Don't expect the London Knights to be friendly hosts in this year's Memorial Cup. Back for a third straight year seeking the major junior title, London faces top teams from the WHL, OHL and QMJHL. Here's what you need to know.
The MasterCard Memorial Cup begins tonight in London with the host Knights taking on the Quebec League’s Val-d’Or Foreurs. Ontario League champion Guelph Storm play the Western League’s Edmonton Oil Kings in the second game Saturday. The championship final goes Sunday, May 25.
Here are 10 things to watch for at this year’s Memorial Cup.
The best sniper in junior hockey. Val-d’Or’s Anthony Mantha scored 57 goals in 57 regular season games (he missed a bunch of games while at the world juniors) and 24 more in 24 QMJHL playoff games. The 20th overall draft pick by Detroit in 2013 was ranked 10th in THN’s Future Watch 2014.
First-round picks galore. The list includes Mantha from Val-d’Or, Max Domi, Michael McCarron, Nikita Zadorov and Bo Horvat from the London Knights, Griffin Reinhart, Curtis Lazar and Henrik Samuelsson from the Edmonton Oil Kings, and Jason Dickinson and Kerby Rychel from the Guelph Storm.
A ton of other NHL draft picks and future NHLers. The list includes: Tristan Jarry, Mitch Moroz, Scott Kosmachuk, Brock McGinn, Matt Finn, Tyler Bertuzzi, Zac Leslie, Nick Ebert, Justin Auger, Ben Harpur, Chris Tierney, Josh Anderson, Brady Austin, Gemel Smith, Anthony Stolarz, Ryan Graves, Antoine Bibeau.
2014 draft prospects. Four Memorial Cup participants are projected by The Hockey News to be selected in the first two rounds of the June 27-28 draft in Philadelphia. They are: Robby Fabbri, Guelph, ranked 20th in Draft Preview; Brett Pollock, Edmonton, ranked 33rd; Dysin Mayo, Edmonton, ranked 48th; and Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Val-d’Or, ranked 60th. Other 2014 draft prospects include Aaron Irving, Edmonton, ranked 75th; Christian Dvorak, London, ranked 88th; Puis Suter, Guelph; Marc Stevens, Guelph; Matthew Mancina, Guelph; Phil Baltisberger, Guelph.
A glimpse of 2015. Small London center Mitch Marner just turned 17 last week and isn’t eligible for NHL selection until 2015. International Scouting Services currently ranks the Thornhill, Ont., native the seventh best prospect in a strong 2015 class. Check out the 5-foot-10, 160-pound playmaking pivot who averaged a point per game in the OHL playoffs.
The dark horse team. The Val-d’Or Foreurs may be the least likely of the four teams to be here, but they were built to win, starting with defense. The Foreurs beat a first-place team (Baie-Comeau) and the defending Memorial Cup champion Halifax Mooseheads en route to claiming the QMJHL title. It all starts with super-scorer Mantha, but Val-d’Or picked up some important pieces during the season to bulk up. Veteran forward Louick Marcotte and 18-year-old defenseman Ryan Graves and goalie Antoine Bibeau have been sensational additions. The Foreurs defense is led by QMJHL all-stars Randy Gazzola and Guillaume Gelinas.
Familiar faces from Edmonton. The Oil Kings have been to the WHL final three straight years and are making a second appearance in the Memorial Cup. Though they had the WHL’s top record in the Eastern Conference, they finished third overall behind Kelowna and Portland. Edmonton and Portland faced each other for a third straight season in the WHL final, unheard of in major junior hockey.
Big-game Hunters. GM Mark Hunter and brother and coach Dale Hunter are in quest of their first Memorial Cup since 2005. This is London’s third straight year in the Memorial Cup. The Knights lost to Shawinigan in the 2012 final and finished third last year. They’ll try again on home ice.
Storm clouds. The Guelph Storm were the cream of the crop in the Ontario League this season – 52-12-2-2 record, two points up on Erie. They’re considered the Memorial Cup favorites in some circles, but those closer to London claim home-ice advantage is worth a lot in a four-team round-robin tournament.
Olli Maatta. The 19-year-old Pittsburgh Penguins rookie was supposed to play the entire season with the London Knights, but a strong training camp earned him an NHL job and he only got better as the season went along. You’ll see him in London, cheering on the Knights, but probably only from the stands signing autographs.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior editor and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Brian Costello on Twitter at @BCostelloTHN