The Halifax Mooseheads are coming off a season in which they finished near the bottom of the QMJHL’s standings, but if history is any indication, it’s not a bad place for them to be.
Five years ago, the Mooseheads had a similar season, but bounced back with a deep playoff run in the 2011-2012 season. One year later, they won the Memorial Cup as national champions.
The Mooseheads set themselves up for that successful run by trading away veteran talent and stockpiling draft picks. These efforts culminated in the team picking forward Jonathan Drouin and goalie Zach Fucale with their two first round draft picks in the 2011 draft. They later picked up centre Nathan MacKinnon in a trade. The trio anchored the team’s success over the next few seasons.
Last season, the Mooseheads finished in second-last place, which set them up to have an early draft pick. Thanks to earlier trades, the Mooseheads were armed with three first round picks. “We had a surplus of draft picks this year, like we did in 2011,” says Cam Russell, the Mooseheads’ general manager.
Through some further trades, the team ended up picking first and second in the draft and walked away with the consensus best players, forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx and Truro defenceman Jared McIsaac. One round later, the Mooseheads selected a goalie viewed as the second-best in the draft, Alexis Gravel. Mooseheads fans hope these names one day become as well-known as MacKinnon, Drouin, and Fucale.
Just like five years ago, the Mooseheads have also acquired solid players from the CHL Import Draft. This year, they selected Nico Hischier, a Swiss forward dubbed “the Swiss McDavid,” a reference to Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, viewed as a once-in-a-decade talent.
“You’re talking about a world-class player,” says Russell, adding the team viewed Hischier as the best player in the import draft, citing the fact he can score, make plays, and is also excellent on the defensive side. Hischier has already committed to playing for the Mooseheads, which is especially good news considering it’s sometimes tough to get European players to come to Canada to play junior hockey.
The team’s home opener this year is on September 24. The wrinkle for the Mooseheads is that they won’t have the same coach they had five years ago. That’s because acclaimed head coach Dominic Ducharme resigned during the offseason, citing his desire to be closer to his family in Quebec.
“We knew that eventually that would come,” says Russell, adding Ducharme “gave us everything he had for five years.” The Mooseheads’ loss is now the Drummondville Voltigeurs’ gain as Ducharme is now serving as head coach and general manager of the QMJHL team.
It was a tough blow for the Mooseheads, but the team feels it’s landed the right replacement. It handpicked André Tourigny, who was coaching most recently in the NHL, but had previous success coaching in the QMJHL with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. “We feel we landed one of the top coaches in the CHL,” says Russell. “He’s a well-respected, hardworking, excellent head coach.”
Last season’s team captain, Taylor Ford, is already impressed with the new head coach. The two spoke by telephone shortly after Tourigny got the job.
Ford says Tourigny is down to earth and Ford says Tourigny is down to earth and approachable—much like Ducharme—and he welcomes the idea of a coach you can approach to talk about anything. “It’s good to know you can kind of fall back on a guy that you trust,” says Ford. It’s a role Tourigny welcomes. “I like to teach, not just on the ice, [but] off the ice,” he says.
The Mooseheads’ decision to unload a lot of its veteran players last season had positive side effects for its younger players because it gave them more opportunities to play. “You can practice all day long until the dogs come home, but if you want to develop your kids, you have to put them in game situations,” says Russell.
This approach involves enduring some short-term pain, which is about more than just losing games. “It sucks seeing some of your buddies get traded and this and that. In the end, I think it helped the team a lot,” says Ford, who thinks the Mooseheads will have a very good team this coming season and into the future.
Ford has two more years of eligibility with the team and if his timeline is correct, he might be around just long enough to see the Mooseheads return to glory. “I wouldn’t be surprised to maybe make some noise in the playoffs this year and even next year, we’ll definitely be a contender. That’s for sure,” he says.