MISSISSAUGA, ONT – If you were watching the Saint John Sea Dogs hoist the Memorial Cup Sunday night, take a picture of it in your mind’s eye. Because there’s a good chance you’ll be seeing the same thing a year from now.
Like the Windsor Spitfires before them, the Sea Dogs are set up quite nicely to take home arguably the hardest trophy to win in sports again next season. And in doing so, the Spitfires and Sea Dogs have changed the template for success in junior hockey. There was a time when major junior was a feast-or-famine cycle where teams primarily built for a one-year shot at glory, only to fall back into the dregs of the league the next season.
But look at these Sea Dogs. Last season, they finished 53-12-3 and lost in the Quebec League final. Sunday night, they capped an enormously successful season with a well-deserved 3-1 victory in the Memorial Cup final. And with four possible first-round picks, all of whom could very well be back next season, the Sea Dogs left Mississauga Sunday night as the odds-on favorite to win the tournament next year in Shawinigan.
“To be honest, it was always about 2012,” said Sea Dogs GM Mike Kelly. “At the beginning it was always about 2012. But I’ve always contended that we’re the product of really good drafting.”
So there you have it. As it turns out, the recipe for sustained success in junior hockey isn’t any different than it is at the NHL level. The teams that have competent people working in hockey operations who can identify talent and develop it properly thrive while the others struggle. Both Kelly and Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant point to the 2009 draft as the seminal moment, when they got six roster players, including Pierre Durepos eighth overall and Jonathan Huberdeau 18th. Huberdeau had been hinting that he would play college hockey and wasn’t seen as a player who could step in and be an impact player right away, but that didn’t scare off the Sea Dogs.
Huberdeau, who is a certain top-five and possible top-three pick in this year’s NHL draft, wasn’t even convinced he’d be able to play in the league as a rookie.
“He came to our camp and the first day Gerard and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is a joke,’ ” Kelly said. “ ‘There’s no question he can play.’ ”
With the first and fourth picks in the Canadian Import Draft that year, the Sea Dogs took Tomas Jurco and Stanislav Galiev, a prospect of the Washington Capitals. Kelly said Galiev was leaning towards going back to the United States League, so Kelly flew to Russia that summer and convinced Galiev to sign with Saint John.
And the rest is history. Much of the Sea Dogs success next season will depend on whether or not Huberdeau sticks in the NHL. If you saw him score the insurance goal in the Memorial Cup final, you know he has the skill level. But there are concerns whether or not he’ll be ready to play next season.
“I know Huberdeau will go high, but I would think we’ll get all (our guys drafted in June) back,” Gallant said. “I guess a lot depends on how much bigger and stronger he gets over the summer, but the way he plays the game, it’s tough for a 170-pounder to play at that level. But sometimes they do and I guess it will depend on what the NHL team needs and wants.”
Including his years as an assistant, Gallant spent nine seasons in the NHL before taking over as head coach of the Sea Dogs last season. Two-plus disastrous seasons as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets (as well as three as an assistant) and two seasons as an assistant with the New York Islanders can take a toll on a guy. Gallant must have forgotten what it was like to win anything.
Well, he certainly knows now and there’s little doubt he deserves another chance at the NHL level. With the Detroit Red Wings losing assistant Brad McCrimmon this off-season, could the former Red Wing find his way back to the NHL? Gallant isn’t sure, but he has confidence he can do the job.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I can coach anybody and whatever level I’m at, I’m going to coach the same way,” Gallant said. “Wherever I am, I enjoy it and I have a passion for it. If the right fit happens and somebody thinks I’m a good coach, that’s great.”
CHANGE THE FORMAT
The Sea Dogs winning the Memorial Cup was a just result, not only because they were the better team, but because in reality, the St. Mike’s Majors shouldn’t have even been in the Memorial Cup in the first place.
The hard truth is the Majors backed into the tournament as the host team, something the Canadian League has to stop allowing. You can argue the Majors were the No. 1 team in the CHL for much of the season and lost in Game 7 of the league final, but does the NHL give a team a free pass to a three-team Stanley Cup final if it wins the Presidents’ Trophy and loses in overtime of Game 7 of the conference final?
Of course not. What would make the Memorial Cup far more compelling would be granting a berth to the playoff champions of the three junior leagues, then holding a club championship for under-20 teams in Europe and making them the fourth team in the tournament.
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