They were the most dominant team in major junior hockey this season and then the Saint John Sea Dogs essentially ragdolled the Quebec League competition en route to the 2011 President's Cup trophy.
Now, the most prolific and draft-heavy/deep team in the CHL is in Mississauga looking to capture the MasterCard Memorial Cup as an encore.
Former Detroit Red Wing Gerard Gallant is the coach, and has his team firing on all cylinders. They're talented, scrappy and opportunistic- much like he was when he skated with Stevie Y back in the day before the Wings became synonymous with the word elite. He had 211 goals in 615 NHL games with Detroit and Tampa Bay after being a sixth-round pick out of Sherbrooke in 1981. He replaced defenseman Nathan Beaulieu's dad, Jacques (now at Sarnia), behind the bench.
Overage Flyers prospect and goalie Jacob DeSerres is considered the weak link, but he was excellent in the playoffs and is playing in his second consecutive Memorial Cup after being a member of the host Brandon Wheat Kings a year ago. He stood tall in Game 6 against Gatineau, not allowing the Olympiques to get a goal and take the momentum and series back to Saint John for Game 7. Some weak link!
Of course, where it's at for Saint John is up front and on D- they have a killer balance of veteran depth and useful high-end talent.
Jonathan Huberdeau headlines the club and could be a top-three pick in June. He and Zack Phillips (38 goals) have been the "Line of Death" (to steal a term once coined by Libyan madman Muhammar Gaddafi) for Saint John this season. Phillips injured his shoulder in Game 4 and his status is uncertain. He's a potentially big loss if he can't go, but we suspect that he'll make an appearance at some point. How effective he'll be is another story. Stay tuned.
Don't forget about the puck wizard Tomas Jurco as a potential fourth possible first-round pick from this team (though B2011DW believes he will slide to early 2nd- very good value there).
There is also some real skill and production from veterans Mike Kirkpatrick, Stanislav Galiev (Capitals), Steven Anthony (Canucks) Stephen Macaulay (Blues) and Alexandre Beauregard (who scored his only goal of the playoffs in double OT to clinch the QMJHL championship).
On defense, Nathan Beaulieu is a top draft candidate. He's joined by veterans Simon Despres (Penguins) and Eric Gelinas (Devils).
For depth, Ryan Tesink, Scott Oke and (recently hospitalized and released for a bruised kidney) Jason Cameron are all ranked by Central Scouting. And they barely play compared to the other guys. Cameron is out- will not play in the Memorial Cup.
This team has it all, and is built for a short tourney like this one. DeSerres is the x-factor, but he doesn't have to carry this club- just be solid. He can handle it. After smoking everyone in rounds 1-3, he got a test in the championship round, but proved he can make the big save when needed.
We predict that the Sea Dogs will win it all, even though this tournament field has some serious matchups, especially against the host city Majors. Both are tremendous, but we like the Sea Dogs a little more because they are a well-oiled machine that is getting top performances from its best players.
We won't have to wait long to find out, though- Saint John-Missy is the opening game of the round robin on Friday.
Time to drop the puck.
Sea Dogs 2011 Draft Eligibles
Jonathan Huberdeau, C/LW
Born: June 4, 1993 in St-Jerome, Quebec
6-1, 175 Shoots: Left
Can you believe this kid isn't even 18 yet? Unreal playoff performance from one of 2011 draft's biggest risers- 16 goals, 30 points in 19 games and he's one of the younger guys on the team. It's safe to say that Saint John's leading scorer in the regular season (105 points) has established himself as a legitimate top-five option for the NHL draft next month, and we think he could go as high as 1st. Yes, you read that right- if anyone is going to unseat Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top of the board on June 24, it won't be Adam Larsson, but Huberdeau who does it. How is that for being bold? He tallied an overtime goal against Victoriaville but perhaps even more impressive was his tying goal against Gatineau in Game 6 with just 23 ticks left on the clock. The calm with which he collected a Galiev rebound and tucked it home with just a slight shift and flick of the wrist was one of the more sublime hockey plays we've seen in a long time. Anytime a player is scoring a goal per game as Huberdeau has done, he's going to be a hot commodity among NHL teams. We wouldn't be at surprised to see Huberdeau go third overall to Florida, but cannot envision that he will drop out of the top-five under any circumstance. He has all the natural size (though he's skinny and needs to get stronger), talent and a gamer's mentality you want in a stud forward. We love the way Huberdeau carries himself on and off the ice, and he's done precisely what B2011DW predicted for him back before the playoffs started: he's taken on a Taylor Hall-like scoring role on a deep playoff run. His heroics will be fresh in the minds of the scouts for teams in the top-three when they sit down for their final meetings to hash out their lists.
Upside: No. 1 center, leader and fan favorite for the team who drafts him.
Zack Phillips, Center
October 28, 1992 in Fredericton, New Brunswick
6-1, 195 Shoots: Right
Banged up his shoulder in the QMJHL championship series- if he misses Memorial Cup it will hurt him a bit mostly due to being out of sight, out of mind while linemate Huberdeau has stepped it up to another level. A bit of a surprise to the general public when he appeared ninth overall on The Hockey News' 2011 Draft Preview which was released last week in Canada. However, some scouts are telling us that Phillips in the top-10 isn't much of a shocker to them given his big goal scoring potential and a natural nose for the net that players like Jeff Skinner have forced NHL teams to respect. Phillips is not an explosive player, and he's certainly benefited from skating alongside playmakers like Huberdeau and Michael Kirkpatrick this season, but to insinuate that he's not a lethal scoring threat is to sell the former Massachusetts prep player short. The former Lawrence Academy standout (19 goals, 48 points in 30 games) from Fredericton, NB was involved in a car accident that killed teammate Mark Frattaroli in September 2008 (Frattaroli was driving when the vehicle struck a tree). Zack is an October 1992 birthdate, so he's on the older scale of the 2011 class, but he had a tremendous season with 38 goals and 95 points. At 6-1, 195 pounds, he can drive hard to the net and has outstanding hands to finish off plays in close.
Upside: First- or second-line winger and power play ace
Nathan Beaulieu, D
Born: December 5, 1992 in Strathroy, Ontario
6-3, 191 Shoots: Left
Opinions on this defenseman are split, but when talking about players with a high ceiling and the ubiquitous scouting term "upside" this Ontario and New Brunswick-raised defender has it. Although not as big as Dougie Hamilton, Beaulieu nonetheless plays big and brings a physical edge to his game with the ability to fight if provoked. In 19 games, he's tallied four goals and 17 points. Beaulieu is a fine skater and works very effectively on the point. His real strength is in the way he can both move and rush the puck. He sees the ice beautifully and can make any pass. Central had him fifth overall in their final rankings, but THN only had him 18th. He got off to a slow start this season offensively, and he could be a case of a pick-your-flavor player in terms of some NHL teams liking him a lot more than others.
Upside: Lower-end No. 1/capable No. 2 who can play on both special teams units and brings character and hard-nosed play to mix.
Tomas Jurco, RW
December 28, 1992 in Kosice, Slovakia
6-2, 195 Shoots: Left
You Tube star and Slovak winger scored 30 goals this season and has tallied six more in his club's 19 postseason games, posting 18 points, but didn't score in last six postseason games. His uneven production is why Jurco's stock has slipped a bit this season after huge expectations generated from last season and Saint John's run (and loss to Moncton) in the QMJHL finals. As far as slick, puck possession forwards with dynamic moves go, he is at the top of the 2011 class. We also liked his performance at the 2011 WJC and did not understand why his coach shorted him on ice time, especially on the power play. Yes, Jurco is a bit one-dimensional at this stage, but comes off like an affable kid who is willing to work on it and who wants to be a player. He's been overshadowed by Huberdeau and Phillips this year after being expected to vie for a top-10 draft selection, but Jurco is still a dangerous offensive player with the tools to be an impact scorer in the NHL one day.
Upside: Top-six forward or bust. Probably does not have the overall two-way acumen to stick in anything less than a scorer's role, but could develop that aspect if he wants to play in the NHL badly enough. Otherwise, he'll be an Extraliga star.
Scott Oke LW
Born March 16, 1993 in St-Lambert, Quebec
6-3, 190 Shoots; Left
You're telling us a guy with five goals in a season is projected on Central's second-round final list? How do you spell overrated? At the same time, this winger has nice size, and can skate well, but he's not had a lot of ice time given how talented his club is. His production barely registered on the radar given how high Central had him, and his playoff scoring totals reflect his reduced role on the club: 18 games, 1-5-6, with just one assist in the last six games. With Oke, it's all about what he *could* become and his physical traits are admittedly intriguing, but he simply hasn't done enough to justify where they have him. And we believe his ultimate draft spot will reflect where NHL clubs more realistically have him.
Upside: Hard to gauge right now given lack of playing time, but shouldn't be judged on anything more than a 3rd/4th liner until he proves otherwise.
Ryan Tesink, LW
Born: May 21, 1993 in Saint John, New Brunswick
6-0, 161 Shoots: Left
We like Tesink better than Oke, but he's still ranked too prominently by Central given his lack of numbers, and this kid has some major filling out to do. Hometown Dog has some skill and the instincts to play the game at the next level, but he doesn't have a lot of size or the frame to add the kind of weight and strength you want in a player, so he'll have his work cut out for him. In 19 games, Tesink has three goals and five points, but one of them was a huge overtime winner against Gatineau. He's got some interesting potential so long as he can get a lot stronger and continue to develop, but risky pick if Tesink taken too early.
Upside: See Oke; tough to predict, but has at least shown more offensive hockey sense and production.
Other draft eligibles: C/RW Dannick Gauthier (1991), C Jason Cameron, LW Aidan Kelly (1993)
Michael Kirkpatrick: undrafted free agent; attended Dallas Stars prospect/development camp on invite.
For more on the Sea Dogs, Jamie Tozer's Station Nation blog is a must-read!