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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

2023 Memorial Cup Preview: Five players to watch closely on each team

The 2023 Memorial Cup begins on Friday, with this year’s host being the Kamloops Blazers. Joining the Blazers at the four-team tournament are the WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds, OHL champion Peterborough Petes, and QMJHL champion Quebec Remparts.

As every year, the four teams will first take part in a round robin where they’ll face each other once. After that, the teams are seeded and a single elimination round begins with a tie-breaker if necessary, a semifinal, and eventually the championship final.

So as we set off to find out which team is the best in Canadian major junior hockey, here is a list of interesting players to watch at the event.

Image via the CHL

SEATTLE THUNDERBIRDS

Thomas Milic, G: Winning is all he’s ever known. Taken in the third round of the 2018 WHL Bantam draft, Milic has turned out to be a steal for Seattle GM Bil La Forge.

Milic was named WHL Playoff MVP after going 16-3 with a 1.95 GAA, .933 SV% and playing in all but six minutes where the net was unmanned during the few occasions the Thunderbirds trailed in the 2023 post-season. In the regular season, he captured the Del Wilson Trophy as the league’s top netminder with an amazing 27-3-1 record, 2.08 GAA, and .928 SV% stat line.

Internationally, Milic stole the show in Halifax in January, leading Canada to its second straight gold medal with a 5-0, 1.76, .932. In a back-up role with Canada’s U18 team, Milic won both of his starts en route to Canada’s U18 gold in 2021. 

Now into his third year of draft eligibility, the 20-year-old Milic has little left to prove at the junior level, although a Memorial Cup victory would be the cherry on top to what has been an unbelievable and highly decorated career.

Ranked No. 28 on NHL Central Scouting’s North American goalie list, Milic hopes his winning track record will get him an NHL deal through either the draft or free agency should he pass through again. 

Dylan Guenther, LW: Guenther started the season with the Arizona Coyotes and played in 21 NHL games before being released to join Team Canada at the world juniors. It was a wise move for all parties involved as Guenther scored the overtime game-winning goal over Czechia to give Canada its second straight gold medal. 

Although the Thunderbirds dealt eight pieces away to the rebuilding Edmonton Oil Kings in order to acquire the rights to the right handed sniper, he didn’t reappear on the junior scene until he played 12 more NHL games through the end of the January after the WJC. 

A month after the Thunderbirds acquired him, Guenther was released to Seattle by Arizona and immediately went on a five-game heater. The irony of the trade is that it was Guenther and his Edmonton Oil Kings who defeated Seattle in the Ed Chynoweth Cup to earn a berth to the 2022 Memorial Cup. Guenther is now in rare company as a player who appeared in consecutive Memorial Cups with different teams. 

Guenther has scored at every level he’s ever played, and his lightning quick release and accurate shot make him a threat both in tight and from distance. With a winning pedigree and NHL experience, look for Guenther to be a key cog in Seattle’s offence in Kamloops. He enters the tournament with the most playoff goals (16) of any player. 

Brad Lambert, C: Projected to be a top five pick entering his draft year, the enigmatic Lambert fell to the 30th pick of the first round of the 2022 NHL draft where he was selected by the Winnipeg Jets. This after an impressive 16-year-old season in Finland’s top pro men’s league was followed by a mediocre draft minus-one season in the same loop. 

Lambert started this season with AHL Manitoba and posted three points in 14 games before being released to play for Finland at the world juniors. In his third WJC appearance, he produced just one goal in five contests. He arrived on the scene for Seattle in the middle of January, debuting in his dad’s home province with games in Prince Albert and Saskatoon, picking up points in both games. Upon his arrival, it looked as if Lambert was having fun playing the game again. An ultra smooth and speedy skater, Lambert is an extraordinary playmaker whose shot is also dangerous and gives Seattle yet another dual threat option. His 26 playoff points had him ranked second behind only Guenther.

Lambert’s uncle, Lane, remains behind the bench of the New York Islanders, while dad Ross still has roots in Saskatoon. 

Gracyn Sawchyn, C: Having defected from the USNTDP, the former Shattuck St. Mary’s standout made his mark with the Thunderbirds this season, scoring 58 points in 58 games played. At 5-foot-11, 165 pounds he’s not the biggest player on the ice, but he does play bigger than his size.

On a team full of veteran players, the right shot centre saw some time on the power play, where he put up 28 per cent of his points. Head coach Matt O’Dette was able to effectively use Sawchyn in the middle, where he won over 52 per cent of his faceoffs.  

Sawchyn’s ability to play an amazingly deceptive tight area game has attracted plenty of attention from NHL scouts. Currently ranked 24th by NHL Central Scouting, he made Sportsnet’s April rankings as the 28th-best player available for the 2023 draft, but narrowly missed out on being included in the May edition.

Nico Myatovic, RW: The most underrated, but perhaps the most appreciated, forward on the Thunderbirds is 18-year-old Myatovic. The Prince George, B.C. native was taken in the sixth round of the 2019 WHL Bantam draft. With his minor hockey Cariboo Cougars on the sidelines during the pandemic, Myatovic got into 12 games in the bubble, amazing with three goals.

In playing in all but one game during the 2021-22 regular season, Myatovic had four goals and 28 points, chipping-in with an additional three markers for eight points en route to the WHL finals.

A massive jump led to a 30/30 regular season, and a big bump from NHL Central Scouting’s mid-term to final rankings in which he moved from No. 47 on the list to first round consideration, ranked 26th in the final edition.

Currently ranked No. 32 on Sportsnet’s May rankings, Myatovic brings size, durability and reliability to the table. He’s often on the ice for the most important situations. His size and intelligent hockey mind also make him a perfect fit to match-up against the opponent’s best on any given night. 

QUEBEC REMPARTS

Justin Robidas: The son of Montreal Canadiens assistant coach and former NHLer Stephane, Justin was taken in the fifth round of the 2021 NHL draft by the Carolina Hurricanes. At 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, Robidas is not afraid to go to the difficult areas on the ice in order to produce offence. 

Patrick Roy got a head start on the trading period, acquiring Robidas from Val d’Or in mid-December. The move helped solidify Quebec’s top six and resulted in a point per game over the final 36 games of the regular season for the former second round QMJHL pick. 

Robidas was able to amass a Remparts-best 27 points in the playoffs, thanks to 10 multi-point playoff efforts over 18 games. 

Nathan Gaucher, C: Anaheim’s selection with the 22nd pick in the 2022 draft, Gaucher was limited to just 44 regular season games with the Remparts, returning for the last six games in order to get ready for the playoffs. Over that period, the 6-foot-3, 207-pound centre filled the net 22 times for 46 points. 

A complete player whose hard work is an inspiration to his teammates, “Lefty” is a physical force at the junior level. He scored seven goals for 16 points in 18 playoff games, although none of them came in the final against Halifax. Rest assured, the Mooseheads were well aware when Gaucher was on the ice. 

A two-time world junior gold medalist, Gaucher was named the QMJHL’s top defensive forward. He will be leaned on to provide veteran, winning experience for a Quebec team that hasn’t been to the dance since the Remparts hosted in 2015.

Zac Bolduc, LW: The St. Louis Blues first-round pick became the first QMJHL player to record back-to-back 50 goal seasons since Anthony Mantha did it 10 years ago. A deceptively fast skater, Bolduc is a shoot-first type player as evidenced by his 293 regular season shots on goal, which ranked him third in the league. He continued to shoot it often during the playoffs, adding another 93 darts to finish tied for the playoff lead. 

Since being moved from Rimouski to Quebec prior to the 2021-22 season, Bolduc has put up 209 regular season points. His shooting percentage is 17 per cent over the course of his 238 career games combined between the playoffs and regular season for Rimouski and Quebec. 

Don’t sleep on his silky smooth hands, which work well to protect the puck while in the cycle game, but equally as well when having to work in tight to the body. 

James Malatesta, RW: The Guy Lafleur Trophy winner as the QMJHL playoff MVP, Malatesta scored the game-winning goal in five of the 16 Remparts wins. He has spent his entire career playing for Patrick Roy in Quebec. Malatesta set career highs with 37 goals and 66 points in the regular season, while limited to 55 games played. 

A signed fifth-round pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2021 draft, Malatesta has grown his game immensely since being a part of Quebec’s gold medal-winning team in the 2019 Canada Winter Games. 

His 14 playoff markers are the most of any player in the tournament not named Dylan Guenther. 

Theo Rochette, C: It’s been a grind for the Remparts captain, who eclipsed the century mark for the first time in his career with 106 regular season points. The seventh overall pick from the 2018 QMJHL draft, Rochette entered the league with Chicoutimi and came with first-round NHL expectations. The now 21-year old had 43 points with the Sags in the 2018-19 season, but was dealt to Quebec midway through his second season.

Under Roy, Rochette was given an “A” during the pandemic 2020-21 season, and elevated to captain, a title he’s held the past two seasons. His production carried over to the playoffs, where he put up 21 points in 18 games played.  

Rochette grew up playing his minor hockey in Switzerland where his dad Stephane had a successful run as a referee before getting into player development and coaching. 

Never drafted into the NHL, Rochette has been to camps with both Toronto and Philadelphia. The Memorial Cup will offer one final opportunity to be seen by every team in hopes of skating away with a pro deal. 

PETERBOROUGH PETES

Brennan Othmann, LW: Othmann’s career started in Flint where as a rookie he scored a respectable 17 goals and 33 points in 55 games played. In his draft year, he was named captain of the Firebirds and scored 50 goals en route to a 97-point season. 

Looking to be moved, Othmann was dealt to Peterborough on Nov. 12, signalling the Petes were all-in. Othmann went on to put up 43 points in 40 regular season games with his new team. 

Othmann once graced the ice with the famed Don Mills Flyers minor hockey team alongside Shane Wright. His greatest play may have been making a move to Switzerland during the 2020-21 season where the OHL did not play. In Olten, he put up 16 points in 34 games and was able to continue his development when many other Ontario-born players weren’t able to. 

Othmann’s play alongside Connor Bedard and Wright at the 2021 U18 worlds not only led to a gold medal, but also put him on the map as a potential first-round pick. That became a reality when the Rangers selected him with the 16th overall pick in the 2021 NHL Draft. 

A three-time gold medalist with Canada, Othmann’s grinding, in-your-face style should be the perfect catalyst for Peterborough to start the tournament on time. 

Tucker Robertson, C: Because he was idle during his draft year, Robertson was not selected until Seattle took him in the fourth round of the 2022 NHL Draft in his second year of eligibility. Ironically, it’s the same round Peterborough took him in the OHL Priority Selection three years earlier.

From then on, his point progression has been stellar. As a rookie in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season, Robertson put up eight goals and 18 points in 55 games. With nowhere to play the next season, Robertson came back with a vengeance in 2021-22 when he scored 41 goals for 81 points and followed that up with 90 regular season points this season. He’s played in all 136 Petes games over the past two seasons.

Known for his tenacity and goal scoring ability, Robertson is also adept in the circle, where he finished third in the league with a 58.5 per cent faceoff win efficiency. That number jumped up over 62 per cent in the playoffs. 

His work was particularly impressive in the J. Ross Robertson Cup clincher, where he scored the game-winning goal and assisted on Peterborough’s only other marker while winning 26 of 37 faceoffs to send the Petes to the Memorial Cup for the first time since 2006.

Chase Stillman, RW: Winning runs in the Stillman family. Dad Cory won an OHL title with the Petes in 1993 before winning two Stanley Cups. Brother Riley won the J. Ross Robertson Cup with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2018. Chase is now a champion, headed to the Memorial Cup. 

Acquired from Sudbury for one player and five draft picks during the 2021-22 season, Stillman, a first round pick of the New Jersey Devils, has provided a steady two-way game with the propensity to get underneath the opponents’ skin. 

Stillman had 48 regular season points in 59 games, adding four goals for 13 points in the playoffs, while becoming a plus player (plus-5) for the first time in his OHL career. The pesky Petes alternate captain won a U18 gold with Canada in 2021, and will look to continue that winning tradition in Kamloops. 

J.R. Avon, LW: No one epitomizes the city of Peterborough more than Avon. From nearby Selwyn, Ontario, Avon is by all accounts a local product. Taken 11th overall in the 2019 OHL Priority selection, Avon produced back-to-back 29-goal regular seasons. 

Avon attended Philadelphia’s training camp in September and walked away with a three-year entry level deal, a rare feat for any player. 

Moved to the wing for the 2022-23 season, Avon is able to use his speed and competitiveness to get in early on the forecheck. His work ethic, smarts and willingness to block shots make him an effective penalty killer as evidenced by his four shorthanded goals this season. 

His two-goal effort in Game 4 propelled the Petes to a 5-3 win and put the Knights on the brink. Overall, Avon put up 15 points in 23 playoff games. He’s the heart and soul of the Petes’ attack.          

Michael Simpson, G: There may be no better story for the OHL champions than Simpson’s. He was a 10th round pick in the 2019 OHL Priority selection and had just 34 games of experience in minor hockey before becoming Peterborough’s starter for the 2021-22 season. The numbers weren’t stellar last year, with a sub .900 save percentage and a GAA above 3.50.

GM Mike Oke and head coach Rob Wilson decided to stick with Simpson as the starter and built a fortress around him. The move paid off. Simpson improved to 24-22-2, 2.73 GAA, and a .914 save percentage in the regular season. 

Simpson took his game to the next level in the playoffs, with a 16-7 record, 2.89 GAA, and .917 SV% stat line to earn the Wayne Gretzky Trophy as the OHL’s playoff MVP. A London native, Simpson’s best work was against his hometown team in the finals. He didn’t see fewer than 31 shots in any of the six games against London, and his handy work included two 50-save performances, stealing both games two and four of the series.

Undrafted, standing at 6-foot-1, and 198 pounds, Simpson will look to make his mark on NHL teams while trying to lead the Petes to their second ever Memorial Cup and first since 1979.

KAMLOOPS BLAZERS

Logan Stankoven, C: The Memorial Cup means something to everyone, but it may mean the most to the Kamloops-born Stankoven. Stankoven is essentially the piece this Cup roster has been built around. A Dallas Stars second-rounder from the 2021 draft, Stankoven has scored at every level and at every event. 

Stankoven helped lead Canada to gold at the 2021 U18’s, graduating to win two more world junior golds last August and again in January. In regular season play, the Blazers captain backed up a 104-point season a year ago by chipping in 97 points this year, despite playing in just 48 games. In each of the past two seasons, he’s led the WHL in playoff scoring with 31 and 30 points respectively, despite his team not making the league final in either post-season. 

The 5-foot-8, 170-pound centre and 2022 WHL Player of the Year, has a motor that doesn’t quit. He’s quick to the corners to retrieve pucks, he can beat you wide despite a shorter stride and he’s elusive enough to wiggle out of tight areas. Stankoven can elevate the puck quickly and do so with little space. With a low centre of gravity, Stankoven has proven to be a tough out in the faceoff circle where he’s won more than 55 per cent of his playoff draws. 

A leader by nature and a stalwart in the community, the Blazers will lean heavily on Stankoven to provide energy and engage the hometown crowd.  

Olen Zellweger, D: Zellweger, along with Washington prospect Ryan Hofer, was acquired from Everett for four players and 10 draft picks at the WHL trade deadline. The acquisition gave the Blazers an element they haven’t had in some time, an elite offensive defenceman. 

Zellweger, an Anaheim second-rounder, made his mark by taking over PP1 quarterback duties from L.A. Kings prospect Brandt Clarke during a gold medal run to the 2021 U18 worlds. He continued his solid play as a member of back-to-back world junior gold medal-winning teams.

Zellweger is a two-time winner of the Bill Hunter Award as the WHL’s top defenceman. His 32 goals this season were the most scored by any defenceman in all the CHL. 

The Blazers rearguard has excellent puck handling abilities and is a highly effective puck mover who defends better than his offensive numbers might suggest. Zellweger also provides a little bite in his game and can deliver thunderous open ice checks to unsuspecting opponents. 

Matthew Seminoff, RW: The Leesburg, Virginia-born Seminoff has spent his entire career in Kamloops, increasing his point production in each of his four seasons to a career high 82 this year.  

Seminoff went down swinging, saving his best post-season performance for the final series against Seattle in which he had points in each of the final five games of the six-game Seattle win. 

The crowning moment for the Dallas Stars’ sixth-round pick occurred on March 15 when the Blazers played host to the Victoria Royals. Seminoff opened the scoring just 59 seconds into the game and went on to a four-goal, eight-point night. 

Seminoff is known for his strong two-way play and an ability to work within 15-20 feet from the net. 

Connor Levis, RW: On a team loaded with drafted prospects and veteran junior players, Levis sticks out as one of the few draft eligibles on the Blazers’ roster. He’s currently ranked 75th by NHL Central Scouting, a slight drop from his 60th ranking at the mid-term. 

At 6-foot-1, 187 pounds, Levis has a frame with potential for plenty of growth.  As durable as they come, he’s played in every game (regular and post-season) for the Blazers each of the past two years. 

Caedan Bankier, C: A third-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, Bankier is a prototypical power forward. Another homegrown Blazer, taken in the third round of the 2018 WHL Bantam draft, Bankier has increased his point totals in each of his four years. His season in 2022-23 included point streaks of 10 and 15 games en route to a career-best 37 goals and 85 points. 

Bankier is at his best in pressure situations where physical play is heightened. Over the last two playoff campaigns, he’s combined to put up 29 points in 31 games, 12 of which have been goals. In a fourth line role for Canada at the world juniors, he was extremely effective using his big frame to get in on the forecheck while bumping bodies all over the ice. He plays with a ton of energy and can engage the crowd with a big hit or a skilled goal. 

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