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The Heroes of 2020
It's something Cape Breton Eagles fans have heard many times over the years.
Rebuilding is very much part of the junior hockey cycle. Unlike the professional ranks, players come and go and eventually move on to bigger and better opportunities at either the pro or university level.
Some teams are lucky enough to go through the four-year cycle and win league championships. However, cycles have come and gone and the Eagles have yet to win their first President Cup.
For the passionate Eagles fans — and there's a lot of them — the disappointment has been a hard pill to swallow and has led to questioning whether the club will ever take the next step in being an elite contender for the QMJHL and Memorial Cup titles.
END OF A CYCLE
Look no further than last season. The end of a cycle.
A framework of outgoing head coach and general manager Marc-André Dumont and then head scout Jacques Carrière, the Eagles were primed for a long playoff run and believed the Christmas acquisitions of Shawn Element, Tyler Hinam and Xavier Bouchard put them in good position to compete with the league's top teams.
There's no argument the team would have been able to compete with the Moncton Wildcats, Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Rimouski Océanic and Sherbrooke Phoenix in the league playoffs.
The promise and sights of Kelowna, B.C. — the host city for the 2020 Memorial Cup — came to a prompt end in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the remaining regular-season games, playoffs and Memorial Cup.
What could have been is still fresh in the minds of Cape Breton fans. There's no doubt the 2019-20 season was the closest the team would have been to reaching at least the league's semifinals for the first time since the 2006-07 edition of the Eagles, who lost to the Val-d'Or Foreurs.
Flash forward a year later and Cape Breton fans are hearing the dreaded word "rebuild" again without winning a championship and once again the frustration sets in.
BUYING NOT SELLING
It's not because the team is in a rebuild that has many fans irritated. In fact, if you look deep enough over the past 11 years, the real frustration should be the lack of a proper rebuild that would put the team in a position to contend for a league title for at least two consecutive years.
Looking back, the 2009-10 Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season can be blamed for part of the disappointment.
The Eagles were a middle of the pack team sitting in seventh place in the league standings. With the Saint John Sea Dogs, Drummondville Voltigeurs and Moncton Wildcats among the top teams in the league and buying at the deadline, it almost felt like Cape Breton would take a small step back.
While Moncton loaded up by acquiring then Anaheim Ducks prospect Nicholas Deschamps and Nashville property Gabriel Bourque, Eagles head coach and general manager Mario Durocher tried to counter by trading for Buffalo prospects Jacob Lagacé and Maxime Legault.
How did that turn out?
Cape Breton would meet Moncton in the opening round of the playoffs and would be eliminated in five games by the Wildcats, who went on to defeat the Sea Dogs to win the President Cup and advance to the Memorial Cup.
The one mistake of buying that season instead of selling key players like Luke Adam, Olivier Roy, Mathieu Brodeur and Taylor MacDougall is really where things began.
The next three years were difficult for Eagles fans. Instead of having plenty of assets to begin another cycle, the team found themselves with nothing to show for it and back-to-back 16th-place finishes in 2011-12 and 2012-13 as well as an 18th-place finish in 2012-13.
Things would slowly progress under Dumont's leadership after he replaced Ron Choules in December 2012. The team finished in ninth place in 2013-14 — nine spots above the previous year — and 13th place in 2014-15.
With a talented roster in 2015-16, Dumont elected to make six moves between Nov. 28 and the Jan. 6 trade deadline, acquiring Michael Joly, Tobie Paquette-Bisson, Massimo Carozza and Giovanni Fiore.
The club would finish the regular season in seventh place, but after eliminating the Chicoutimi Saguenéens in an exciting seventh game in Sydney, fans believed the club could compete with Saint John — and that they did — but eventually lost to the Sea Dogs in seven games in the quarter-final.
Dumont was simply outcoached by Danny Flynn in Game 7 of the Cape Breton/Saint John series and nobody can say different.
The next three seasons saw the club finish in the middle of the pack — seventh place (2016-17), 12th place (2017-18) and seventh place (2018-19) — while trading star players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Drake Batherson, but not fully rebuilding.
Dumont wasn't as bad a general manager as some people like to think.
He made some very good trades and acquired assets that in reality built the majority of the 2019-20 Eagles roster, but there's no doubt there were Band-Aid fixes over his seven years to keep the team competitive and not dip into a full rebuild to upset the fan base.
NEW CYCLE BEGINS
Like it or not, a proper rebuild is long overdue and Carrière has already moved in that direction by trading Shawn Element, Ryan Francis and Félix Lafrance.
Carrière made six trades from Oct. 16 to Jan. 25, acquiring nine draft picks — second, third and 12th-round picks in 2021; second and sixth-round picks in 2022; a first, two seconds and a third in 2023 — along with players Dawson Stairs (18), Matthew MacDonald (17), Trey Sturge (17) and Rémi Delafontaine (16).
Mark Rumsey (19) and Félix Paré (20) were also acquired but are not players who will be part of the long-term plan.
While some fans may criticize the team for trading Element, Francis and Lafrance, the time was right. With uncertainty around the second half of the season and the Memorial Cup, the return value may not have been as high as it could have been in previous years, but it's hard to complain about Carrière's work.
Now the focus turns to building around players like Connor Trenholm, Lucas Canning, Jake Campbell and Jérémy Langlois, while looking forward to the one-two punch in goal with Nicolas Ruccia and Delafontaine.
A proper rebuild will come with growing pains, but like plenty of teams before — Saint John, Halifax Mooseheads, Acadie-Bathurst Titan and Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to name some — the wait may just be worth it when there's a championship parade driving down George Street in Sydney.
On a final note, remember 2010? If Cape Breton would have sold and properly rebuilt, the club could have hit its prime in 2013-14 and 2017-18 and would currently be in the third season of a third rebuild, hitting its prime for the club's 25th anniversary in Cape Breton in 2021-22.
Jeremy Fraser covers sports for the Cape Breton Post. He welcomes column ideas, sports story suggestions or feedback about this week’s Sports Chat.
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