With the NHL draft just over a month away, this weekend’s start of the 2013 Mastercard Memorial Cup has more waiting at the finish line besides just the trophy – it’s the chance for a great last impression.
Although the Florida Panthers do not have any prospects playing in the CHL’s championship tournament as they have in past years, with the second pick in the NHL draft on June 30, the Panthers front office will have a close eye on the cup as the three top-ranked North-American skaters take the ice.
Seth Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, currently ranked No. 1, 2 and 3 among draft prospects respectively, will all play in the tournament hosted in Saskatoon, which begins Friday, May 17 and ends with the championship on Sunday, May 26.
The tournament will have four teams face off in a round-robin format. The team with the best record advances to the championship game, while that team’s opponent is decided when the second and third-place teams play a semi-final game. If there is a tie for third place after the round robin, a tiebreaker game will occur to decide the second semi-finalist.
One of the first matchups puts the top three players against each other, with Drouin, a left wing, and Mackinnon, a center, as a dynamic duo for the QMJHL Champion Halifax Mooseheads. These two will face Jones, a defenseman, with the WHL Champion Portland Winterhawks. The game will take place on Saturday, May 18 at 7:00 p.m. EST.
Drouin and Mackinnon are top scorers for Halifax with more than 30 points each throughout the 2013 playoffs. Jones will continue his role for Portland as a player who netted five goals and 15 points while posting a team-leading +15 rating during his first playoffs appearance. These teams will later play the Saskatoon Blades, who are hosting the tournament, and the OHL Champion London Knights.
It will be interesting to watch Mackinnon and Drouin play together as the No. 2 and 3 ranked players. Drouin told Mike Morreale of NHL.com that the players complement each other well in tournaments.
"I don't go out and hit people, but look for open space and find my linemates," Drouin said. "It's easy to play with a guy like Nathan. He's got speed like a horse and finds that open area to make things happen."
And at this point, even the players themselves have more than the championship on their minds. Mackinnon recently told Canada’s Metro News that he wants to make more happen than just a championship trophy by the end of the tournament.
“I want to be No. 1,” Mackinnon said about the NHL draft. “I’m a competitor, and I want to prove that I can be No. 1.”
But he will have some tough competition against Jones, who has been projected as the top prospect by NHL scouts, analysts and media.
Scouts will be looking for opportunities to switch around the order of the top players in the last run before the draft as the final list is maneuvered, so the winner and top performers of the tournament could have some sway in decisions, including the Panthers’.
One example of a tournament run that made an impression could be seen in Panthers rookie center Jonathan Huberdeau. He carried the Saint John Sea Dogs to the Memorial Cup championship in 2011 with three goals and six points in four games, and won the tournament’s MVP trophy, likely helping to influence Panthers GM Dale Tallon’s decision to pick him third overall in the 2011 draft. Huberdeau set a QMJHL franchise standard for points scored in a season that year with 43 goals, 62 assists, 105 points and a plus-59 rating in 67 regular-season games.
At the time of his selection, Tallon said Huberdeau’s tournament play was impressive to Panthers top staff. Huberdeau said right after he was drafted that his skills in the Cup showed the type of player he would be.
"I think I can help the team and bring some vision. I have good vision and skills. I can play under pressure like I showed in the Memorial Cup,” he said at the time.
And he certainly has delivered for the Panthers. Huberdeau tied for first among NHL rookie leaders this year with 31 points, placed third in goals with 14 and tied for fourth in assists with 17. He was one of four Panthers to play in all 48 games, and was recently named a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy, which awards the league’s rookie of the year.
The players in this year’s Memorial Cup know what they’re up against, especially playing each other.
“It's going to be great and a lot of fun to be playing against some of the top prospects in this year's draft," Jones told NHL.com. "Our first one is against Halifax with MacKinnon, Drouin and (goalie Zachary) Fucale. We're both pretty skilled teams. The whole Memorial Cup should be an exciting experience."
And it will be – especially for hopeful Panthers fans.