If one wants to gauge the success of the Plymouth Whalers, look no further than Whitby native James Neal.
The Ontario Hockey League champion Whalers, who open the 2007 Memorial Cup tomorrow night in Vancouver against the host Giants, pride themselves on being deep with a solid 20-man roster that has few, if any, holes. Forwards are expected to be adept on both sides of the puck.
Neal, a Dallas Stars prospect, led the Whalers in the OHL playoffs with 25 points. But he is the same player who recorded no points in six games this past winter for Canada when it won gold at the world junior championship in Sweden. Then, he was a solid defensive player in checking role for Canada.
Though his Whalers teammates are not on the same level, they're cut from the same cloth.
"I don't think we really have anyone on this team that is weak defensively," Whalers captain Steve Ward said. "We've had some guys we've picked up who didn't have to play two ways before, but when they got here it changed. We take it seriously."
Neal, who signed with the Stars last October, didn't mind fading from the spotlight with Canada but is glad to be front and centre with the Whalers.
"I'm counted on more in a bigger role here," Neal said. "What happened at Christmas was special, and to top this season off with a Memorial Cup would be pretty wild. We're happy we won the OHL championship, but we're not finished. We have one more thing we have to get done."
The Whalers are back at the Memorial Cup for the first time since 1995, when they were known as the Detroit Jr. Red Wings and Paul Maurice was coach, but the franchise is looking for its first Cup. Washington Capitals prospect Michal Neuvirth will get the call in goal, but the Whalers can fall back on Jeremy Smith, the top-ranked netminder in North America by NHL central scouting for the draft. Ward is one of six defencemen general manager/coach Mike Vellucci can put on the ice at any time and be confident things won't go awry.
Neal leads a steady forward corps that includes Daniel Ryder, Evan Brophey, Chris Terry and Dan Collins.
He has a balanced club, but Vellucci believes Neal is the driving force.
"I've always said he was underappreciated in that 1987 birth year," Vellucci said. "After he signed with Dallas, he got even better. And when he played for Canada, he finally got the respect he was due.
"We're looking forward to getting right at it (tomorrow night) and we know he is going to be there for us."
Coach: Clement Jodoin
Skinny: Swept three of four playoff series and lost just once in 17 post-season games after recording a league-high 106 points in regular season ... G Jonathan Bernier, the 11th pick overall by Los Angeles last year, was named playoffs MVP ... C David Perron, ranked 10th in North America by NHL Central Scouting for the draft next month, led club with 28 points in playoffs ... C Marc-Andre Cliche, a New York Rangers prospect, was a good defensive forward for Canada at world junior this past winter.
MEDICINE HAT TIGERS
Coach: Willie Desjardins
Skinny: G Matt Keetley, a Calgary Flames prospect, was named WHL playoffs MVP... C Darren Helm led Tigers in playoff scoring and D Kris Russell was third. Both played for Canada at the world junior this past winter ... The Tigers were 13-0 in playoffs when they scored first ... Medicine Hat won 2004 WHL championship but lost in the Memorial Cup semi-final. It's going for its third Cup crown and first since 1988 ... F Derek Dorsett is the Tigers' resident agitator.
Coach: Don Hay
Skinny: The Giants, partly owned by Pat Quinn, won the WHL title last year and lost in double overtime to Medicine Hat in Game 7 of the final this year ... Prospect Michal Repik led WHL in playoffs with 26 points ... Two Giants -- D Cody Franson and LW Kenndal McArdle -- won gold with Canada at world junior in Sweden ... D Jonathan Blum is ranked 17th by NHL Central Scouting for the draft ... Tyson Sexsmith took over in goal after Dustin Slade left team in a huff in the fall.