Forward Raphaël Lavoie had a hunch his days with the Halifax Mooseheads were coming to an end even before he left to represent Canada at the world junior hockey championship in December.
The Edmonton Oilers prospect believed he could be returning from the Czech Republic to play for a new team once he saw Halifax trade forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx to the Moncton Wildcats on Dec. 22, the franchise’s first major trade signalling a rebuild one year after finishing as Memorial Cup runner-up.
Lavoie’s gut feeling was confirmed as he was eventually shipped to the Chicoutimi Saguenéens on Jan. 6 – the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s trade deadline – for a package including four draft picks just one day after helping Canada beat Russia for gold.
“I kinda had a suspicion. We figured in Halifax we were either going for it or we were all getting traded,” Lavoie said. “So when he was traded, I had an idea in my mind I’d be getting traded, too.”
Halifax wasn’t done after the Lavoie trade, sending fellow Canadian junior national team member Jared McIsaac to the Wildcats on the same day for four more draft picks. Lavoie, McIsaac and Groulx combined to get the Mooseheads 11 draft picks in all, including two first rounders.
“I loved Halifax, I’ll never regret any memories I have there,” Lavoie said. “I got traded and I have to move on and Chicoutimi’s a great organization.
“It’s been pretty nice, great group of guys, love the place here, speaks more French, but more snow, though, than Halifax.”
While the Mooseheads went into seller mode months after falling to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies in the Memorial Cup final as tournament hosts, Chicoutimi became a buyer this season and is pushing for its first major junior national championship appearance since 1997.
The Saguenéens made numerous trades throughout the early part of the season to open roster spots and obtain the draft picks needed to acquire big-name players at the deadline.
Along with Lavoie, Chicoutimi also added his world junior teammate Dawson Mercer and defenceman Karl Boudrias on Jan 6, while forward Félix Bibeau and defenceman Patrick Kyte, who played in Halifax with Lavoie, were picked up in December.
Those five players cost the Saguenéens 17 draft picks, including six first rounders.
Lavoie has been playing on a line with Mercer and Justin Ducharme in Chicoutimi, with the trio finding instant chemistry.
“I got familiar with [Mercer] at world juniors, then we both got traded to Chicoutimi, so it’s pretty funny how it happened,” Lavoie said.
Lavoie couldn’t have scripted his Saguenéens debut any better as he scored against the Mooseheads in Halifax on Jan 10. The Mooseheads gave Lavoie a video tribute during the game for his three-plus years of service with the club, earning a standing ovation from the crowd.
“It was truly amazing,” Lavoie said. “A weird goal, pretty weird, but a pretty good feeling.”
Joining Chicoutimi gives the Chambly, Que., native another chance to capture a Memorial Cup, with the Saguenéens currently ranked No. 4 in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League.
The 6-foot-4, 198-pound Lavoie has produced nine goals and 17 points in 11 contests since the trade and is on pace for his third straight 30-goal campaign with 27 goals and 61 points in 41 games combined between Chicoutimi and Halifax. His 1.49 points-a-game average is good for 10th in the league, while he’s third in the QMJHL with 243 shots on net.
The right winger, who plays as a power forward with a strong right-handed shot, had 32 goals and 73 points in 62 regular-season games in 2018-19 with the Mooseheads before getting hot in the postseason with 20 goals in 23 playoff games. He added two more goals in the Memorial Cup tournament, but slipped in the draft rankings from No. 13 to No. 20 before the Oilers selected him 38th over all.
With the draft in the rear-view mirror, Lavoie said this season has been a bit easier to just focus on scoring.
“A lot of pressure last year, especially with Memorial Cup too,” Lavoie said. “Knowing this year I don’t have to worry about [the draft] is okay.”
The Saguenéens have been to the Memorial Cup three times in franchise history, but have never hoisted it. They qualified by winning the President’s Cup twice, 1991 and 1994, and were hosts of the tournament in 1997.
Lavoie wasn’t sure in the early part of the season if making it back was realistic, but he’s found another gear and is eager to see what he can do the rest of the way with his new team.
“I didn’t think about personal goals other than making world juniors and that’s behind me. The only other thing is winning,” Lavoie said. “Try my best to help the team grow and be better and make as deep of a playoff run as we can.”