2019-20 Season Preview: Eastlink South

The Yarmouth Mariners rallied to beat the Campbellton Tigers 7-6 in overtime for complete a four-game sweep and win the 2018-19 Canadian Tire Cup. (Photo: Trevor McNally, Brunswick News)

Amherst Ramblers
2018-19 in Review
Record: 36-11-1-2 (2nd in Eastlink South)
Playoffs: Lost in seven games to South Shore in the Eastlink South semifinal
Goals For: 204 (4th)
Goals Against: 134 (3rd)
Powerplay: 19.8% (T-4th)
Penalty Kill: 83.5% (3rd)

Leading Scorers
Caleb Rich (22-32-54)
Casey Fox (26-27-53, not returning)
Nick Snow (14-36-50, not returning)

Fresh start
After a disappointing loss in the first round of the 2018-19 Canadian Tire Cup Playoffs, the Ramblers had a lot of time to prepare to host the Fred Page Cup. They made it to the semi-final where a controversial last-second goal in front of a raucous crowd sealed their fate. With that experience in the rearview mirror, Amherst returns with a group ready to contend for, at the very least, the Eastlink South title. Doug Doull was one of many to jump onto the coaching carousel this off-season and moves from the Crushers bench to the Ramblers, while Jeff LeBlanc retains his General Manager position.

Lots of scoring punch
Three of Amherst’s top-five scorers from last season return with Caleb Rich (22-32-54), Cole Waugh (22-26-48), and Alex Lafreniere (18-24-42). Stephen Fox (12-17-29) was named a Rookie All-Star. Other returning forwards include Colton McKenna (4-4-8), Cole Darrach (8-13-21), Max Boudreau (9-5-14), and Jason Gallant (3-6-9) who was acquired from Miramichi.

From the blueline in
Joel Goguen (2.65 GAA, .906 save percentage) is back in net and will be joined by Nathan Gauthier, who spent last season with the Atlanta Jr. Knights of the USPHL. On defense, returnees are Alex Wynter (1-6-7), Bradley Dawe (2-17-19), Michal Sivek (5-10-15), and Lucas Fabijanic (2-1-3), who was acquired from Grand Falls.

Pictou County Weeks Crushers
2018-19 in Review
Record: 22-21-3-4 (5th in Eastlink South)
Goals For: 219 (7th)
Goals Against: 142 (8th)
Powerplay: 14.6% (10th)
Penalty Kill: 83.3% (4th)

Leading Scorers
Barrett Dachyshyn (19-37-56, not returning)
Sam Meisenheiser (18-25-43, not returning)
Evan Gallant (15-19-34)

Wheeling and dealing
Pictou County made a number of what they hope will be impactful moves in the off-season, bringing in Maxime Grandmaison (14-14-28) and Samuel LeBlanc (8-30-38) from Edmundston, Craig Ryan (1-5-6) from Truro, Jack Morris (2-9-11) from the now-Fredericton Red Wings, Keenan Gillis (5-22-27) from Valley by way of Edmundston, and Sullivan Sparks (20-24-44) from Summerside. Like South Shore and Amherst, the Crushers are rolling with one of the older teams in the MHL. Experience on the ice won’t be an issue for new head coach Mike Danton as the team aims to return to the playoffs.

Familiar goaltenders
The Crushers are one of the few teams to bring back both goaltenders from a year prior, as Matthew Normore (2.84 GAA, .911 save percentage) and Andrew MacLeod (3.73 GAA, .891 save percentage) will start the season between the pipes. They shared the starting role in 2018-19, but with Normore’s six shutouts (one behind league leader Dominic Tmej in Summerside) you would expect the 20-year-old will see more minutes in net.

Known quantities
Speaking of experience, the Crushers have eight returning forwards and four returning defensemen. Key players up front include Evan Gallant, Jaden Mason (15-10-25), and Kevin Mason (17-11-28). Cal MacPherson (2-20-22) will also have a full season in Pictou County after coming in from Summerside at the deadline last year. Familiar faces on the blueline include Alexis Quane-Arsenault (0-16-16), Aiden Hickey (5-16-21), Ryan MacLennan (2-2-4), and Malcolm Genge (3-7-10).

South Shore Lumberjacks
2018-19 in Review
Record: 27-20-3-0 (3rd in Eastlink South)
Playoffs: Lost in six games to Yarmouth in the Eastlink South final
Goals For: 211 (3rd)
Goals Against: 200 (9th)
Powerplay: 18.7% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 77.1% (10th)

Leading Scorers
Nicolas Tardif (31-37-68, not returning)
Christian Tsukamoto (24-34-58, not returning)
Logan O’Neil (28-29-57)

Turnover up front
The Lumberjacks made a big push for a league title in 2018-19, which came to an end at the hands of the Yarmouth Mariners in the Eastlink South Final for the second year in a row. That also meant a number of key forwards have graduated. Even so, an experienced core returns. Bair Gendunov (24-23-47) had a stellar first season in the MHL, while Logan O’Neil (28-29-57), Brandon Stone (10-21-31), Braden Paquette (11-11-22), and Joe Bouchard (8-9-17) are all back in the fold. Dylan Coffey (20-23-43) was acquired from Campbellton in the off-season and Patrick Pellerin (4-2-6) helps compliment one of the older group of forwards in the league.

Experience on defense
Ian Smallwood returns to the Lumberjacks after two seasons in the QMJHL and joins returnees Josh Nicholson (3-15-18), Connor McCluskey (5-10-15), and Matt Sabean (4-20-24). Hunter Martin (1-5-6) spent last season in Campbellton and 20-year-old Scott Gaetz (0-9-9) was brought in from Toronto of the OJHLto round out a strong group.

Special teams must improve
South Shore got off to a very rough start in 2018-19, leading the league in minor penalties through the first month and only successfully killing off one-third of them. They recovered and finished at 77.1%, but that was still 3rd-worst in the MHL and made things even harder once they faced the top scoring teams in the league. The Lumberjacks had the 7th-best powerplay at 18.7%, making the most of their opportunities as they had the 2nd-fewest powerplay chances in the league in 2018-19.

Truro Bearcats
2018-19 in Review
Record: 24-21-2-3 (4th in Eastlink South)
Playoffs: Lost in four games to Yarmouth in the Eastlink South semifinal
Goals For: 135 (11th)
Goals Against: 158 (5th)
Powerplay: 15.9% (9th)
Penalty Kill: 86.7% (2nd)

Leading Scorers
Dylan Burton (18-17-35, not returning)
Gavin Hart (16-15-31, not returning)
Shaun Bily (14-17-31, not returning)

Aiming higher
The Bearcats backed into the playoffs last season to keep their streak alive, having never missed the MHL post-season since returning to the league in 1997-98, and are now hoping a core of players who were getting their first taste of Junior A action can take that next step. Truro made just five trades this off-season, and only one was within the league as Craig Ryan (1-5-6) was dealt to Pictou County.

Tough decisions on the blueline
Six defensemen from last season entered camp hoping to return to the Bearcats in 2019-20 flanked by a number of recent draft picks. Zach Welsh, who turns 16 on the first day of the MHL season, was a late cut from Cape Breton of the QMJHL and will join a strong group of returnees in Jack McGovern (3-12-15), Curtis Heffernan (8-14-22), Lauchie MacDonald (7-12-19), and Marc Aucoin (0-3-3). Truro is always known or its stellar defensive play and this season should be no different.

But can they score?
The Bearcats are far from the only team who need to see a boost in goal scoring, but last year marked the first time Truro ever finished with a negative goal differential. Getting Ben Higgins back after three seasons with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads will certainly help, especially with G Blackmore (11-18-29) as his likely linemate. Other returnees include Carson Lanceleve (9-18-27), Caleb Hart (5-5-10), Cole Julian (5-8-13), and Luke MacMillan (1-5-6), but the biggest boost might come from those players acquired from outside the MHL. Spencer Blackwell, Zak Yewchuk, and Bryan Laureigh made their presence known in camp and exhibition play.

Goaltending experience
Alec MacDonald appears set to finally take over as Truro’s starter and there’s no reason to believe he can’t succeed in that role having posted a 2.82 GAA (7th best in the MHL) and .915 save percentage (5th best) last season. Sebastien Plamondon was acquired from Rayside-Balfour of the NOJHL to share duties in goal.

Valley Wildcats
2018-19 in Review
Record: 6-40-4-0 (6th in Eastlink South)
Goals For: 93 (12th)
Goals Against: 240 (12th)
Powerplay: 13.1% (12th)
Penalty Kill: 75.3% (11th)

Leading Scorers
Landon Quinney (5-18-23, not returning)
Matt Warner (7-13-20, not returning)
Zach Falck (8-11-19)

Fresh look, fresh results?
The Valley Wildcats have a new logo, new uniforms, and what fans hope will be improved results on the ice. The task now falls on new Head Coach/GM Brandon Benedict to get the Wildcats back to the playoffs. Seven trades in the off-season have built on a young core from last season. With only three 20-year-olds on the opening day roster, Valley looks to have the pieces in place to take a big step forward.

Building that core
With 13 players returning from last season, familiarity and hopefully chemistry shouldn’t be much of an issue in Berwick. Wildcats forwards back in the fold include Zack Falck (8-11-19), Brennan Laverty (6-6-12), Robbie Dowell (3-3-6), Nicholas Soumbasis (1-5-6), and Gavynn Carter (2-8-10). On the blueline, Valley can look to players like Matt Duggan (1-5-6) and Donavon Beatty (0-7-7) to lead the way. Aaron Brunn (5.29 GAA, .887 save percentage) looks to be the team’s starter in goal, and had a much better year for the Wildcats last season than his stat line indicates.

Can they find the back of the net?
Valley scored just 93 goals in 50 games last season. It wasn’t helped by a number of in-season trades that shipped veterans for draft picks and other building blocks, resulting in a roster that was in flux for much of the season. No matter how the team plays defensively, the Wildcats will obviously go nowhere if that doesn’t improve.

Yarmouth Mariners
2018-19 in Review
Record: 36-9-3-2 (1st in Eastlink South)
Playoffs: Canadian Tire Cup Champions
Goals For: 219 (2nd)
Goals Against: 142 (4th)
Powerplay: 24.7% (2nd)
Penalty Kill: 78.8% (8th)

Leading Scorers
Matt Barron (31-41-72)
Brett Crossley (24-38-62, not returning)
Andrew Martell (22-37-59, not returning)

Is a 3rd straight Finals appearance in the cards?
After coming up just short the season prior, the Yarmouth Mariners captured the Canadian Tire Cup in 2018-19. The team lost a phenomenal crop of 20-year-olds, but enter this season with a number of exciting returnees. That includes team captain Matt Barron, who led the Mariners in scoring last season, and three players who broke into the MHL as rookies in 2018-19: Jonathan Rees (5-2-7), Thomas Hillier (5-4-9), and Daniel Surette (4-9-13). Brady Crossley (4-11-15) and Kaleb Boudreau (3-1-4) return on the blueline. The Eastlink South is as wide open as it gets, which might just give the edge to the Mariners with a been there, done that attitude and experience.

Turnover in goal
For as many returnees as Yarmouth has this season, this is the second straight season with two new faces manning the pipes for the Mariners. 19-year-old Justin Sumarah won the Nova Scotia Junior B Hockey League title with the Sackville Blazers last season, where he was named both Rookie of the Year and Playoff MVP. Griffin Kelly was a Second-Team All-Star in the Nova Scotia Major Midget Hockey League last season and selected in the 5th round of June’s draft by the Mariners.

Revamped blueline
As mentioned above, there are just two returnees on defense for the Mariners. Jack Olson, acquired from the Sicamous Eagles in B.C., 20-year-old Ian MacDonald, and other players from out-of-province such as 18-year-old’s Hunter Livingston and Jackson O’Brien will have the task of replacing a stalwart group of graduating players from last season who were so important to Yarmouth’s back-to-back finals appearances.