdeau is only a '93 born 17 year old. Second leading scorer Zach Philips is 18 years old, as are Stanislav Galiev, Tomas Jurco and Nathan Beaulieu.
I see this as a major differentiator that may not be noticed over the course of a long regular season but will be proved in the post-season.
So if Montreal is a better team, why are they behind Saint John in the QMJHL’s overall standings? Here’s my two part answer to that question:
1) Injuries – Montreal has had bad luck this season in terms of being able to stay healthy. Aubry has only played 22 games to date. Leblanc, Rose, Hertzberg, Lefebvre, Fontaine and Landry are others who missed a fair share of games throughout the season. Just the other day rookie forward Jean-Christophe Laflamme suffered a laceration to a tendon in his foot. So as you can see, the Juniors should have bought season tickets to the CLSC this year because the injury bug seems to be flying around!
If the Juniors didn’t have these injuries I think it’s fair to say they’d be a few points higher in the standings.
2) Division Rivals – You don’t have to do a lot of research to realize Montreal plays in a more competitive division than that of Saint John. This matters because the league schedule is weighted in such a manner where teams play inter-division rivals more often than non-division opponents. The Juniors schedule includes more games against the likes of Gatineau, Shawinigan and Drummondville. Three very strong teams. Whereas the Sea Dogs biggest competition is who? Acadie Bathurst? Probably. Moncton, Cape Breton, Halifax and PEI don’t present serious threats.
This too has an impact on the standings. What if Montreal and Saint John switched divisions? Would Saint John still be far atop the standings? I’m not so sure.
Montreal has all the tools they need for a successful championship run. Up front and down the middle the Juniors are strong with Leblanc, Gouchie, Aubry and Anderson filling up the four centerman positions.
Hertzberg and Rose, Parkes and Lefebvre, and Chouinard and Pouliot fill up the winger positions on three of the four lines. Fontaine, Laflamme, Clarke and Lemieux rotate in and out of the lineup to fill the winger positions on the team’s fourth line. Matt Provost, normally a defenseman, has also seen time at forward this season. He forechecks well and is effective at screening the goalie.
On the back end, the Juniors will look to Meilleur, Roussel, and Landry to lead the way in the playoffs and eat up lots of ice time. Ouellet continues to evolve into a strong top four defenseman for the Juniors, while Narbonne, Provost, Beauchemin and Micallef provide sufficient depth.
Charles-Olivier Roussel remains a huge X factor. He’s played better and better as the season has evolved but I still think there's more room for improvement for his game. If Roussel can play his “A” game the Juniors will be in top shape on the blueline.
In goal JF Berube should carry most of the load unless he suffers and injury or needs a slight rest. He started the the season a bit rusty but has been on top of his game in the new year.
Montreal's roster is complete with every component a QMJHL team needs to win the Preseidents Cup. On paper they're the most complete team in the league, both from a talent point of view and from a maturity point of view. The question which remains to be answered is whether or not the Juniors can bring it all together when it counts most. The team will need to be healthy, somthing they haven't had much luck with this year. JF Berube may need to steal a couple of games if the rest of the team ever has an off night.
There's one month remaining until the playoffs begin. Get ready to watch some of the best hockey of the year!