For the CHL, Major Junior hockey comes to a finale as Red Deer plays host to the MasterCard Memorial Cup. The Memorial Cup, for those unfamiliar with Major Junior hockey, is the final tournament of the year. This tournament brings together the champions of the QJMHL, the OHL, and the WHL with a host team. These four teams then compete in a week-long round robin tournament from which one emerges as the Memorial Cup Champion.
The teams that made the journey to the Memorial Cup this year include the Red Deer Rebels, who received entry into the tournament as the host and may be the biggest team in the tournament; the London Knights, who arrive as champions of the OHL and the fastest team in the tournament; the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies from the QMJHL, who bring the dubious honour of being the top-ranked team in the CHL; and the WHL Champion Brandon Wheat Kings, who have an intriguing (or infuriating) mix of size and speed to go with their skilled players.
The host team for this year is the Red Deer Rebels, a WHL team known for a physical and gritty style of play. The Rebels are also the team where former Colorado prospect – now a prospect for Arizona – Conner Bleackley has played his junior hockey. Bleackley has returned to the Memorial Cup from an injury sustained at the end of the season. Bleackley managed an assist in the game against Rouyn-Noranda and had a strong performance against the London Knights in the opening game. However, he’s been more a supporting character in the Rebels story due to injuries, and Colorado may feel that Bleackley is a risk they are well rid of.
Colorado has three prospects on the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, which account for all of the Avalanche organization prospects in the tournament. The Huskies have AJ Greer, Julien Nantel, and JC Beaudin. These three prospects are, amusingly enough, a LW, a C, and a RW, but they don’t play on the same line for the Huskies -- that would be too easy to talk about.
Greer can be found playing on a line with Francis Perron, who was a QMJHL top scorer. Greer has scored one goal so far during the Memorial Cup, but picked up a worrisome 22 PIMs. (As I write this, Greer is once again adding to is penalty minute total versus the London Knights.) While Greer has an edge to his play, he also has to be careful not to lose his temper. There’s very little latitude in tournaments like the Memorial Cup for temper tantrums like the one he pitched against the Rebels. It’s no stretch to imagine a similar lack of tolerance as he moves on in is professional career.
There are some things that are apparent whenever Greer is on the ice though. First, he’s strong. He’s not just strong on the puck, he’s physically strong, and he’s not sacrificing a lot of speed to get that strength. During the game against Red Deer, there were several times where Greer just went after the puck like a wrecking ball – willing to flatten anyone between him and it. This unabashed physicality is more the hallmark of WHL players and may have something to do with Greer’s developmental path until he joined the CHL. However, that almost unthinking physicality is what sends Greer to the penalty box as well. He hasn’t gotten a good rein on his temper, and it shows when he plays. Greer has impressive speed and is able to shelter the puck well when entering the offensive zone.
Julien Nantal has a similarly slow start in points during this Memorial Cup. He has one goal, but it’s the type of goal that makes an impression. Nantal picked up the puck off a rebound from his own goaltender, went down the length of the ice on a breakaway, around the Red Deer defender, and then handily put the puck past the Red Deer goalie. From one end of the ice to the other and into the net, Nantal's goal was an impressive display of his ability. Nantal managed to stay out of the penalty box despite playing a physical game when required.
Nantal’s only 6’ tall, but he seems bigger on the ice, and he’s very good at picking his spots to use physicality effectively. In this respect, he’s much more effective than Greer. Of the three players during the Sunday night’s game, Nantal was the most impressive. He kept his composure in trying circumstances, he kept trying to create changes, and he can definitely read what’s happening on the ice and react appropriately.
JC Beaudin is the third Avalanche prospect with the Huskies, and he played the quietest game on Sunday. So far, he’s collected no points in the Memorial Cup, but his defensive play was something that stood out. Beaudin blocked shots and displayed an excellent hockey sense during the Rebels’ multiple power play opportunities. Like Nantal, Beaudin allowed himself to play a physical game, but picked his spots for the greatest return. After watching Greer attempt to indeterminately destroy the opposition, Beaudin’s more tactical approach was appreciated. And like Nantal, it helped him avoid the penalty box, which has been the downfall of each losing team thus far in the Memorial Cup.
The most notable take away from the Memorial Cup is that AJ Greer needs better control of his temper. He’s an amazing player when he’s on the ice, but he does his team no good when he’s in the box or watching from the dressing room. While none of the Avalanche prospects stand out in the way Mitchell Marner has at this tournament, they have been solid. The tournament has been an good opportunity to see how the Avalanche’s prospects stack up against some of the best-drafted talent and other names which have been highly esteemed by scouts. Beyond all of that, the Avalanche have had a chance to look at some players they may wish to draft playing at an elite level.
Rouyn Noranda takes on host Red Deer tonight in the semi-finals at 6:00 pm MST.