Not only does the parent New York Rangers’ Original Six series against the Boston Bruins start tonight, but the Memorial Cup, the championship of Canadian Major Junior hockey, gets underway Friday in Saskatoon Saskatchewan.
Three Ranger prospects will be playing in the Memorial Cup, and all three would be eligible to join the Wolf Pack next season.
Forwards Shane McColgan and Josh Nicholls will be helping to lead the host Saskatoon Blades of the Western Hockey League up against defenseman Tommy Hughes’ London Knights (Ontario Hockey League). The other two teams that have qualified for the tournament are the WHL-champion Portland Winterhawks and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s playoff champs, the Halifax Mooseheads.
Wolf Pack fans got a peek at McColgan last spring, when the 2011 fifth-round Ranger draftee played in five games with the Whale after the conclusion of his WHL season. He is the only one of the three Ranger prospects at the Memorial Cup to have been drafted by the team, but is also the only one without a contract. Both Nicholls and Hughes were inked to NHL free-agent contracts by the Rangers this spring. This tournament represents somewhat of a last chance for McColgan to get a deal from the Rangers, too, as if he does not sign with New York before the end of this month, the Rangers will lose his rights and he will go back into the draft.
The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix quoted McColgan as saying, “It’s important for me individually to do my best and give my all in these games at the Memorial Cup. A lot of guys don’t get this second opportunity.”
Nor do many guys get to compete for the Memorial Cup twice in their careers, as McColgan is doing. He was also a member of a 2008-09 Kelowna Rockets team that got all the way to the Memorial Cup final before losing to the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires.
“When I was with Kelowna and we went to the Memorial Cup, around 12 or 13 guys signed contracts,” McColgan told the Star-Phoenix. “It definitely helps. Team success transfers over to individual (success) as well.”
The Blades will need to shake off some rust when the tourney starts. Saskatoon has been out of action for seven weeks since being swept by the Medicine Hat Tigers in a first-round upset in the WHL playoffs. The Blades were guaranteed a spot in the Memorial Cup by virtue of being the host team.
McColgan had his fourth straight 60-point year in the WHL this season, with 19 goals and 47 assists for 66 points in 69 games.
For McColgan’s teammate Nicholls, whose signing was announced by the Rangers March 5, this season was his overage year, meaning that he is out of Junior eligibility. Unlike McColgan, for whom this year was his first in Saskatoon, Nicholls has spent his whole Junior career with the Blades and with 332 career games-played, is only five short of the all-time team record. He also stands fifth all-time in Blades history in goals (138) and points (313).
“Obviously, I’ve accomplished a lot both team-wise and individually since I’ve been here — everything but winning some sort of championship,” Nicholls said to the Star-Phoenix. “To be able to have this opportunity to host the Mem Cup is huge for myself and for the organization. I’m really excited to get things going and hopefully have a successful tournament.”
Nicholls has good size, at 6-2 and 196 pounds, and finished third in the WHL in goals this year with 47, only two off the league lead.
In contrast to McColgan and Nicholls, who have been trying to find ways to stay sharp during a long layoff, Hughes is coming off of an intense, seven-game OHL championship series, which his Knights captured in dramatic fashion. After going down 3-1 in the series to the Barrie Colts, London won three straight, and took Game Seven Monday night on a goal with one second left in regulation. Wow!
Hughes, who is a London native and thus got a chance to play for his hometown OHL team, is another big guy, at 6-2 and 215 pounds. He does not have much for offensive numbers, but is +47 in 123 games over the last two years and was +30 in 56 games two seasons ago. The Knights, who are coached by former NHL mainstay Dale Hunter, have a fine record of producing pro players. Ex-Knights currently in the NHL include Ranger defenseman Dan Girardi and Ottawa blueliner Marc Methot, and Hunter compared Hughes to those two accomplished defenders, in an April conversation with John Matisz of metronews.ca.
“He blocks shots, he’s fearless out there,” Hunter said of Hughes, who also was an overager this year. “He just kept getting better and better every year.
“He’s a very good skater. He’s fast. He stays in a crouch, which he should anyways, and he’s strong.”
Sounds like exactly the profile of defenseman that fits the Ranger mold, and if Hughes can be anything like Girardi, who was one of the great scouting finds in recent pro hockey history, then the Blueshirts will have uncovered another real hidden gem.