TORONTO — The Canadian Hockey League begins its holiday break on Saturday, with action not resuming until Dec. 27.
Here are five storyline to keep an eye on in the second half of the CHL season.
WHO WILL WIN THE CHL SCORING TITLE?
Rimouski Oceanic forward and potential No. 1 pick at the 2020 NHL Draft, Alexis Lafreniere, leads the 60-team CHL in scoring despite missing recent game action in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League while at Canada's world junior camp. The 18-year-old has 23 goals and 70 points in 32 games, an average of 2.19 points-per game. He'll miss seven Oceanic games in total while at the world juniors that begins Boxing Day, but can easily overcome the points he leaves on the table when in the Czech Republic.
The Western Hockey League's top scorers heading into Thursday's final matchups are James Hamblin, a 20-year-old forward for the Medicine Hat Tigers with 18 goals and 52 points in 33 games, and 19-year-old Spokane forward Adam Beckman, with 23 goals and 52 points in 32 games. They will be the only current league leaders to gain some ground while Lafreniere is away.
That's because the Ontario Hockey League's top three scorers will also be at the world juniors. Hamilton Bulldogs forward Arthur Kaliyev leads the league with 31 goals and 62 points in 33 games and is expected to be a big part of the American team. London forward Connor McMichael, 59 points in 27 games, and Sudbury forward Quinton Byfield, 57 points in 30 games, sit second and third, respectively, but will be alongside Lafreniere on the Canadian team. Ottawa 67's forward Marco Rossi of Austria, with 56 points in 24 games, is one player who could make up ground before Lafreniere returns in early January.
WHO WILL EMERGE AS THE CHL'S TOP GOALIE?
The early front runners for the CHL's best goalie aren't going to be getting any time off, with all of them expected to be representing their nations at the world juniors.
Samuel Hlavaj of the Sherbrooke Phoenix has shown no concerns transitioning for his first season in North America, leading the QMJHL with a 2.14 goals-against average and .925 save percentage in 22 games. The 18-year-old undrafted netminder is expected to be Slovakia's starter for the world juniors, with much of its success relying on his play.
Nico Daws has stepped up in his first season as the No. 1 with the OHL's Guelph Storm, and leads the league with a 2.06 GAA and .939 save percentage in 20 games. The 2020 NHL draft prospect played backup last season as Guelph won an OHL championship, and this season he's gone on to make the Canadian squad for world juniors.
The Western Hockey League currently has Joel Hofer of the Portland Winterhawks and Dustin Wolf of the Everett Silvertips leading in the stats categories. Hofer, a St. Louis Blues prospect, earned his way onto Canada's world junior squad with a 1.81 GAA and .937 save percentage in 27 games. Wolf, who will be at the world juniors with the United States, has a 1.91 GAA and .941 save percentage in 24 contests.
WHICH TEAMS ARE MEMORIAL CUP THREATS?
The WHL's Kelowna Rockets are this year's tournament hosts and guaranteed a spot in the four-team tournament. However, they only have the ninth-best record in their league right now at 18-11-3. The top three threats in the West have all gone 8-1-1 in their last 10 games to create some space. The Edmonton Oil Kings (22-6-7), Everett (24-6-2) and Portland (22-6-4) all appeared poised to challenge for the WHL title.
The OHL's top two teams are the Peterborough Petes (23-7-2) and Ottawa 67's (23-6-0), but they are both in the East and will potentially have to go through each other to reach the league championship. The West doesn't have any clear-cut giants, but the Storm (19-8-4), London Knights (18-10-2) and Windsor Spitfires (17-7-4) will all have a chance to get through.
The QMJHL's top club is the Phoenix, who are also No. 1 in the CHL rankings with a 27-5-2 record. Sherbrooke has found success by leading the league in both goals scored and goals allowed. The Phoenix's challenges will come from the Chicoutimi Sagueneens (24-6-3), Moncton Wildcats (24-9-0) and Rimouski (20-8-6).
CAN SHANE WRIGHT SET THE RECORD FRO MOST POINTS BY A 15-YEAR-OLD?
Wright and his Kingston Frontenacs had a slow start to the season with a 12-game winless streak and just one victory in their first 19 games. But the fifth player to ever be granted exceptional status in the CHL has made it past the early-season jitters and is quietly producing a point per game.
The five-foot-11 180-pound centre from Burlington, Ont., is tied for Kingston's scoring lead with 16 goals and 28 points in 27 games, and the Frontenacs have 37 games remaining — meaning Wright would come up just short of Maple Leafs centre John Tavares' record of 77 points if he produced at the same rate. However, he has 17 points in his last 12, a pace that would put him at 80 points in 64 games if he keeps it up.
Tavares, the first player to ever be granted exceptional-player status, set the record in 65 games with the Oshawa Generals in 2005-06. Leafs centre Jason Spezza is second with 71 points in 67 games with the 1998-99 Brampton Battalion, while Oilers centre Connor McDavid is third with 66 points in 63 games with the 2012-13 Erie Otters.
WHO COULD BE MOVED AFTER THE JUNIOR CHAMPIONSHIP?
The CHL Christmas trade freeze was busy this year with 18 deals for 26 players and 31 draft picks in the QMJHL alone being made on Dec. 15.
Last year Guelph shipped out three skaters and 20 draft picks in five separate deals in the second half of the season to bolster its roster with three returning Canadian world juniors, including Montreal Canadiens forward Nick Suzuki. Ottawa also made a splash by acquiring Canadian goaltender Mikey DiPietro of the Vancouver Canucks.
Canada forwards Raphael Lavoie and Benoit-Olivier Groulx and defenceman Jared McIsaac would demand a large return if the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads chose to rebuild rather than stay middle of the pack. OHL forwards Akil Thomas of the Niagara IceDogs and Barrett Hayton of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and defenceman Jamie Drysdale of the Otters are all on teams floating around the .500 mark, making it easier to move them for an abundance of draft picks.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 19, 2019.
Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press