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NHL prospects shine at Memorial Cup

Saint John's Jonathan Huberdeau is expected to be picked in the top five of the NHL draft this summer. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

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Saint John's Jonathan Huberdeau is expected to be picked in the top five of the NHL draft this summer. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - The Saint John Sea Dogs brought the Memorial Cup back to the Quebec League and became the first Maritime franchise to do so in the process. But what can we take away from this year’s showdown?

Starting with the victors, the Sea Dogs proved what a juggernaut they were this season and in having seven first-time eligible draft prospects in the regular lineup, did it with youth. Center Jonathan Huberdeau led the way and, as the tourney’s MVP, did his best to make the decision at the top of the NHL draft board that much more difficult. The question now becomes one of how high he will be selected? Based on his offensive arsenal and big-game ability (his highlight-reel tally in the third period iced the game for Saint John), third overall is not out of the question.

“He’s obviously an amazing player,” said linemate Zack Phillips. “He’s going to be a top-five pick in the NHL. One of the most premier players I’ve played with and ever will.”

The tournament cemented the status of Huberdeau, Phillips, Nathan Beaulieu and Tomas Jurco as first-rounders this summer, a feat that has rarely been accomplished over the years. But on top of that, the second tier of prospects - Scott Oke, Ryan Tesink and Gabriel Bourret - also got to show their stuff on the big stage.

“They’ll all be drafted,” said Beaulieu. “I’ll guarantee it right now, I’ll call it. Ryan Tesink is the most underrated player in the draft. He should be a second-rounder in my eyes.”

That would challenge last year’s Portland Winterhawks in terms of draft excellence and speaking of that Western League team, I can’t help but wonder how different a Memorial Cup it would have been had the Kootenay Ice been defeated by this year’s Portland squad in the WHL final. The Ice came in red-hot, but were underdogs most of the way through the WHL playoffs. In Mississauga, the Ice were silenced until the last game of the round robin when Saint John rested several key players and still took them to overtime. A team with few NHL prospects (though Cody Eakin and Brayden McNabb looked good), the Ice did have a showcase player in 6-foot-5 netminder Nathan Lieuwen, who likely won’t be passed over in his final shot at the draft.

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In a similar position is Owen Sound sparkplug Andrew Shaw, who ended up leading the tournament in scoring with seven points in four games. The Attack center was a daunting penalty-killer and plays a very rugged game; with the spotlight left open thanks to injuries to Joey Hishon and then Garrett Wilson, Shaw did what he could for Owen Sound.

And though the Attack were exposed with their two best players out for the tiebreaker loss to Kootenay, the decision by coach Mark Reeds to play Scott Stajcer in net in front of draft eligible Jordan Binnington was curious. Binnington pulled the team to wins in the last two games of the Ontario League final and played excellent in the round robin. In fact, he ended up with the best stats in the Memorial Cup with a 1.42 goals-against average and .951 save percentage, en route to being named goaltender of the tournament.

As for host Mississauga, the lack of flash from the Majors did nothing to dampen their future NHL prospects. Defenseman Brett Flemming (Washington), captain Casey Cizikas (NY Islanders) and left winger Devante Smith-Pelly (Anaheim) all proved they had pro-style games and there was no shame losing to Saint John in the final.

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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