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Around the Q: It's that time of year: hockey is back

Forward Joe Veleno will be part of a top Drummondville Voltigeurs team.
Forward Joe Veleno will be part of a top Drummondville Voltigeurs team. - Contributed

New coaches, new playoff format things to watch in Memorial Cup year for "the Q"

SYDNEY, N.S. — Year 50 for the QMJHL will be a special one, as for the first time in four seasons the league will host the Memorial Cup.

While defending Memorial Cup champion Bathurst has begun rebuilding, it's a certainty the Maritimes will be represented again at the Memorial Cup as the Halifax Mooseheads will host the 2019 event. Halifax joins Rimouski and Drummondville in icing impressive rosters that are spread out through the QMJHL's new alignment.

The Eastern Conference is comprised of the six-team Maritime Division, and the four-team East Division (Québec, RImouski, Baie-Comeau, and Chicoutimi). In the Western Conference, the Central Division is made up of Sherbrooke, Drummondville, Victoriaville, and Shawinigan, while Blainville-Boisbriand, Gatineau, Val-d'Or, and Rouyn-Noranda will play in the West Division.

For the opening two rounds of the playoffs, teams will play within conference (1 vs. 8, 2 vs. 7 etc), with Eastern Conference teams crossing over to the West if necessary. The conference structure is eliminated for the final four, allowing for the possibility of division rivals to play in the league final.

In the Western Conference, the alpha dog should be the Drummondville Voltigeurs. In addition to returning 15 players from last year's squad that led the circuit in goals scored, Drummondville has added World Junior forward Maxime Comtois and overage point producer Felix Lauzon from Victoriaville. They join a club featuring two players tabbed in the first round of June's NHL draft — forward Joe Veleno and blueliner Nicolas Beaudin — and stud goaltender Olivier Rodrigue. Steve Hartley, an assistant the last two seasons, will be the new head coach, as Dominique Ducharme left to become an assistant with the Montreal Canadiens.

Another face in a new place is Mario Pouliot, who has moved from Bathurst to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies where he'll be head coach and general manager. While not as strong on paper as the other group leaders, it should be yet another good season for the Abitibi squad. Twenty-five goal men Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Peter Abbandonato will lead the attack, and overage star Samuel Harvey gives the Huskies great goaltending.

Rimouski's Alexis Lafrenière scored 42 goals, the most by a 16-year-old since another Rimouski star, Sidney Crosby.
Rimouski's Alexis Lafrenière scored 42 goals, the most by a 16-year-old since another Rimouski star, Sidney Crosby.

Rimouski is another team with great netminding with last year's win leader Colten Ellis. While they suffered a first-round playoff upset to Moncton last spring, Rimouski placed third in the league and with a mostly returning core the Océanic are favourites in the East Division. In 2017-18 Alexis Lafrenière scored 42 goals, the most by a 16-year-old since another Rimouski star, Sidney Crosby. Adding import defenceman Radim Salda and physical forward Cédric Paré signals that the still young Océanic are ready to win now.

Baie-Comeau is most likely to push Rimouski in the East Division, as a trio of 2016 QMJHL first-round draft picks (including winger Gabriel Fortier) come of age. The addition of import Yaroslav Alexeyev bolsters an already impressive offence. There will be no shortage of excitement in the rest of division either as Chicoutimi welcomes the top pick in the "Q" draft Hendrix Lapierre, and the Québec Remparts will witness the return of Patrick Roy as head coach.

Halifax is favoured to win a strong Maritime Division. The Mooseheads swung a deal with the Titan to bring in Antoine Morand and Jordan Maher, adding to an attack already featuring Raphael Lavoie, who attended Team Canada's World Junior summer camp. It's unlikely either of imports Filip Zadina or Otto Somppi will return to Nova Scotia, but new bench boss Eric Veilleux (formerly of San Antonio in the AHL) has plenty to work with including Detroit second-round pick Jared McIsaac on the backend.

Cape Breton, Charlottetown, and Moncton all have enough talent to push the Mooseheads on a nightly basis in Atlantic Canada. The Screaming Eagles are returning 14 players from last season and have added 42-goal scorer Mitchell Balmas. The defence has been tightened up with trades for 19-year-old Antoine Crête-Belzile and overager Wilson Forest.

Charlottetown, well coached by Jim Hulton, is looking to build off a surprising run to the third round in 2018, and much of their core is returning. Defenceman Pierre-Olivier Joseph, a first-round draft pick of the Arizona Coyotes, will star on the backend. In Moncton, the Wildcats will play out of the shiny new Avenir Centre with an offence that is among the league's best. Jakob Pelletier and sophomore import Alexander Khovanov will help lead the charge.

The 2018-19 season kicks off Thursday as the Wildcats visit the Titan.

Patrick McNeil is the play-by-play announcer with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. He's excited that Liverpool is 5-0, Cincinnati is 2-0, and West Coast is in the AFL prelim finals. Email him at cbsepbp@gmail.com, or Twitter: cbse_pbp.

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