On eve of Memorial Cup final, Canadian Hockey League grads on display in Stanley Cup playoffs

Casey Ippolito
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The Memorial Cup, the annual tournament that features the distillation of the Canadian Hockey League’s three branches, is set to wrap up Sunday with the Guelph Storm taking on the Edmonton Oil Kings. Both clubs are brimming with talent and NHL draftees, a reflection of the CHL’s preeminent role in feeding young standouts to The Show.

The Storm are stacked with nine NHL draft choices: Kerby Rychel (CBJ, 19th in ’13), Jason Dickinson (DAL, 29th in ’13), Matt Finn (TOR, 35th in ’12), Brock McGinn (CAR, 47th in ’12), Tyler Bertuzzi (DET, 58th in ’13), Scott Kosmachuk (WPG, 70th in ’12), Justin Auger (LA, 103rd in ’13), Ben Harpur (OTT, 108th in ’13), Nick Ebert (LA, 211th in ’12). In addition to their drafted talent, late-bloomer Zack Mitchell was signed by the Wild in March, while speedster Robby Fabbri is a projected first-round pick in 2014.

The Oil Kings have five NHL picks of their own: Griffin Reinhart (NYI, 4th in ’12), Curtis Lazar (OTT, 17th in ’13), Henrik Samuelsson (PHX, 27th in ’12), Mitch Moroz (EDM, 32nd in ’12), Tristan Jarry (PIT, 44th in ’13).

Meanwhile, in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the four remaining teams feature players from dozens of feeder systems, but not surprisingly, the CHL has provided the most athletes.

Counting players who’ve appeared in at least one 2014 playoff game, the Blackhawks, Kings, Rangers and Canadiens feature 51 players who came through the CHL pipeline. These 51 come from 30 different teams, with four clubs providing at least three players apiece:

LONDON KNIGHTS: Patrick Kane, Rick Nash, Brandon Prust, Dan Girardi

This group gets my vote for the most talented on the list, based on Kane’s ability alone. After spending two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Kane migrated to London for his draft year of 2006-07, electrifying the Ontario League with 62 goals and 145 points in 58 games. He propelled Sam Gagner and Sergei Kostitsyn to seasons of well over 100 points, which undoubtedly contributed to Gagner being selected No. 6 overall by Edmonton the same year.

Nash lit it up in London four seasons before Kane arrived, scoring 72 points on a Knights team that included Corey Perry and Dennis Wideman. He made the jump to the NHL right away and scored 39 points as a rookie with Columbus.

Prust came along a year after Nash made the jump to the Jackets, putting up 52 points and 269 PIMs in his 2004 draft year.

Girardi played in Barrie and Guelph before being dealt to London in his final OHL season, where he went on to win the Memorial Cup with the Knights. Despite Girardi’s steady junior career, he was never drafted. He signed on with the Rangers and has grown into an elite defensive defenseman who earns $5.5 million per season.

KELOWNA ROCKETS: Duncan Keith, Josh Gorges, Travis Moen

Keith teased the Blackhawks with indications of his offensive potential in 2003-04 with 46 points in 37 games for the Rockets. He then played two years in the American League, topping out at 26 points, and played three full seasons in the NHL before hitting the 40-point plateau. By then, he was 25. A year later, Keith broke out with 69 points and won the Cup. Full marks to the Blackhawks for patiently developing one of the league’s premier blueliners.

The 29-year-old Gorges, Montreal’s shot-blocking specialist, has earned respect around the NHL over eight seasons. Despite impressive campaigns of 41, 59, and 42 points in Kelowna, Gorges went undrafted and joined the NHL with the Sharks organization. Gorges and the Rockets won the Western League crown in 2002-03 and lost to the Hull Olympiques in the Memorial Cup semifinals.

SAULT STE. MARIE GREYHOUNDS: Jeff Carter, Jake Muzzin, Jordan Nolan

A trio of Los Angeles Kings came through ‘The Soo’ en route to the NHL, most notably Carter, part of the legendary 2003 NHL draft. The Flyers took Carter 11th overall from a rebuilding Greyhounds team coached by John Vanbiesbrouck.

The Penguins selected Muzzin in the fifth round, 141st overall in 2007. The 6-foot-3 rearguard had just four points in 37 games that year as an OHL rookie. Three seasons later, he’d escalated to 67 points in 64 games. His pattern of gradual growth continued, climbing the ranks over four AHL seasons, eventually earning a spot on the Kings where he now plays over 20 minutes a night.

LETHBRIDGE HURRICANES: Brent Seabrook, Kris Versteeg, Dwight King

Seabrook has become just what the Hawks expected when they nabbed him 14th overall in ’03 from Lethbridge: a physicality-first defender with an offensive presence. Seabrook was a quick study of the pro game, unlike Keith. He played three AHL games during the 2004-05 lockout year, then earned a spot on the Blackhawks blueline in 2005-06. He made a mark immediately, notching 32 points as a freshman and maintaining a similar pace in eight seasons since. In addition to playing with Kris Versteeg during his Lethbridge days, Seabrook also skated with Tomas Kopecky, Nick Tarnasky, and most importantly, Colton Yellow Horn.

Honorable mention:

GUELPH STORM: Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Dan Girardi (traded to London in final season)

Doughty was an all-star and was voted the OHL’s top offensive defenseman in his final two seasons, in addition to winning the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the league’s top D-man in 2007-08. That season, Doughty’s Storm finished nine games over .500 thanks to his fine work, leading to Drew being drafted 2nd overall in 2008. That Storm squad featured no current NHLers and no one finished the year with over 60 points, which speaks to Doughty’s ability to elevate any team he plays for. Whether it’s the Kings or Team Canada, Doughty rises to the top and gets better as the stakes rise. For that reason, I’d take Doughty first overall ahead of Steven Stamkos in a 2008 re-draft.

Before Brown signed a massive eight-year contract extension with a cap hit of $5.8 million and proceeded to suffer through his worst statistical season since his rookie year, he was a standout in Guelph. He led the Storm with 76 points in his draft year of 2002-03, playing with future NHLers Daniel ‘Apple’ Paille and Ryan ‘Callahan Auto’ Callahan.