While most of the hockey world will be enthralled by the conference finals of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the future of the game will be on display at the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
The championship series of the three biggest Canadian junior hockey leagues will be held May 17-27, in Shawinigan, Que.
Joining the host Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League will be the QMJHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs; Ontario Hockey League champ London Knights; and the winner of the Western Hockey League, the Edmonton Oil Kings.
Each team will play three games in the preliminary round, with the teams with the best record advancing, all the way to the championship game, to be played Sunday, May 27.
The Sea Dogs are the defending champion; they're looking to become just the ninth back-to-back champion in the tournament's 94-year history. The Windsor Spitfires accomplished the feat in 2009-10, but prior to that, the previous time was the Kamloops Blazers in 1994-95.
The Sea Dogs return a number of the key players who led them to the title last year, including Wild prospect Zack Phillips, who led the QMJHL playoffs in assists with 23 and added nine goals. Florida Panthers prospect Jonathan Huberdeau, the third pick of the 2011 NHL Draft had 10 goals and 11 assists in 15 QMJHL playoff games. Washington Capitals prospect Stanislav Galiev, a third-round pick in 2010, tied for the league scoring lead with 34 points in 17 games.
He tied for that spot with Charlie Coyle, a 2010 first-round pick who the Minnesota Wild acquired last year from the San Jose Sharks in the Brent Burns trade. Coyle, who joined the Sea Dogs in January after leaving Boston University, had 38 points in 23 regular-season games, and he's turned it on for the playoffs, finishing second on the team in the playoffs with 15 goals and 19 assists.
Among those challenging Saint John will be the London Knights, who went through their own changes this season. Coach Dale Hunter left in November to coach the Washington Capitals, with his brother, GM Mark Hunter, taking his place.
2012 NHL Draft prospect Seth Griffith has been the Knights' top scorer this season; he was tied for ninth in the league in the regular season with a team-high 85 points, and led the team in the OHL playoffs with 23 points in 19 games.
Another top 2012 draft prospect leading the Knights is defenseman Olli Maatta. Ranked No. 8 among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting in its final ranking, the 6-foot-2, 202-pound blueliner led all OHL defensemen in the playoffs with six goals and 23 points, and also had a plus-11 rating.
Another Knights player worth keeping an eye on is speedy forward Andreas Athanasiou, No. 40 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American forwards. He had a goal, four assists and a plus-7 rating in 11 games.
Goalie Michael Houser, No. 8 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American goaltenders, had a 2.25 goals-against average and .928 save percentage while playing all but three minutes of London's run to the OHL title.
The Edmonton Oil Kings arrive for the Memorial Cup with just four losses since Feb. 22. They won 19 straight games, a span that included sweeps of their first two series and the first three games of the WHL conference finals.
Curtis Lazar, a center eligible for the 2013 draft, led the team in playoff scoring with 19 points in 20 games. Center Henrik Samuelsson, No. 75 on Central Scouting's final ranking North American skaters, was third on the team with 10 assists.
Keying the defense was Griffin Reinhart, No. 10 on Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters. The 6-foot-4, 207-pound blueliner led the playoffs with a plus-14 rating, and also had two goals and six assists in 20 games.
Host Shawinigan saw its season end in a seven-game second round loss to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens. Leading them at the Memorial Cup will be a pair of 2012 Draft-eligible players, right wing Anton Zlobin and defenseman Justin Hache. Zlobin, No. 137 on Central Scouting's final rankings, had three goals and seven assists in 11 games. Hache, No. 152, had one goal and a plus-6 rating in 11 games.
Memorial Cup Schedule
All games from the 2012 MasterCard Memorial Cup will be televised on the NHL Network in the U.S. and on Sportsnet in Canada.
All games will be televised live at 7 p.m. ET on Sportsnet
5/18 - Edmonton Oil Kings vs. Shawinigan Cataractes
5/19 - Saint John Sea Dogs vs. London Knights (6 p.m. CST on NHL Network)
5/20 - Shawinigan vs. London
5/21 - Saint John vs. Edmonton (Tape delayed on NHL Network at noon 5/22)
5/22 - London vs. Edmonton
5/23 - Shawinigan vs. Saint John (Tape delayed on NHL Network at noon 5/24)
5/24 - Tie-breaker game (if necessary)
5/25 - Semifinal game
5/27 - Championship game