Today, a new Memorial Cup champion shall be crowned.
As suspected, the two most successful regular season teams in major junior are squaring off against one another: the QMJHL-winning Saint John Sea Dogs versus the OHL runner-up and host city Mississauga St. Michael's Majors.
Both teams boast deep and potent teams and to be honest, it's toss a coin time. Their meeting to open the tourney nine days ago was a controversial one- the Sea Dogs triumphed by a 4-3 score, but the winning goal by defenseman Nathan Beaulieu occurred on an off-side play.
The St. Mike's have a stifling defense and some legitimate firepower up front. Bruins prospect Marc Cantin is an underrated player who won it all a year ago with Windsor and will bring steady defense today. He weathered the storm of a shaky first game against Saint John to lock it down in helping get his team to this point. Captain Casey Cizikas is a heart-and-soul, versatile forward who is an ace penalty killer and and has a penchant for coming up big in key games. He looks like a future stalwart and possibly captain for the Islanders one day. They also boast two very dangerous scorers in Anaheim Ducks prospect Devante Smith-Pelly and Justin "Shuggernaut" Shugg (h/t to Steve Dangle), who was a steal by the Carolina Hurricanes in last year's draft. Like Cantin, Shugg is a previous Memorial Cup champion, having been on both the 2009 and 2010 Spitfires clubs.
For Bruins fans, there is a nice connection with the St. Mike's, as well. One of Boston's greats and Hall of Famers, goaltender Gerry Cheevers, won the Memorial Cup in 1961 for the St. Michael's Majors when they were based in Toronto. He was supposed to make an appearance in the pre-game festivities a week ago, but was recovering from an emergency heart surgery. It seems apropos that as his old junior club prepares to try and win another Memorial Cup title, while his beloved Boston Bruins hope to win a first Stanley Cup since 1972 when, you guessed it- Cheevers was manning the nets for them.
Here's a look at some key 2011 draft eligibles for the St. Mike's and where they stand going into the big game:
Stuart Percy, D- This steady defender has raised his stock significantly since the OHL playoffs kicked off. A year ago, we were talking to a trusted NHL source about players to watch for 2011 from the OHL and he mentioned Percy's name after having seen him at Team Canada Evaluation Camp (Under-18) for the Eight Nations tourney. He talked about Percy's skills and put him on our radar. He got off to a slow start and wasn't even featured in Central Scouting's preliminary rankings before stabilizing himself at mid-term and then stepping it up a notch to close out the season. Since the games really mattered, Percy brought his game up to a higher level, demonstrating an offensive element that hadn't really been evident during the season when he was further down the depth chart on a successful team loaded with veterans. In the Memorial Cup semifinal game against Kootenay, he made a perfect pass to Smith-Pelly for a one-timer to get the St. Mike's on the board early. Percy's hockey sense and instincts are the best aspects of his game- he understands where he needs to be on the ice and uses an active stick and rapid reads to effectively defend his zone. He's not going to be a big point producer at the next level, but with his good wheels and passing ability, he can move the puck effectively to be one of those accomplished all-around guys you win with. You aren't going to get all this excited about what you see in Percy, and he's going to take some time to get there, but he has the look of a winner.
Stock watch: On the rise- NHL clubs knew he was skilled, but he's backing it up with production- 4 assists in 4 games- good for 11th in scoring.
Joe Cramarossa, C
Late-1992 birthdate has faced the same challenges Percy has in terms of earning enough ice time to make a big impression on scouts. He's a solid guy with a good feel for the game. He doesn't look like much of a bet for a top-six forward role in the NHL but could do it as a defensive guy and penalty killer. He's got good size, but needs to put in the work to develop his body and functional strength. He anticipates well and that ability to read the play helps him a lot when killing penalties. Cramarossa could be one of those mid-to-later picks who pans out because his role hasn't allowed NHL teams to get a real read on him. Even if the offensive aspect of his game never develops, he has the look of a solid NHL role player in time.
Stock watch: Holding steady- not fancy, just tough.
Dylan DeMelo, D
The most adversely affected of all three 2011 draft candidates on the veteran-heavy St. Mike's. Hasn't been all that noticeable because of the lack of ice time, but in his case, that's probably a good thing. Good size at 6-1 and about 190 pounds. He moves well and shows the kind of effort and desire that you want to see from a young, developing player. He knows that he has to make every shift count to earn coach Dave Cameron's trust and to DeMelo's credit, he doesn't seem to let that kind of pressure affect his performance on the ice if it is in fact something that weighs heavily on him. You can tell that DeMelo has the kind of puck skills that could translate into a PMD role eventually, but that's not his role on this club- his time will have to come later. Translation: An NHL team willing to invest a draft pick on this project could be rewarded on the long-term plan.
Stock watch: Worth a late-round flyer.