BRANDON — Junior hockey’s version of the Final Four is ready to roll.
The champions from each of the CHL’s three leagues and the host Wheat Kings will do battle in Brandon over the next week.
The race for the Memorial Cup begins Friday night.
If the Wheaties, Calgary Hitmen or Moncton Wildcats hope to hoist the junior circuit’s Holy Grail, they’ll have to take it from the Windsor Spitfires. That will be no easy task.
The defending Memorial Cup champions are back and boast the best top-end talent in the country.
Led by highly touted NHL draft prospect Taylor Hall, who won the MVP at last year’s tournament, the Spitfires arrived in the Wheat City as the favourites.
Hall is joined by Team Canada world junior stars Greg Nemisz, Ryan Ellis and OHL playoff MVP Adam Henrique as well as Team USA gold medallist Cam Fowler, who will also be a top pick in this summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
The OHL champs stumbled once during their playoff march, falling behind the Kitchener Rangers three games to nothing before rebounding to win the series in seven. The only possible holes keeping the Spitfires from becoming the first repeat champs since the 1994-95 Kamloops Blazers are goaltending and the club’s commitment to defence.
German goaltender Philipp Grubauer was acquired in a deadline deal, but he’s been mediocre, at best.
The Hitmen have no such questions in goal. Martin Jones is the best ’tender in the tournament and perhaps the entire country.
Wildcats puckstopper Nicola Riopel is certainly no slouch, though. The Philadelphia Flyers prospect was the QMJHL’s MVP last season.
Brandon starter Jacob DeSerres is somewhat of a wildcard, giving up the starter’s job twice to Andrew Hayes during the WHL playoffs.
But the Wheat Kings are the only team that can come close to matching the Spitfires offensive firepower.
Team Canada world junior star Brayden Schenn, fellow NHL first-round pick Scott Glennie and overager Matt Calvert are as explosive as they come.
In addition to having Jones, the WHL goaltender of the year, between the pipes, the Hitmen may have the deepest, most well-balanced roster at the event.
CHL leading scorer Brandon Kozun, assuming his injured ankle allows him to play, will garner most of the attention from opposing teams.
But with the likes of Joel Broda, Cody Sylvester and Kris Foucault contributing consistently, the Calgary club will be a handful for anyone.
Especially if they play their patented physical game. But the experience the Spitfires gained from last year’s march could prove invaluable.
Hall won the MVP of last spring’s tournament as a sophomore. He’s already proven what he can do on the big stage.
And, with this being his last chance to showcase his skills in front of NHL scouts, in hopes of going No. 1 overall, he won’t lack for motivation.
The Spitfires are the team to beat.