DeBrincat, Strome lead explosive Otters into Memorial Cup
OHL champions pose big challenge to host Windsor, Saint John, Seattle
The 99th edition of the Memorial Cup begins Friday, with the host Windsor Spitfires facing the Saint John Sea Dogs.
Following round-robin play, the championship game is set for May 29.
Here's a look at the four teams competing for the Canadian Hockey League's biggest prize:
Windsor Spitfires, Host
Regular-season record: 41-19-8, No. 5 in OHL standings
Memorial Cup history: Fourth appearance, won in 2009 and 2010
Head coach: Rocky Thompson
The Spitfires finished the OHL season with the fifth most points of the 20-team league, but made a first-round exit in the playoffs after losing a seven-game set to the 2016 Memorial Cup champion London Knights.
Windsor will have gone 44 days between their Game 7 exit in early April and the Memorial Cup opener.
The Spitfires have 11 skaters that are NHL draft picks, with their defensive core deep in potential NHL talent.
The blue-line includes 2016 first-round picks Mikhail Sergechev (No. 9 Montreal) and Logan Stanley (No. 18 Winnipeg), who has been cleared to play after sitting out with a knee injury since January. Windsor also has third-round selection Sean Day (No. 81 Rangers), who was acquired in an early-season trade from the Mississauga Steelheads, and Jalen Chatfield, who signed an NHL contract as a free agent with the Vancouver Canucks.
Up front, Windsor has 2016-first rounder Logan Brown (No. 11 Ottawa) and 2015 second-rounder Jeremy Bracco (No. 61 Toronto), who was acquired near the OHL trade deadline from the Kitchener Rangers. The Spitfires' leading scorer from the regular season is NHL draft-eligible centre Gabriel Vilardi. The 17-year-old had 29 goals and 61 points in 49 games and is ranked No. 4 on the NHL's central scouting list for the 2017 draft.
Michael DiPietro, who is also eligible for the 2017 draft, will be expected to carry the workload in net. The 17-year-old went 30-12-2 in 51 regular-season starts, with a .917 save percentage and a franchise-best 2.35 goals-against average.
Erie Otters, OHL champions
Regular-season record: 50-15-3, No. 2 in CHL rankings
Memorial Cup history: Second appearance
Head coach: Kris Knoblauch
The Otters were the top team in the Ontario Hockey League regular season and had little trouble in the playoffs despite coming out of the difficult Western Conference en route to winning their first league championship since 2002.
Erie has eight skaters who have been drafted by an NHL team, and perhaps is the most offensively explosive club at the tournament.
Most of the Otters' NHL-calibre talent is spread out at forward, with 2015 first-round pick Dylan Strome (No. 3 Arizona) and 2016 second rounder Alex DeBrincat (No. 39 Chicago) leading the charge. Strome produced 22 goals and 75 points in 35 regular-season games after being returned from the Coyotes. DeBrincat scored 65 times in 63 games this past season, finishing with 127 points. DeBrincat and Strome followed that up with 38 points and 34 points, respectively, in the post-season.
Another duo to pose a threat for the Otters is the Raddysh brothers, Taylor and Darren. Selected in the second round in 2016, the younger Taylor (No. 58 Tampa Bay) produced 42 goals and 109 points in the regular season on the wing while Darren, an overager, led all OHL blue liners with 16 goals and 81 points in 62 games, earning the league's outstanding defenceman award.
Erie added to its depth up front by acquiring 2014 third-round pick Warren Foegele (No. 67 Carolina) from Kingston and 2015 third rounder Anthony Cirelli (No. 72 Tampa Bay) from Oshawa via trades. Foegele, an overager, earned playoff MVP despite finishing fifth in team scoring. Meanwhile, Cirelli brings clutch experience to the roster. He scored the winning goal in overtime for the Generals at the 2015 Memorial Cup, and most recently the OT winner for Erie in the OHL final against Mississauga.
Troy Timpano has carried much of the load in net this season and will likely be in net when Erie opens its tournament against Seattle on May 20. Timpano went 13-5 in the OHL playoffs with a 2.73 GAA and .895 save percentage.
Saint John Sea Dogs, QMJHL champions
Regular-season record: 48-14-6, No. 3 in CHL rankings
Memorial Cup history: Third appearance, won in 2011
Head coach: Danny Flynn
The Sea Dogs finished the regular season as the top team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and cruised their way to the league championship, going 16-2 in the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the final.
Overage forward Matthew Highmore led the team in points in both the regular season and the playoffs. The 21-year-old was overlooked in the NHL draft, but signed a contract with the Chicago Blackhawks this past summer.
Saint John has 10 skaters that are NHL prospects, with defenceman Thomas Chabot leading the way. The 2015 first-round pick (No. 18 Ottawa) produced 23 points in 18 post-season games and was named playoff MVP. The Sea Dogs also have 2015 first-round pick Jakub Zboril (No. 13 Boston) and 2015 sixth rounder Simon Bourque (No. 177 Montreal) to share the workload with Chabot on the blue-line.
Up front, Windsor has 2016 first rounder Julien Gauthier (No. 21 Carolina) as well as 2015 fourth-round pick Mathieu Joseph (No. 120 Tampa Bay), 2015 fifth rounder Spencer Smallman (No. 138 Carolina) and 2015 sixth-round pick Bokondji Imama (No. 180 Tampa Bay), who scored a team-high 41 goals in 66 regular-season games.
Joey Veleno, the first player ever to be given exceptional player status in the QMJHL when he was 15, gives Saint John some added depth.
Goaltender Callum Booth, acquired from Quebec Remparts mid-season, should start. The 2015 fourth-round pick (No. 93 Carolina) was in net for all 18 playoff games and put up a 1.67 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.
Seattle Thunderbirds, WHL champions
Regular-season record: 46-20-6, No. 4 in WHL standings
Memorial Cup history: First appearance
Head coach: Steve Konowalchuk
The Thunderbirds finished the regular season with the fourth-highest point total of the 22 teams in the Western Hockey League, but still had to take the hard road to their first league championship in franchise history.
Seattle went 16-4 in the post-season despite having to knock off the U.S. Division champion Everett Silvertips and the No. 1 ranked team in the country, the Regina Pats. in the final.
The Thunderbirds have the fewest NHL prospects on their roster with four, but all played a part in the team's success.
Led by 2015 first rounder Mathew Barzal (No. 16 Islanders) up front, Seattle also has 2015 second-round pick Ryan Gropp (No. 41 Rangers) and 2015 third rounder Keegan Kolesar (No. 69 Columbus).
Barzal missed the first round of the playoffs with an illness but bounced back to produce seven goals and 25 points in 16 games to be named playoff MVP. Meanwhile, Kolesar led all skaters in the playoffs with 12 goals and 31 points in 19 outings.
On the blue-line, Seattle has 2015 fifth rounder Ethan Bear (No. 124) to help carry the work load. Bear was a point-per game player in the regular season and stepped it up in the playoffs, leading all defencemen with six goals and 26 points in 17 games. Jarret Tyszka, who is eligible for the 2017 draft, will have a chance to raise his stock.
Seattle rode Rylan Toth in net for the regular season, but he went down with a lower-body injury right before the playoffs and 17-year-old rookie Carl Stankowski filled in despite having only five prior career starts to his name. Stankowski started all 20 post-season games and had a 2.50 goals-against average and .911 save percentage.