Nail Yakupov had 101 points in 65 games with Sarnia last season and could go No. 1 overall in 2012. (OHL Images)
The Quebec League and Western League are already playing exhibition games, so it’s time for me to roll out my annual list of major junior squads I’m excited to see this season. Naturally, there will be some teams with one particularly intriguing player to follow – Quebec’s Mikhail Grigorenko or Everett’s Ryan Murray, for example. But the following franchises are loaded with prospects.
Sarnia Sting (OHL)
Long-suffering Sting fans have a 2011-12 edition that, on paper, dwarfs even the Steven Stamkos years. Led by Nail Yakupov (who broke Stammer’s rookie points record with the franchise last season) and Alex Galchenyuk, the Sting boast the potential No. 1 pick overall in 2012 and a teammate who will easily go top-10 and possibly top five. In early scrimmages, they were joined on a line by recent NTDP product Reid Boucher (taken 99th overall by New Jersey this summer), who chose the Ontario League over the United States League and eventually Michigan State.
Since Galchenyuk is technically American – his father played over here in the minors back when he was born – Sarnia had the import space available to bring in Chicago Blackhawks draft pick Ludvig Rensfeldt from Sweden, too. Burgeoning power forward Brett Ritchie (Dallas, 44th overall in ’11) will also be back and over his bout with mono that truncated last season. On the blueline, the Sting snatched Phoenix first-rounder Connor Murphy away from Miami University, but will have to wait a few months for him after he injured his knee at Team USA’s world junior tryout camp. In the meantime, rookie Anthony DeAngelo can fill the prospect quota after he chose the Sting over a future at Boston University.
Halifax Mooseheads (QMJHL)
The Mooseheads almost had an incredible summer, but couldn’t convince top draft pick Jonathan Drouin to come to town. Instead, the talented center will spend another season in midget AAA. As a consolation prize, Halifax fans will just have to watch one of the most anticipated Maritimers since you-know-who. Nathan MacKinnon is a hometown product and an incredible offensive talent, bolstering a Mooseheads attack that is quickly getting dangerous. Returning import Martin Frk has bullish tendencies out on the ice and knows how to put up points. Luca Ciampini also has the power forward game going for him and both he and Frk are 2012 NHL prospects, so look for them to put their best games on display. While Halifax was horrible last year, this season will see a reawakening.
Edmonton Oil Kings (WHL)
The Oil Kings always seem to be on the cusp of greatness thanks to their youth, but now the team really looks like it has all its weapons firing at the same time. Scoring machine Curtis Lazar joins the team full-time this season and will definitely be a rookie to watch after breaking offensive records previously held by Stamkos and Sidney Crosby at the Canada Winter Games. He’ll saddle up with a posse of talent at forward that includes underrated New York Rangers pick Michael St. Croix (106th overall in ’11) and tough two-way center Travis Ewanyk (Edmonton, 74th overall in ’11). On the back end, the Oil Kings are loaded with Team Canada hopeful and Buffalo first-rounder Mark Pysyk (23rd overall in ’10), Carolina selection Keegan Lowe (73rd overall in ’11) and the draft-eligible Griffin Reinhart, whose size and offensive skill are intimidating, to say the least. Edmonton even has the archetypal drafted-goalie-ready-to-shine in Laurent Brossoit (Calgary, 164th overall in ’11).
Will these teams challenge host Shawinigan for the Memorial Cup? Hard to say. But it will certainly be fun to watch them try.
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.