The most wonderful time of the junior hockey season is here: The Memorial Cup! Each of the league finals concluded in exciting fashion and with each championship series wrapped up, the Memorial Cup combatants have been decided. It’s time to sit down, break out the calculators, and look at the numbers to get a sense of what the teams representing the QMJHL, OHL, and WHL will bring to the week-long tournament.
It is difficult to compare teams from different leagues and that holds true for the three leagues that make up the CHL. While it’s commonly accepted that the OHL is the strongest league, followed by the WHL and then QMJHL, it can vary in any given year. To give an idea of each league this year, we can compare what a median team, a theoretical team that finished perfectly in the middle of the standings, looks like:
The QMJHL is well known for its level of chaos yet the median team from this league would be the lowest event median team. However, the QMJHL median team would also have the strongest shot difference and most regulation and overtime wins. The OHL median team would have a negative goal differential but every game would likely have a 4-3 final score. The WHL median team, to the surprise of very few hockey people, would have the strongest goaltending but weakest shot differential.
What does all that mean? It may mean absolutely nothing over a short tournament like the Memorial Cup but, the QMJHL looks to be an overall defensive league with average goaltending, the OHL is a high event, lots of goals, barn burner league, and the WHL likely sits somewhere in the middle of the first two.
Obviously, the teams that make up the Memorial Cup field aren’t median teams; they’re the best of the best and were able to overcome weaknesses to punch their tickets to Halifax. Let’s dive into what makes the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, the Guelph Storm, the Prince Albert Raiders, and the Halifax Mooseheads unique threats to walk out of the Scotiabank Centre with the Memorial Cup.
Path to the Memorial Cup
The Huskies inexplicably dropped two games to bottom feeding Shawinigan before performing to their high expectations en route to winning the President Cup. There’s a reason Rouyn-Noranda finished the season atop the CHL rankings and dominated most of their Quebec league competition.
The Huskies lone close series came against the Memorial Cup host Halifax Mooseheads who proved a worthy foe before losing in six hard fought games. For a team that touts high end offensive contributors, Halifax succeeded by winning close games in the first three rounds.
Guelph roars into the tournament after taking four straight games from a previously playoff undefeated Ottawa team to win the J. Ross Robertson Cup. The Storm faced stiff tests in the second and third rounds in which they went the distance with London and Saginaw before figuring out that outscoring their problems was the way to live.
Prince Albert has ruled the west all season and continued their defensive dominance during their Ed Chynoweth Cup winning run. The Raiders found that they’re near impossible to beat when they simply don’t allow goals and while Vancouver managed 17 against them in the finals, that’s only two and a half per game.
Team 5v5 Play
The best way to get a sense of a team’s strengths and weaknesses is how they fare at 5v5, the most common game situation in hockey. All data used in the charts and tables below is from the regular season to give a large enough sample size to be confident that the numbers represent as close to the true talent of the teams as possible.
Defense wins championships but scoring more goals than your opponents wins games. Here are the regular 5v5 goal totals for (GF) and against (GA):
The 5v5 goals for are relatively similar for all teams except for Halifax who looks to be the weakest goal producing team by a very slim margin. The Mooseheads do mostly make up for their small goals for deficit in their defending as they allowed few enough 5v5 goals. Rouyn-Noranda’s ability to keep pucks out of their net is beyond elite and not even the defensively staunch Prince Albert team came close to them. At the other end of the spectrum is Guelph who allowed a shockingly high number of goals for a league champion. Guelph outscored their problems in the OHL playoffs but that will be harder to do against the other league champions and a strong host club.
While goals are necessarily everything when determining results, the process from which they’re produced is just as important:
Rouyn-Noranda stands out in the best way as they produced massive shot volume and limited shots against extremely well. Prince Albert were the only other team in the tournament to reach the 2500 5v5 shots for mark in the regular season and still finished well behind the Huskies in that regard. Where the Raiders shine is in shot suppression although Halifax and Rouyn-Noranda are not far behind. Guelph appears to be a real outlier in shot generation and shot suppression as they fail to come out ahead of any other team in both categories. Guelph’s high number of 5v5 goals for is mildly surprising given their relatively low shot volume. Both Guelph and Halifax will have their work cut out for them as they may not even be in the same shot differential ball park as Rouyn-Noranda and Prince Albert.
Looking at the percentages gives even more clues about why teams scored and allowed the amount of goals that they did:
Looking at each team’s PDO (Sh% + Sv%) components show some interesting differences at the margins. Although the numerical differences may appear small, the margins are where champions win the battles that lead to winning the war.
Halifax received excellent puck stopping from their goaltenders all season and their forwards were able to finish a relatively high percentage of their shots. Only Guelph finished with a higher 5v5 regular season shooting percentage than Halifax and it likely helped them overcome any issues, real or perceived, between the pipes. Rouyn-Noranda had the best regular season 5v5 goaltending but converted on a relatively low number of their shots compare to the top finishers in Guelph and Halifax, however, combined with their obscenely high shot volume, the Huskies will be confident in their goal scoring abilities at the Memorial Cup. Prince Albert combines solid goaltending with a solid shooting percentage that allowed them to dominate the WHL but don’t stand out in any particularly positive or negative way here.
Unfortunately, the WHL doesn’t track shot locations but for the teams from the other leagues we can see that they’re very strong in controlling the high danger areas of the ice:
Special Teams Play
In a week-long tournament with a single game championship round special teams are going to play a crucial role:
Your eyes do not deceive you, Rouyn-Noranda is also exceptionally strong in special teams play earning a goal difference of +46 in the regular season and +20 in the playoffs. Converting on 31.2% of their powerplays in the playoffs is the main reason behind the strong playoff number while it was the Huskies ability to score 17 shorthanded goals during the regular season that creates the large gap from the other teams here. Not to be outdone, the Raiders poured in 23 shorthanded goals in the regular season, albeit on 290 penalty kills compared to Rouyn’s 239. Guelph was another well disciplined regular season team but struggled to remain so in the post-season which lead to a low special teams goal differential of two. Somehow, Guelph’s playoff special teams goal differential isn’t even the worst in the Memorial Cup tournament, that honour, or maybe disgrace, belongs to Halifax with -1. Halifax gave up 14 more penalties than their opponents and their penalty kill completely tanked going from a league best 85.6% in the regular season to an atrocious 76.2% in the playoffs. If the host team wants a legitimate shot at hoisting the trophy they’ll have to patch up the penalty kill.
Players to Watch
There is a plethora of individual skill on the four teams that will meet in Halifax to play for the CHL crown. Every team has a forward averaging over a point per game in the playoffs which is not surprising after having strong regular seasons:
Joel Teasdale had a solid but not otherworldly QMJHL regular season campaign scoring nearly 0.60 primary 5v5 points per game. When he was on the ice his Huskies dominated by scoring 68.5% of all goals. That domination propelled Teasdale through the playoffs where he tore up the competition with 34 points in only 20 games. He comes into the Memorial Cup after putting up eight points against Rouyn-Noranda’s stiffest playoff opponent: Halifax.
Raphael Lavoie’s regular season was enough to have him ranked as a potential first round NHL entry draft pick in 2019 and yet it left a lot of Halifax Mooseheads fans wanting more. 0.65 primary 5v5 points and a nice 69.0 goals for percentage is certainly nothing to scoff at but it also isn’t 20 goals in 23 games like he had in the playoffs. Lavoie stepped up in a big way for the Memorial Cup host’s playoff run and will certainly be fun to watch as he tries to put his stamp on the tournament.
When a player wins the OHL MVP award named the Wayne Gretzky ‘99’ Award by scoring 42 points in 24 games you better sit up and pay attention. That’s what Nick Suzuki did after much of the hockey watching public questioned his talents during a regular season where he scored at a rate lower than expected for a high NHL draft pick. Suzuki didn’t go to the extreme in his individual shot generation during the OHL playoffs but set teammates up at an elite rate. In Guelph’s four straight wins to capture the OHL title, Suzuki put up 10 points and will be worth the price of admission in Halifax.
Brett Leason is the only player on this list that didn’t reach another tier in the playoffs but that’s mostly because he’s been on that level all season. Leason scored nearly a point per game at 5v5 alone which is extremely difficult to do. When he was on the ice, the Raiders scored 78.8% of all goals, a ridiculous mark that furthers his complete dominance of the junior ranks. Leason maintained a point per game pace in the playoffs and will be looked to as a game breaking talent as Prince Albert tries to capture their second Memorial Cup in franchise history.
The defensemen on the Memorial Cup rosters are just as exciting as the forwards in many cases:
Noah Dobson was named the QMJHL playoff MVP and was unquestionably the best skater on the ice in Rouyn-Noranda’s championship series win versus Halifax. After toiling away on a post Memorial Cup Acadie-Bathurst Titan team for part of the season leading to his pedestrian 5v5 numbers, Dobson was traded to the Huskies and hasn’t looked back. Expect him to play upwards of half of any close game in the Memorial Cup, something he proved capable of all season and throughout the playoffs.
Jared McIsaac is a polarizing player to many due to his immense physical skills and questionable hockey decision making. That being said, his impact and point production at the junior level cannot be ignored and he proved it throughout the regular season and playoffs. When McIsaac is on the ice exciting things tend to happen.
Sean Durzi may not have had the gaudy regular season that McIsaac did but he stepped up in a big way in the playoffs scoring over a point per game. Durzi is a dynamic player from the backend and helps make the Storm forwards even more dangerous. His goals for percentage at 5v5 speaks to how much he tilts the ice in his teams direction.
Brayden Pachal’s scoring numbers don’t jump off the page like the other top defenders but that doesn’t mean he isn’t dominant in his own right. Among Raiders’ defensemen, Pachal led the way in 5v5 ice-time and goals for percentage. He may not put up points but he’s able to shut down other team’s top players and get the puck moving the other way as a key cog in Prince Albert’s success.
Defensemen are only the second last line of defense in front of the goaltenders. This Memorial Cup has an opportunity to launch some of these puck stoppers to star status:
These are high shot volume teams facing a cast of excellent goalies. The goalie that rises to the occasion will likely write their name in the history books.
There actually isn’t a whole lot to say about the individual goalies here as each of them carried over their regular season performance to the playoffs. Some feel that Samuel Harvey was robbed of a playoff MVP trophy for his work over the past four rounds while Ian Scott took home the WHL playoff MVP. Alexis Gravel of the Mooseheads was the biggest reason Halifax won their third round match up. Anthony Popovich stopped enough shots for his Storm’s offense to take down all OHL challengers.
Guelph outscored their issues in the playoffs but look like the weakest shot share team and combine that with the weakest goaltender and the Storm may flame out early. It likely takes a herculean effort from Suzuki, Mackenzie Entwhistle, and Durzi for them to have a shot at the big prize. Halifax legitimately pushed the Huskies in the QMJHL finals but couldn’t match their depth or goaltending. The Mooseheads have most of the ingredients necessary to win a second franchise Memorial cup with their scoring, puck possession, goaltending, and powerplay but their lack of discipline and resulting goals against represent a large obstacle. Prince Albert is a well-rounded team with some offensive fire power and likely the top goalie at the Memorial Cup and would easily be the favourite if not for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The Huskies hit the ice flying this year and have yet to let their foot off the gas. They’re the strongest team in nearly every statistical category and have a deep stable of talented skaters. They’re my pick to win the Memorial Cup this year and keep the trophy in the QMJHL:
Marcus is full time engineer and part-time hockey stats nerd. He grew up watching the Halifax Mooseheads and now spends his spare time arguing the merits of major junior hockey with anyone that will listen.