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High hopes for Herd: Halifax Mooseheads looking to be a contender in new QMJHL season

The Mooseheads have struggled the past two seasons, but are expecting bigger and better things in 2017-18.

The Halifax Mooseheads and their fans celebrate a goal over the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies during QMJHL playoff action last year at the Scotiabank Centre.

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The Halifax Mooseheads and their fans celebrate a goal over the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies during QMJHL playoff action last year at the Scotiabank Centre.

Rebuilding a junior team that finished second-to-last two seasons ago is a process, but the Halifax Mooseheads are ready to take the next step.

“We’re still going to be young, but I think we’re going to have a very good young team,” said sophomore forward Benoit-Olivier Groulx who posted 31 points as a rookie.

“Last year we had a lot of adversity in our division. We had probably the best division in the league, so I think we showed that we can play against good teams and we grew a lot from that.”

The Maritimes Division is up for grabs with the defending champs, the Saint John Sea Dogs, and the powerhouse Charlottetown Islanders both losing key veterans. The Acadie-Bathurst Titan are early favourites to win the division and after finishing at the bottom of the league, a re-tooled Moncton Wildcats can only go up. The Cape Breton Screaming Eagles fall somewhere in the middle.

Realistically, the Mooseheads could finish top three in the division and somewhere in the middle of the standings. Last year, the Herd finished 15th and didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final weekend of the season. The poor finish combined with trades gave the Herd a handful of high draft picks in the QMJHL and CHL Import draft.

“We’re lucky that we’ve had three really good drafts the last three years and it’s still going to be a process,” said head coach Jim Midgley who received a promotion in June after six seasons as an assistant coach.

The fourth overall pick of the 2017 draft, centre Xavier Parent, led the team in pre-season scoring with eight points. Local defenceman Justin Barron, selected 13th overall, joins a bloated eight-man blueline while Walter Flower and Jordan LePage sit out with injuries.

All eyes will be on Czech winger Filip Zadina, the 11th overall pick of the CHL import draft and a skilled player currently projected to go in the first round of the NHL draft in June. He’ll help fill the hole left by Nico Hischier who should be in the NHL all season after going first overall to the New Jersey Devils in June.

Groulx and defenceman Jared McIsaac could also join Zadina in the first round of the 2018 NHL draft.

“Jared McIsaac, obviously where he’s ranked in the NHL draft, that speaks for itself. And he had a really good off-season training and he had a good Ivan Hlinka (tournament), so we hope he can carry it on to the start of the season. It’s a big season for him,” said Midgley.

Goalie Alexis Gravel is back for his second season and is also one to watch in his NHL draft year. After backup Blade Mann-Dixon went down with an injury, Gravel started every game and was named to the QMJHL rookie all-star team.

Halifax opens the season with a three-game road trip starting in Saint John on Thursday. The home-opener is Saturday, Sept. 30 against Acadie-Bathurst at 7 p.m.

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