Saint John Sea Dogs centre Nathan Noel (10), shown in action against the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the QMJHL championship final, has become an effective two-way centre for the Sea Dogs, who are one of four entries in the Memorial Cup tournament beginning this weekend.
©QMJHL photo/Vincent Ethier
Nathan Noel is heading into what will likely be the last week of his junior career and he’s determined to make the most of it, but not just for himself.
The 19-year-old from St. John’s is a centre for the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League champion Saint John Sea Dogs, who begin play in the Memorial Cup championship Friday night in Windsor, Ont.
The Chicago Blackhawks prospect says the Memorial Cup is the realization of a plan that began when he joined the Sea Dogs four years.
“Of course you want to play in (the Memorial Cup). That was an individual goal of mine … I would say it’s a goal for any junior player,” said Noel. “But for team as a whole, this something that was started a long time ago. You look at our team and there are probably 10 key guys who were drafted four or five years ago and we’ve built up to this point.
“Yes, we are happy with won the Presidents Cup (QMJHL championship), but we know have more work to do if we’re really going to finish the job.
“And we’re going to do it as a team, not a team of individuals. We are going to do it for each other.”
Noel registered nine points (two goals, seven assists) an a plus-11 rating in 18 playoffs games for Saint John, which swept the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the Q final.
It was part of what has been a dominating season for the Sea Dogs, who ended the regular schedule with a 48-14-6 record and as the third-ranked team in the top-10 list for the Canadian Hockey League, the umbrella that covers the three major junior circuits — the QMJH , Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League.
So it’s not likely Saint John will enter the Memorial Cup as an underdog, but Noel still feels the Sea Dogs will be open some eyes.
“I think people will be surprised at how physical we play,” said Noel. “We have a lot of skill, we have a lot of experience, but I also think we’re one of the most physical, if not the most physical, teams out there.
“It’s a big part of our game and it will be important (in Windsor).”
The Sea Dogs begin their Memorial Cup tourney against the host Windsor Spitfires Friday. The OHL champion Erie Otters and WHL champion Seattle Thunderbirds are the other entries.
Noel was drafted third overall by the Sea Dogs in the 2013 QMJHL midget draft and as is the case with most players taken that high, came into the junior ranks with the reputation as an offensive player — in 2011-12, he scored 104 points in 56 games as a bantam with Shattuck-St. Mary’s, the same Minnesota prep school that once featured Sidney Crosby as a player.
And Noel has produced offensively for the Sea Dogs over his four years in Saint John, with 208 points (85 goals, 123 assists) in 252 regular-season games, including an almost point-per-game pace this season (24G, 26 A, 50 Pts in 52 games).
But he has also become one of the team’s most reliable defensive forwards, and is routinely is used by head coach Danny Flynn for key faceoffs, especially in the Saint John end of the ice. Despite missing 16 games mid-season with a shoulder injury, Noel still found himself on the draw 925 times this season, second-most on the Sea Dogs behind only fellow Blackhawk prospect Matthew Highmore, the team’s leading scorer.
What’s more, his 57.2 per cent win rate on faceoffs was best on the club and among the best in entire QMJHL.
“I think I know my role and that’s to be a dependable, two-player and I think now I’ve become the player I was turning into over the last few seasons, if you know what I mean” said Noel, who is a regular on the team’s penalty kill and also sees time on the second power-play unit.
“I’ve solidified my role and I’m comfortable in it.”
His two-way prowess also should help in his transformation to the pro game, which will likely begin this fall in the Blackhawks organization. Chicago took him with a fourth-round pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
Being drafted helped eliminated the disappointment of the previous summer when he was passed over in his first year of draft eligibility. It also added to his confidence.
“I don’t want to say being drafted made it an easier year for me, but it’s always nice to know you have that security for your future,” said Noel, who turns 20 next month. “At the same time, it brought some pressure, because you want to live up to the pick. You want to show (the Blackhawks) that they made a good move.”
Chicago must have felt justified in selecting Noel, signing him to a three-year entry-level deal three weeks ago.
“It’s great to be able to know I’ll be taking the next step in my hockey career, but as I said before, I’m not finished with this part of my career yet,” said Noel.
“I’ll start thinking about next season after we do what we have to do in Windsor.”