Memorial Cup could be best in seven years

London Knights Scott Harrington celebrates in London, Ontario on Friday, May 11, 2012. (QMI...

London Knights Scott Harrington celebrates in London, Ontario on Friday, May 11, 2012. (QMI Agency/Derek Ruttan)

RYAN PYETTE, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:22 PM ET

There's only one thing missing from this Memorial Cup.

An NHL lockout to grant it centre stage.

When labour woes cancelled the Stanley Cup tournament in 2005, the spotlight shone brightly on the Canadian Hockey League's showcase event at London, Ont., and the 10-day series of puck soirees which starts Friday in Shawinigan, Que., sets up to be the highest-calibre Memorial Cup since that classic seven years ago.

There isn't a Sidney Crosby-like talent to track this go-round -- you'll have to make do with Florida's third overall pick, Jonathan Huberdeau of the Saint John Sea Dogs, once again -- but there are zero pretenders here.

Four of the CHL's top five-ranked teams are in the mix.

None of the three league champs -- Quebec representative Saint John, London of the OHL and Edmonton from the West - won fewer than 49 games. They blasted through the playoffs with only the Oil Kings needing a Game 7 pressure-cooker at home against Portland to punch their ticket to La Belle Province.

The host Shawinigan Cataractes lost a second-round Game 7 in a Q-league upset special by Chicoutimi, but they're no pushovers, either. They won 45 games, finished second to Saint John and surrendered the fewest goals in their league.

Each team has one defenceman who played for the Canadian world junior squad -- Shawinigan's Brandon Gormley, Edmonton captain Mark Pysyk, Saint John's Nathan Beaulieu and London's Scott Harrington.

Just like 2005, the Hunter-led Knights are back in the tournament.

This time, it's Mark Hunter serving as general manager and coach. Dale Hunter made a splash Monday by leaving his short-lived gig in charge of the Washington Capitals to return to London, but the co-owner and president's primary function will be as an adviser in Quebec.

Unlike 2005, the Knights are not the clear-cut favourite. That label belongs to the Gerard Gallant-coached powerhouse Saint John, which was the first Maritime team to win the Cup, last year in Mississauga.

The Sea Dogs return with numerous familiar faces, trying to make it back-to-back titles just like the Windsor Spitfires in 2009-10.

The Edmonton Oil Kings brand, if you followed junior hockey during the 1960s, is a familiar one. Back in those golden years, it felt like they made it to the Cup final every spring.

But this isn't the same outfit. This crew was started up by the Oilers owners six years ago as an expansion team, but the Oil Kings stopped playing like one in a hurry.

They can win it all this year and are young enough to be back next season, too.

The young Knights are in the same boat.

Back-to-back looks are starting to become a theme in major junior hockey.

SAINT JOHN SEA DOGS

* Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champions and defending Memorial Cup champs

Coach: Gerard Gallant. Two-time reigning Canadian Hockey League coach of the year.

Regular season: 50-15-0-3, 103 points. Didn't match 58 wins from previous season but played most of it without their full lineup. Finished season ranked first overall in CHL.

Playoffs: Rolled 16-1 through the playoffs. Lone defeat in Game 3 of the semifinal at Chicoutimi in overtime. Never trailed in four-game final sweep of Rimouski.

Big guns: The Sea Dogs were already good. Then, Minnesota Wild prospect Charlie Coyle left Boston University to join them. He racked up 15 goals and 34 points in playoff MVP performance ... Russian Stanislav Galiev had 34 points, too, including five in the playoff finale ... Florida's third overall pick, Jonathan Huberdeau, was Saint John's scoring hero last year in Mississauga. Sea Dogs captain had 72 points in 37 games this season ... Overager Danick Gauthier scored 47 times during the season ... Reedy overage G Mathieu Corbeil has 55 combined regular season and playoff wins after serving as backup last season.

NHL property: Eleven players, including Minnesota Wild first-rounder Zack Phillips.

Franchise history: The McCain-owned Sea Dogs lost 55 games as an expansion team in 2005-06. They are riding three consecutive 50-win seasons, having become the first Maritime team to win the Memorial Cup last year in Mississauga.

Motivating factor: Saint John bid on this event and, despite its powerhouse squad, lost. Best revenge is to hoist the Cup on Shawinigan ice.

LONDON KNIGHTS

* Ontario Hockey League champions ahead of schedule

General manager/coach: Mark Hunter. First coach in OHL history to take over during the season and win league title. Older brother Dale left in late November to take over NHL's Washington Capitals, but has returned and has said he wouldn't coach. His son Dylan is on the bench.

Regular season: 49-18-0-1, 99 points. Lost back-to-back games twice. Never dropped three in a row.

Playoffs: Went 16-3, including 8-1 on the road and swept rivals Windsor and Kitchener. Haven't lost in regulation since April 9 at home against Saginaw in Game 3 of the second round.

Big guns: Playoff MVP Austin Watson (10-7-17) does it all. Nashville first-rounder scores big goals, shuts down top lines and blocks shots like a machine ... G Michael Houser is the OHL's most outstanding player and goalie of the year. He's the backbone ... Finnish top import pick Olli Maatta (6-17-23) had one of the best playoffs by a defencemen in franchise history and is one of three world junior players on the blue line (along with Scott Harrington, Jarred Tinordi) ... Seth Griffith scored 45 goals during the season, then 10 more during the playoffs ... Gritty Ryan Rupert, a Dale Hunter clone, scored four of his nine playoff goals during the league final against Niagara ... Nearly half of the players on this promising team are 17 or younger, including first-round rookies Max Domi and Bo Horvat.

NHL property: Six players. Group includes captain Jarred Tinordi (Montreal) and Tampa first-rounder Vladislav Namestnikov.

Franchise history: Second OHL title. Won Memorial Cup in only previous appearance on home ice, seven years ago.

Motivating factor: Launching a new dynasty and trying to re-capture 2005 glory.

SHAWINIGAN CATARACTES

* Host team waiting impatiently the past month

Coach: Eric Veilleux. Top scorer on 1993 Laval Titan Memorial Cup semifinalist in Sault Ste. Marie, now in his seventh year behind Cats bench.

Regular season: 45-16-3-4, 97 points. Second overall in the QMJHL behind Saint John. Went 22-8-1-3 on home ice at Centre Bionest but actually had one more win on the road.

Playoffs: Lost Game 7 shocker on home ice to Chicoutimi in the second round. Haven't played a game since April 17.

Big guns: Russian F Anton Zlobin (40-36-76) only Cat among top-20 scorers, but the team had a whopping eight 20-goal men ... Much of the crease time this season went to 17-year-old G Alex Dubeau (2.56 goals-against average, .904 save percentage). The Cats had the lowest GAA in the Quebec league this season . . . Canadian world junior F and Montreal prospect Michael Bournival had 30 goals in 41 games, but scored only once during the playoffs ... Watch out for Russian Kirill Kabanov, who had another strong post-season ... The defence includes Morgan Ellis (27 points in 26 games after trade from Cape Breton) and veteran Phoenix first-rounder Brandon Gormley, QMJHL's first overall pick by Moncton in 2008.

NHL property: Eight players. Philly pick Michael Chaput can do some damage up front.

Franchise history: Founding members of the QMJHL, the Cataractes have never won the league title. They lost Game 7 of the final to Drummondville in 2009. They made it to the Cup final in 1985 as host team (losing to Prince Albert), even though most of the tournament was moved to Drummondville because of arena deficiencies.

Motivating factor: They're out to erase their playoff flop and prove they're just as good as the three league champs.

EDMONTON OIL KINGS

* Western Hockey League champs bubble to the surface

Coach: Derek Laxdal. Former Toronto Maple Leaf was a member of 1983 Memorial Cup champion Portland Winterhawks.

Regular season: 50-15-3-4, 107 points. Finished the schedule on an 11-game winning streak and kept rolling.

Playoffs: 16-4, needing a Game 7 victory over Portland at home on Sunday night to qualify for the tournament.

Big guns: Busy veteran G Laurent Brossoit showed little fatigue from 61 regular-season appearances He was named MVP of the WHL championship series ... Rookie Curtis Lazar, a 17-year-old from Vernon, B.C., led team in playoff scoring (8-11-19) ... Edmonton native and overage F Rhett Rachinski scored one of his seven post-season goals in overtime to knot up league final 2-2 ... Top NHL prospect D Griffin Reinhart (team-best plus-14 in playoffs) is the son of former NHLer Paul Reinhart. Brothers Max and Sam part of last year's WHL champion Kootenay Ice ... Henrik Samuelsson, whose dad, Ulf, was a notorious NHL defenceman, suspended a game during the league final. The 17-year-old F from Scottsdale, Ariz., had 14 points in 17 playoff games ... New York Rangers pick Michael St. Croix scored 45 times and had 105 points -- 25 more than his closest teammate, Dylan Wruck.

NHL property: Seven players. Buffalo first-rounder Mark Pysyk played for the Canadian world junior team in Alberta this year.

Franchise history: Fifth season in team's history. Ownership group is same as the Oilers -- Daryl Katz' Rexall Sports. Previous incarnations of the Oil King brand won Memorial Cups in 1963 and 1966 and went to the Cup final eight times during an 11-year span (1960-71).

Motivating factor: Building joy to ease Oilers' pain.

HOCKEY TIES

* The hockey world is small, the select group in the Memorial Cup even smaller. There are bloodlines, puck family trees and old friendships at this year's tournament in Shawinigan

-- Saint John star defenceman Nathan Beaulieu's father, Jacques, now the Sarnia Sting general manager/coach, served as a London Knights assistant before and after he ran the Sea Dogs (2006-09). He was part of the Knights' 2005 Memorial Cup champion team and Nathan grew up at the John Labatt Centre.

-- Edmonton coach Derek Laxdal was a teammate of London Knights rookie forward Max Domi's dad, Tie, then a teenager, in 1989-90 with the Newmarket Saints, the Toronto Maple Leafs' former AHL affiliate.

-- Edmonton forward Michael St. Croix is the son of former NHL goalie Rick St. Croix, who helped the Randy Carlyle-led Manitoba Moose in 1999-2000 when Shawinigan coach Eric Veilleux played forward for Winnipeg's International league entry.

-- Edmonton defenceman Keegan Lowe's dad, Kevin, celebrated three Stanley Cups during the 1980s with Oilers teammate Dave Hunter, who is the brother of London Knights co-owners Dale and Mark Hunter. To boot, Shawinigan defenceman Morgan Ellis was named the best defensive defenceman in the Quebec league and received a trophy named after Keegan Lowe's father.

NUMBERS GAME

* A look at the members of the 2012 Canadian world junior team who will be playing in this Memorial Cup tournament. Each Cup team has one of the seven defencemen

Saint John: Nathan Beaulieu, Jonathan Huberdeau

London: Scott Harrington

Shawinigan: Brandon Gormley, Michael Bournival

Edmonton: Mark Pysyk


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