Saginaw bids to host Memorial Cup

The 104th Memorial Cup will begin in Saginaw, Michigan on Friday and the entire tournament will be available on TSN.

Ontario Hockey League champion London Knights, Quebec Maritimes Junior Hockey League champion Drummondville Voltigeurs, Western Hockey League champion Moose Jaw Warriors and host team Saginaw Spirit will compete for the right to be named champion of the Canadian Hockey League.

With analysis from TSN Director of Scouting Craig Button, we’ll profile each team ahead of the tournament’s first game on Friday.

The Saginaw Spirit were presented as hosts of the 2024 Memorial Cup last March, marking the first time that the tournament will be played in an American OHL market.

Knowing they would be in the tournament, Spirit did everything they could to make sure they were ready for the competition. Saginaw was the busiest team around the trade deadline, acquiring veteran pieces like forwards Owen Beck and Josh Bloom, defensemen Rodwin Dionicio and Jorian Donovan, and goaltender Nolan Lalonde to complement a strong core that’s already primed to prepare. for this tournament.

The moves prepared the team well, which finished with a 50-16-2 record, the second-best mark during the OHL regular season. In the playoffs, they swept the Owen Sound Attack in the first round before facing tougher competition.

Saginaw barely escaped the second round of the playoffs by defeating a very strong Soo Greyhounds team in seven games, but then fell to the eventual J. Ross Robertson Cup champion London Knights in six games in the Championship Series of the Western Conference.

With the ultimate prize still within reach, the Spirit looks for redemption in the Memorial Cup and begins play against the Moose Jaw Warriors on Friday.

Veteran presence

The Spirit did their best to surround young stars like forward Michael Misa and defenseman Zayne Parekh with plenty of veteran leadership who have been in similar situations.

Their biggest move was acquiring Montreal Canadiens prospect Owen Beck from Peterborough after he helped the Petes win an OHL championship last year. The 6-foot center recorded 17 goals and 51 points in 32 regular-season games after joining Saginaw and added four goals and 14 points in the playoffs.

“Beck has always been able to do what is the hallmark of success and that has translated to higher levels,” Button said. “When the games get tougher, the competition gets tougher and the challenges get bigger, he overcomes them with his overall smart and determined play.”

The team also re-acquired Bloom, who had spent time in Saginaw organizations earlier in his career.

Bloom began the 2022-23 season as captain of the Spirit before transferring to the North Bay Battalion in November. The Vancouver Canucks prospect opened the season playing games in the American Hockey League and ECHL before the Spirit signed him in January.

Upon his return, Bloom recorded 17 goals and 40 points in 34 regular season games and contributed four goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

Center Matyas Sapovaliv is another key piece of Saginaw’s puzzle providing support for both the offense and defense. The Vegas Golden Knights draft pick is a smart, strong and assertive player who creates many advantages for the Spirit.

“He’s going to be a strong third-line center at the NHL level like (the Winnipeg Jets’) Adam Lowry,” Button said. “He takes pressure off defenders in the defensive zone because he plays a big, strong and heavy game. Like Beck, he plays the right way.”

Deep defense

Led by captain Braden Hache, Saginaw’s defense is one of the deepest in the tournament.

Hache, a draft pick of the Florida Panthers, was acquired by the Spirit before the season from the Barrie Colts and was named team captain. The 6-foot-3 left-shooting defenseman isn’t known for his offense, but he plays very hard on defense.

“It may not be sexy, but it’s incredibly important (to the Spirit),” Button said. “He gives you everything he has and he is a high-level competitor. “When you have that kind of leadership on the backend, it’s the key to success.”

To get the puck on the ice, the Spirit is led by a duo of Dionicio and Parekh, who won the Max Kaminsky Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

Dionicio was acquired from the Windsor Spitfires in November and recorded 20 goals and 53 points in 44 regular season games in Saginaw. The Anaheim Ducks prospect had five goals and 17 points in the playoffs before being eliminated.

“The Ducks have a great player coming up (Dionicio), I love the way he plays,” Button said. “He could have been a diamond in the rough, but they have polished him very well.”

The Spirit further solidified their defense in January when they acquired Jorian Donovan from the Brantford Bulldogs. Donovan, an Ottawa Senators prospect, helped the Bulldogs win an OHL Championship in 2022 and finished second in the Memorial Cup.

The 6-foot-2 left-handed defenseman recorded four goals and 18 points in 32 regular-season games with Saginaw and contributed three goals and nine points in the playoffs.

“With Parekh, Dionicio, Hache and Donovan, it’s a very good top four,” Button said. “When you have those top defensemen, they can play a lot of minutes, play hard and you can put them in a lot of situations.

“Saginaw does a very good job of using the depth of their defense to carry the game.”

tandem goal

The Spirit has a pair of goaltenders: Andrew Oke and Nolan Lalonde.

Oke started the majority of games for Saginaw, posting a 29-10-1 record with a 2.89 goals-against average and a .890 save percentage in the regular season. The 6-foot-2 netminder was in net to start the playoffs and swept the Attack in the first round, but he was injured during Game 1 of their series against the Greyhounds in Round 2 and never returned.

Lalonde was acquired by the Spirit as part of a three-team trade involving the Erie Otters and Sarnia Sting in October to solidify Saginaw’s goaltending situation. Lalonde started 36 games in the regular season for Saginaw, going 21-8-2 with a 3.31 GAA and .869 save percentage.

After replacing Oke in the second round of the playoffs, Lalonde went 5-7 the rest of the way with a 2.79 GAA and .893 save percentage.

“It was outstanding foresight by general manager Dave Drinkill (acquiring Lalonde),” Button said, “Saginaw knew they were going to the Memorial Cup and wanted to give themselves strength and balance at the net and that’s what Lalonde has given them. provided.”

Button believes the Spirit could turn to either goaltender if Oke is healthy for the start of the tournament, but each of them has their own strengths.

“Oke is a very talented goalkeeper,” Button said. “He has size, athletic and technical ability and he has presence. Lalonde is not the same size in the net as Oke, but he is a competitor. He digs deep and tries to find a way to keep the puck out of the net somehow.”

Players to watch: Zayne Parekh and Michael Misa

Zayne Parekh is the most dynamic player on the Spirit roster.

The 6-foot-tall defenseman led all CHL defensemen with 33 goals and 96 points, just ahead of Kitchener Rangers defenseman Hunter Brzustewicz and Portland Winterhawks defenseman Luca Cagnoni.

Parekh has the ability to control the game at a high level from the back without sacrificing anything in defense.

“He’s like Erik Karlsson,” Button said. “Parekh is a dynamic player who can make something out of what seems like nothing. He has everything you look for in a defender.”

The focus will be a little more on Parekh on the Memorial Cup stage as he also prepares for the 2024 NHL Draft in Las Vegas. The Nobleton, Ontario native is projected to be a high lottery pick and Button ranks him No. 5 on his most recent draft list.

Fans of the 2025 NHL Draft class will be interested to see Michael Misa on junior hockey’s biggest stage.

Misa became the sixth player in OHL history to receive exceptional player status in April 2022, joining John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid, Sean Day and Shane Wright.

The 6-foot winger finished third on the team in scoring this season with 29 goals and 75 points and added four goals and 11 points in the playoffs.

“The skills that stand out about him are that he’s very quick and recognizes where to be open and where the opportunities will be,” Button said. “He is smart, talented, opportunistic and an excellent prospect for the 2025 draft.”

Button notes that the biggest contribution to Misa’s success so far in the OHL has been Saginaw surrounding him with veteran leadership so he doesn’t feel as burdened by his status.

“The nicest thing for him is that he doesn’t have to feel all the weight on his shoulders,” Button said. “He has so many veterans around him and that allows the offense to spread out, which is really important.

“Being around a group of veterans will only help you later in your career because you will benefit from learning the leadership qualities that veterans are displaying now.”