If there is one constant in any tournament experience its the crowded team photo where the players, coaches, staff squeeze together in a cheering, sweaty heap around their prized trophy. Usually signs of “#1” are being shown by the players as they shout at the camera as this indelible memory is made. As you can see here with 2012 Memorial Cup Champion Shawinigan posing for their first CHL championship. They became the first team since 2007 when the Vancouver Giants (who had a young defenseman by the name of A.J. Thelen on their squad) hosted and won the Memorial Cup. For Shawinigan this really was a huge matter of redemption. The Cataractes had the 2nd best regular season record in the QMJHL only to be ousted in the 2nd round by Chicoutimi and many questioned whether they were going to face similar disappointment in the Memorial Cup having nearly a month rest and recuperate. Shawinigan had a decent team but many experts felt the other clubs in the tournament had far more momentum and perhaps even a little more star power on their rosters. Well, the Cataractes proved those experts wrong as they won 2-1 in overtime against the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights last evening to a raucous crowd in Shawinigan. Even with London Knights’ owner and former Washington Capitals Head Coach Dale Hunter as well as former phenom and last year’s NHL MVP Corey Perry in attendance it wasn’t enough to defeat the tournament hosts. The Cataractes used tremendous hustle as well as their excellent team speed to create a lot of pressure via the forecheck. Hmm, isn’t that what the Wild want to do? Anyways, back to the subject at hand it was a fun tournament to watch and its conclusion really marks the end of meaningful hockey for the Wild’s young prospects this season.
The Wild had some representation at this year’s Memorial Cup in two high profile players for the defending champions Saint John Sea Dogs. QMJHL Playoffs MVP Charlie Coyle and Zach Phillips were total workhorses throughout much of the post-season for the Sea Dogs but did that translate to the Memorial Cup Championship? Obviously they didn’t repeat, so what went wrong? It is quite arguable that the Sea Dogs had the most star studded team in the tournament by far, boasting a squad that had no fewer than four NHL 1st rounders on its team plus a number of other NHL selections. So what can Wild fans take away from this tournament experience?
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1. Wild fans may want to wait a bit before they start buying their Charlie Coyle Wild sweaters: It is safe to say that Charlie Coyle’s stock was rising prior to the Memorial Cup; even going as far as becoming a point of contention over at the Minneapolis Star Tribune where Wild beat writer Michael Russo dared to ask whether Coyle was the Wild’s top prospect and not Finnish wunderkind Mikael Granlund. You can read that here. The mere fact Coyle is causing such a question to be asked tells you a ton about his performance in the 2nd half of the QMJHL season and playoffs but could also be a sign of Granlund’s flagging production towards the latter half of the year. Either way, going into the tournament the main focus amongst Wild fans was to see if Charlie Coyle could be as dominant against Edmonton, London, and Shawinigan the way he was in the QMJHL playoffs where you could say he embodied the archetype of what it means to be “a man amongst boys.” Coyle was pretty ordinary in the Memorial Cup, and wasn’t nearly as noticeable offensively or in the physicality department where he really was a terror for the Sea Dogs since he joined the club in mid-December. He actually looked a bit passive and a bit fatigued even though he had a few weeks to recover before the start of the Memorial Cup because the Sea Dogs obliterated their competition in quick succession in the QMJHL playoffs. While he did manage to accumulate 4 assists in 4 games, he was not the go-to element many expected him to be. I know the London Knights and Edmonton Oil Kings have some big defenseman (Olli Maata, Jarred Tinordi, Griffin Reinhart, Keegan Lowe to name a few) but it won’t get any easier for him at the NHL level and many fans already started to pencil his name on the Wild’s depth chart. To those Wild fans I’d suggest you wait until the conclusion of training camp before you rush off to buy a Charlie Coyle Wild sweater just yet. The fact Coyle did not physically dominate (despite possessing a well built ‘man body’ to use a Colton Gillies‘ term) may indicate he could use some seasoning at the AHL level first. It wasn’t a disaster of a tournament for Coyle but it should give Wild fans a reason to temper their expectations (for next year) a little before they begin having delusions of grandeur about him anchoring the 2nd line or being a strong Calder Trophy candidate.
2. Don’t pigeonhole Zach Phillips as just another playmaker: I must admit I am guilty of doing this. In fact, I am guilty of not being one of Zach Phillips biggest fans. I ripped the selection when it happened last year here. I maligned that I was annoyed the Wild signed a forward who sounded a lot like the next Andrew Brunette, that being an average to below average skater with good hands and playmaking instincts. Phillips had another fairly solid season with 30 goals, and 80 points in 60 games, which was 15 less points than the previous season where he had 95 points in 67 games. Once Charlie Coyle arrived, Phillips was relegated to the 2nd line and his production began to flat line after having gotten off to a torrid start when he carried much of the offensive load (along with Danick Gauthier) for the Sea Dogs while key scorers Jonathan Huberdeau and Stanislav Galiev were out with injuries. Phillips again demonstrated some excellent scoring touch in the Memorial Cup, leading the Sea Dogs with 3 goals and a helper. The New Brunswick-native wasn’t just cashing in on the deflections or jamming home pucks in the blue paint he even showed he can rip a wrist shot off the rush as he netted a goal in the Sea Dogs’ 7-4 loss to eventual tournament champion Shawinigan. Phillips is more than just a goal mouth sniper, and while I think the tournament again proved his skating still needs lots of work he does have good instincts and you could see he knew where to be on the ice to be in a good position to bury the biscuit. I still believe Phillips has at least another year or two of development before we see him in a Wild sweater but he is a competent scorer in his own right and that alone makes his continued development crucial as the organization needs all the goal scoring it can get, even from a ‘playmaker’ like Phillips.
3. Maybe we ought to pass on Griffin Reinhart: The Wild are drafting 7th Overall this season barring any trades that may come along and most experts have prognosticated that the team will select a defenseman. Some have stated they believe the Wild will sign Edmonton Oil Kings defenseman Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart is rated #10 by Central Scouting in its final rankings of North American skaters and the Hockey News also has him rated 8th. The 6’4″ 207lbs defenseman is the son of former NHL defenseman Paul Reinhart and many feel he projects to be a big-bodied two-way defenseman. The Memorial Cup was not kind to Reinhart or the Edmonton Oil Kings as they appeared to be outclassed in most of their games. Reinhart did manage to register a goal and an assist but he was a -5 for the tournament. One of the knocks from scouts on Reinhart is his lack of physicality despite having a prototypical NHL defenseman’s body, but he certainly was trying to throw his weight around in the tournament; registering multiple hits in all but one of the four tournament games he played in. Yet does he have enough upside to really make him worthy of being the 7th Overall pick? I am leaning towards no. The Wild should probably look for more of a home run with their 1st round pick even if it means taking a more high risk player like a Matt Dumba or a Morgan Reilly. By what I saw of Reinhart in the Memorial Cup, I am not convinced he’s going to be much more than a 2nd pairing defenseman at best and at 7th Overall on a team that has lots of 2nd and 3rd pairing defenseman already in its system Reinhart would simply be adding another body to that already crowded mix.
4. Coyle and Phillips got to extend their season with many meaningful games: It was not all bad for Zach Phillips and Charlie Coyle. While the two obviously were disappointed in their quest to deliver another championship to Saint John the fact of the matter is both players got a good chance to play in some meaningful hockey games down the stretch. They got another 21 games of junior league development under their belts and were playing in pressure filled games which always is a real good test of one’s wits. While Coyle did not have a jaw dropping Memorial Cup tournament, he was fantastic in the QMJHL playoffs and seemed to take his game to another level with truly dominating performances. Zach Phillips was the 3rd leading scorer in the QMJHL playoffs and the Sea Dogs top scorer in the Memorial Cup so both prospects continued to be leaders on the team’s stat sheet. With more games, comes more time for development, and I think its safe to say that either player has nothing more to accomplish at the junior league level. Coyle as an overager was going to be one-and-done regardless but he demonstrated his physical maturity over his junior foes and thrived in a very short period of time which is what you want to see from a player who had been playing against older, more mature players in college at Boston University. Overall, its pretty tough to say that Phillips and Coyle’s seasons were anything but a big positive for their confidence and their development as players and hopefully that will yield rewards for the Wild.