There'll be plenty of eyes in the sky at the Hershey Centre on Friday for the start of the MasterCard Memorial Cup, as a host of NHL scouts use the event to prepare for the June 24 entry draft.
Given the number of drafted or about-to-be-drafted players on the ice this year, the rafters should be more crowded than usual.
The four teams in the tournament - the Mississauga St. Michael's Majors, Owen Sound Attack, Kootenay Ice and Saint John Sea Dogs - have a combined 24 players drafted in 2009 and 2010, and another 17 expected to go in the 2011 draft.
More than half of those competing, in other words, are considered worthy of an NHL pick.
Saint John should get the bulk of the attention with an incredible nine players ranked in Central Scouting's top 124 North American skaters, including four in the top 20.
Leading the way are small, skilled forward Jonathan Huberdeau, who has climbed the ranks enough that he could go as high as second overall, and defenceman Nathan Beaulieu, who should crack the top 10.
The teams are well aware that the extra eyes on them adds another distraction.
"We've got a lot of kids that are on Central Scouting's list," Sea Dogs head coach Gerard Gallant said. "There's lots of people that said, 'How focused is your team going to be?' I think our team's going to be fine."
"We all try not to worry about it," Attack netminder Jordan Binnington said. "But you can sense it, with less and less teams playing, and especially this tournament."
Players won't be the only ones auditioning for NHL jobs. Both Majors coach Dave Cameron and Gallant have had their names mentioned in the running for one of the five coaching vacancies open this spring.
Cameron has an obvious connection to the Ottawa Senators, given both they and the Majors are owned by Eugene Melnyk, but Gallant - a long-time NHLer who has an incredible 111-19-2-4 regular-season record with Saint John the past two years - will likely also get consideration for the role.
"Deep down, I think I'm ready," Cameron said.
Other NHL teams looking for coaches are the Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers, Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils.
SMALL MARKET SUCCESS
Memorial Cup winners of late have all been from mid-size or big markets, with Kootenay's 2002 win the last time a truly small-market team won it all.
Since then, the Cup has gone to Kitchener, Ont., Kelowna, B.C., London, Ont., Quebec City, Vancouver, Spokane, Wash., and Windsor, Ont., (twice) - all cities with greater-area populations of 180,000 or more.
The costs associated with running major junior hockey teams, meanwhile, have continued to rise.
The perceived imbalance between small and large markets led the OHL to have a discussion at its summer meeting last year about whether or not a change was needed. But commissioner David Branch said the league ultimately concluded it was okay with the status quo.
A year later, two of junior hockey's tiniest markets - Cranbrook, B.C.-based Kootenay and Owen Sound, Ont. - have made its biggest stage.
"It really came down to that there were certain strengths that market size brought and certain weaknesses that market size brought," Branch said of the OHL's analysis of the issue. "Clearly small-market teams like Owen Sound play to their strengths."
With only 13 losses all season, regular season and playoffs combined, the Sea Dogs are considered the favourites - potentially both at this Memorial Cup and the 2012 edition in Shawinigan, Que., given all their youngsters.
A team from the QMJHL, however, has won the tournament only once in the past 10 years, and if Saint John falters, it'll open the door for the Majors, who are still smarting after losing the OHL championship to Owen Sound.
"I'm still not allowed to play with anything sharp," Cameron joked about recovering from last Sunday's Game 7 overtime loss. "We're over it. We feel very fortunate we have a chance to eliminate some of that feeling."
Kootenay is the dark horse. After finishing the year outside of junior hockey's top-10 rankings (Saint John was first, Mississauga third and Owen Sound eighth), the Ice caught fire in the playoffs and have one loss in their last 16 games.
Never expected to be here, they could surprise.
"These teams are so close," Kootenay coach Kris Knoblauch said. "Of these four teams, it's certainly not us [that's the favourite]"
Drafted players: Brayden McNabb, BUF, 66th in 2009; Cody Eakin, WSH, 85th in 2009; Max Reinhart, CGY, 64th in 2010; Joey Leach, CGY, 73rd in 2010; Drew Czerwonka, EDM, 166th in 2010.
On 2011 radar (with Central Scouting ranking): John Neibrandt, No. 170; Jagger Dirk, No. 188.
Mississauga St. Michael's Majors
Drafted players: Casey Cizikas, NYI, 92nd in 2009; Brett Flemming, WSH, 145th in 2009; Maxim Kitsyn, LA, 158th in 2009; Devante Smith-Pelly, ANA, 42nd in 2010; Justin Shugg, CAR, 105th in 2010; Rob Flick, CHI, 120th in 2010; Gregg Sutch, BUF, 143rd in 2010.
On 2011 radar: Stuart Percy, No. 53; Joseph Cramarossa, No. 63; Dylan DeMelo, No. 121.
Owen Sound Attack
Drafted players: Jesse Blacker, TOR, 58th in 2009; Garrett Wilson, FLA, 107th in 2009; Michael Zador, TB, 148th in 2009; Scott Stajcer, NYR, 140th in 2009; Joey Hishon, COL, 17th in 2010; Geoffrey Schemitsch, TB, 96th in 2010.
On 2011 radar: Jordan Binnington, No. 3 (Goalie); Andrew Fritsch, No. 84; Keevin Cutting, No. 87.
Saint John Sea Dogs
Drafted players: Simon Després, PIT, 30th in 2009; Éric Gélinas, NJ, 54th in 2009; Steven Anthony, VAN, 187th in 2009; Stanislav Galiev, WSH, 86th in 2010; Mathieu Corbeil-Thériault, CBJ, 102nd in 2010; Stephen MacAulay, STL, 164th in 2010.
On 2011 radar: Jonathan Huberdeau, No. 3; Nathan Beaulieu, No. 5; Zack Phillips, No. 15; Tomas Jurco, No. 20; Scott Oke, No. 44; Ryan Tesink, No. 47; Gabriel Bourret, No. 92; Aidan Kelly, No. 94; Jason Cameron, No. 124.Report Typo/Error
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