The Cape Breton Eagles will begin the 2020-21 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season with the youngest team in the organization’s history.
When the team hits the ice for their home opener Friday against the Halifax Mooseheads at Centre 200 in Sydney, the club will have three 20-year-olds, seven 19-year-olds, two 18-year-olds, eight 17-year-olds and three 16-year-old players in the lineup.
In terms of overall player average age, the Eagles begin the new campaign at 17.91, the lowest average age to date since the 2012-13 season, which finished with a player age of 18.71.
The team’s overall average age will likely increase as the season moves on with potential call-ups and trades during the Christmas trade period.
“We can talk all we want about the amount of turnover we’ve had, nine elite players have moved on in their careers and did a great job for us last year,” said Eagles head coach Jake Grimes. “We have some key guys back from last year’s team who were younger and want to increase their roles this year and increase their impact on the league and for our team.
“We have a crop of rookies who are battling to be part of things and show that they can help our club as quickly as possible, so they’ve all worked hard and well together and it’s been great.”
Despite the youth movement, the team will only have six players in its lineup who haven’t played at least one game in the QMJHL including forwards Lucas Canning, Davis Cooper, Jacob Santerre and Mikhail Nizovkin, as well as defenceman François-James Buteau and goaltender Nicolas Ruccia. Defenceman Zach Welsh, who's also considered a rookie, suited up for one game with the Eagles last year.
On offence, the club will rely on veterans Shawn Element and Ryan Francis. Combined, the two players posted 62 goals and 134 points last season. Félix Lafrance will also have a bigger offensive role this year.
Element and Francis’ contribution offensively will be key to Eagles success, especially with the loss of Egor Sokolov, Shawn Boudrias, Derek Gentile and Tyler Hinam.
“These guys have come back even more prepared, even more hungry and both are going to be pros,” said Grimes of Element and Francis.
“They have both shown great leadership, maturity and have taken it upon themselves to help this team get together and go in the right direction and show the young guys what a successful player is in this league.”
“We have some key guys back from last year’s team who were younger and want to increase their roles this year and increase their impact on the league and for our team." — Head coach Jake Grimes
Meanwhile, on the blue-line, the team has a veteran presence led by Nathan Larose and Black Rock’s Jarrett Baker. Logan Kelly-Murphy, Jérémy Langlois and Jacob Squires also played in the league last season.
Baker and Larose are both offensive defencemen. Combined, the teammates had 23 goals — 17 by Larose — and 76 points in 110 games.
“The defence core has gotten younger,” said Grimes. “We expect Nathan and Jarrett to lead the way — it’s nice to have that type of leadership on the backend.”
Between the pipes, William Grimard earned the right to be the club’s No. 1 goaltender after his strong play last year, which included more than a month of action in November and early December when Kevin Mandolese was injured.
The 19-year-old Grimard has appeared in 53 games over two full QMJHL seasons. Over that span, he’s posted 25 wins along with a 3.26 goals-against-average and an .885 save percentage.
“The biggest thing he’s going to want to do this year is establish himself as a starter and a guy teams have to worry about,” said Grimes. “He’s big, he’s positional, he’s focused and he’s super-quick, so he’s going to add that up and prove himself as a starter.”
Last season, the Eagles finished seventh in the league on the power play at 21.3 per cent and third overall on the penalty kill at 82.5 per cent.
In six preseason games, the power play was 17th in the league at 9.1 per cent, while the penalty kill was ninth overall at 83.3 per cent.
Friday's home opener is slated for 7 p.m.
Following Friday's game, the Eagles will return to the ice Saturday when they travel to Halifax for the back half of the home-and-home series with the Mooseheads. Game time is set for 7 p.m. at Scotiabank Centre.
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