The Saint John Sea Dogs may still have the top team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, but most of their stars will be missing when they kick off the season.
The defending league and Memorial Cup champion Sea Dogs play host to the rival Moncton Wildcats in the only game scheduled for Thursday night in QMJHL, while there are eight games set for Friday.
The league is down to 17 clubs after the folding of the league's only U.S. based team, the Lewiston MAINEiacs, whose players were scattered across the league in a dispersal draft.They will be back to 18 clubs next season when a new franchise begins play in Sherbrooke, Que.
Saint John will have 16 players at NHL camps this month, including stars Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida), Tomas Jurco (Detroit), Zack Phillips (Minnesota), Stanislav Galiev (Washington) and Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal).
Three players — defencemen Simon Despres and Eric Gelinas and forward Steve MacAuley — are likely to turn pro, while Huberdeau may well start the NHL season with the Panthers, who picked him third overall in June.
There's still plenty left to ice a contender, but don't expect the Sea Dogs to dominate quite like they did in posting a 58-7-3 record in 2010-11.
"I think (the league) is going to be very balanced, with lots of parity, and it will be interesting to see what other team goes to Shawinigan for the Mastercard Memorial Cup," league commissioner Gilles Courteau said Wednesday on the conference call.
It is the QMJHL's turn to have the Memorial Cup tournament in May and that honour went to the Shawinigan Cataractes, who gain an automatic entry along with the champions of the QMJHL, the Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League.
The Drummondville Voltigeurs could have a contender this season, but much depends on whether top forwards Sean Couturier (Philadelphia) and Ondrej Palat (Tampa Bay) return from their NHL camps.
The league also had one team relocate as the Montreal Juniors were sold and moved into the suburbs, to be renamed the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. They will have a mostly young team after a veteran Montreal squad finished second with 102 points last season only to bow out early in the playoffs.
"It will be a very positive situation for the league," said Courteau. "We're going to a new building, and with (president) Joel Bouchard, (general manager) Jean-Francois Houle and all the other hockey people around that team, they should put a very competitive team on the ice starting this season.
"According to the hockey people I talked to, I'm sure they'll be better than average."
The Wildcats, who have three players at NHL camps including star defenceman Brandon Gormley (Phoenix), pulled a coup in the off-season by drafting top U.S. prospect Brandon Shea. The 16-year-old from Marshfield, Mass., is a big centre who is expected to be a high NHL pick in 2013.
But he is hardly the only flashy rookie.
The Halifax Mooseheads have been a doormat in recent seasons, but that could change with the acquisition of first overall draft pick Nathan MacKinnon, who had 45 goals and 93 points in 40 games at Shattuck St. Mary's prep school last season.
MacKinnon was drafted by the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, but refused to report and was traded to the Mooseheads for two players and three first round picks. The highly skilled forward who, like Sidney Crosby, is from Cole Harbour, N.S., had a goal and three assists in four pre-season games.
MacKinnon is likely to team with Martin Frk on a high-scoring top line in Halifax. They had hoped to complete the unit with second overall pick Jonathan Drouin, but he opted to play an extra year with the Lac St. Louis midget triple-A club.
Another to watch is the Quebec Remparts forward Mikhail Grigorenko, who is expected to be a high pick in the 2012 NHL draft.
With Lewiston gone, the league has no presence in the U.S., but still hopes to boost recruiting south of the border. Starting with the 2012 draft, each team will be required to select at least two Americans.
The QMJHL hopes to keep pace with the WHL, which has five U.S. clubs, and OHL, which has three, in recruiting from the growing talent base south of the border.
Courteau said there has been no interest shown from any U.S, cities in getting an expansion team. But if the league ever goes there again, it will be with at least two teams.
"If we ever go back to the States it will be to a location where the building is appropriate," he said. "And we might need put to put two teams in because of the rivalry aspect, the media, the knowledge of the league, the sponsorship situations."
"They are all key points to consider. So if we ever go back there it will be with two teams for sure."