Midterm Review – Charlottetown Islanders
We’ve arrived at the quarter mark of the 2017-2018 QMJHL season. As is typically the case, there have been a few surprises to this point. The Victoriaville Tigres, thought to be the toast of the league prior to the season, have struggled to this point, finding themselves in the bottom half of the league. Players drafted in the 2017 draft such as Alexis Lafreniere of the Rimouski Oceanic and Jakob Pelletier of the Moncton Wildcats, have been making an immediate impact on their teams. And following an impressive showing at Ottawa Senators training camp, Cape Breton forward Drake Batherson has rocketed to the top of the QMJHL points race.
The biggest surprise early on, however, has been the play of the Charlottetown Islanders. Following a slow start to the season that included scoring just six goals in their first six games, the Isles have made a big leap to ninth in the Q standings, winning nine of their last ten games and receiving contributions from all parts of the lineup. Initially thought to be the cellar dwellers of this season, the team has proven that they can hang with the big guns of the league.
Their ascent up the standings can be attributed to a few factors. A number of players are beginning to hit their stride and step up on this team, while systems have been enhanced and tightened up to complement the skills that the Islanders currently possess.
I’ve talked at great lengths about how strong the penalty kill and powerplay are for the Islanders this season; over on my personal blog, Open Ice Hits, I’ll have a deep look into just how effective they’ve been and why posted by Tuesday morning.
To summarize, the powerplay has been effective because their quarterbacks, Adam Marsh and Matthew Grouchy, do a great job of creating opportunities from the right side. The penalty kill, led by Sam King, plays an aggressive neutral-zone trap-style of penalty kill, not allowing the attacking team a chance to set up in the offensive zone.
A good special teams strategy can be the difference between a win and a loss. This couldn’t be more right for the Islanders.
Sam Meisenheimer – When the Islanders traded Mark Grametbauer to the Moncton Wildcats, many thought it was simply to recoup some draft picks that they gave up on their playoff run last season. After all, they received three mid-round draft picks and they already had a starting goaltender in Matthew Welsh.
Two players were also included in that deal. Defenceman Noah Massie was a regular in the lineup prior to the trade for Olivier Desjardins. Since then, he’s been a healthy scratch.
The other player to come across the bridge was forward Sam Meisenheimer. The Viking, Alberta native put forth a modest point total of 12 in 44 games with an extremely weak Wildcats team last season, so it was safe to say that expectations were set accordingly for the diminutive forward.
Not only has Meisenheimer excelled this season, he’s shattered expectations.
After finding his niche alongside Adam Marsh and Gregor MacLeod, Meisenheimer has put up three goals and ten assists in 17 games, good for second on the team behind Marsh. His compete level on the ice is noticeable; he may be small, but the 5’8 winger mucks and grinds in the corners like he’s 6’2.
An under-appreciated facet of Meisenheimer’s game is his hands. When he has the puck it’s seems at times like he has it on a string. This combined with his smaller stature and big effort make him hard to knock off the puck.
The first few times I watched Meisenheimer play, I’ll admit he was hard to notice. Then again, the team as a whole were fairly invisible on the ice. Now, Meisenheimer is a crucial cog for the Islanders, an undisputed fixture in the top-6.
Matthew Grouchy – I have been high on Grouchy since the end of last season. Given the firepower that this team had last year, it was easy for he and Gregor MacLeod to slip quietly into a supporting role and not receive the headlines that the likes of Daniel Sprong and Filip Chlapik received.
This year, however, playing on the top line alongside Pascal Aquin and Keith Getson, Grouchy has shown flashes of brilliance with the puck, dancing around defenders and making plays happen in the offensive zone.
Grouchy may only have nine points in 18 games this season, but whenever he has the puck he makes you take notice. He’s strong on the puck, he’s arguably the 2nd or 3rd best puckhandler on the team, and I think he’ll start to put scouts on notice as his draft year wages on.
Matthew Welsh – Welsh came in to this season as one of the de facto leaders on this team alongside Pierre-Olivier Joseph and Keith Getson. That being said, he also faced some adversity; the goaltender lost his starting position down the stretch to Mark Grametbauer, leaving him with something to prove heading in to this season.
To date, he’s proven himself very well. He’s among the top-10 qualified goalies in SV%, while sitting eighth in GAA. He’s also faced a lot of rubber, with his 380 shots against tying him with Acadie-Bathurst’s Reilly Pickard for seventh in the league.
All this being said, keep an eye on his backup, Dakota Lund-Cornish. The 17 year-old rookie has looked great in his limited starts, and I suspect he’ll start pushing Welsh for more starts soon.
If Welsh keeps playing like he is though, he’s going to make it as hard as possible.
The Third Line – The Isles’ third line is one of my favourite to watch on this team, because they’re receiving the benefit of easier matchups.
The trio of Sam King, Nikita Alexandrov, and Sullivan Sparkes have begun to flex their offensive muscles as Alexandrov breaks out of his early-season struggles. Over the past five games, the trio have combined for six goals and five assists playing in a supporting role. Those are numbers that should not be ignored.
One thing I’ve liked watching is how King’s defensive mind has helped Alexandrov adjust to the North American style of play. Give the sniper a weapon like Sparkes, and magic is going to happen.
Look for this trio to get more minutes as the season wages on. They’re going to be deserving of them.
Jim Hulton – Now, I know it’s not traditional to credit the man behind the bench and his work in the office for the product on the ice, but given the state of the team headed in to this season, Jim Hulton really deserves a pat on the back.
The Islanders were going to need some source of scoring to replace the skill lost from last season. Hulton made a string of savvy moves to not necessarily replace the star power, but to replace the actual goals.
The first move to this effect was the Grametbauer trade. He made a move from a position of strength and managed to get picks and a top-6 forward in return.
Next, look to his efforts in recruiting Ontario junior players. Cayse Ton, Marcel Berube, Taylor Egan, Brendon Clavelle, and Sullivan Sparkes have all stepped in to consistent roles on this team and made quiet contributions.
The midseason acquisition of overager Olivier Desjardins secured a shaky D corps that has looked excellent since his arrival. His veteran leadership was direly needed along with Joseph on the back-end.
On the ice, look no further than than the aforementioned special teams that have showcased well for his contribution there.
Hulton has taken a rough ball of clay and molded it into a competitive team. He deserves some credit for the effort he’s put forth to date.
It’s still early in the season, but it’s safe to say that these are not the same Charlottetown Islanders everyone was expecting to see back in September. Should they keep this play up, then that 2018 first-round pick of ours that Bathurst owns won’t be as high as everyone initially thought.