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CHL teams begin season minus top stars with NHL training camps ongoing

Mississauga Steelheads head coach James Richmond didn't plan to have NHL prospect Owen Tippett in his lineup, at least not so soon.
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Mississauga Steelheads head coach James Richmond didn't plan to have NHL prospect Owen Tippett in his lineup, at least not so soon.

Like the majority of Canadian Hockey League coaches, Richmond prepared to open the 2018-19 season without his best players because NHL training camps overlap with the start of the junior campaign.

While Tippett has been returned, more than a month earlier than the previous season, Richmond still waits on the status of forward Ryan McLeod, who made it through the latest round of cuts at Edmonton Oilers camp.

"There's not a lot of communication between junior clubs and NHL clubs, rightfully so. They don't want too many people knowing what they're doing," said Richmond. "You have to plan with what you have.

"We go in thinking we are without Tippett and McLeod."

Tippett, Florida's first-round pick from the 2017 NHL draft, was surprisingly returned to the Ontario Hockey League's Steelheads from Panthers camp on Monday and had his first practice with Mississauga on Tuesday, instantly being inserted onto the team's top line.

The Steelheads are more than pleased to have the Peterborough, Ont., native back after dropping their first two games of the year without him and McLeod.

Last season, he stuck with the Panthers and played seven regular-season games with them before being sent back in early November.

Junior teams are ultimately left with the unknown on player availability until NHL clubs figure out their rosters, but that's the expectation.

Saskatoon head coach Mitch Love says he was fortunate to have all his players returned before opening night of the Western Hockey League season, but he still has to "get (players) back up to speed." when they miss Blades camp and exhibition games.

"It's such a tough time of year, we lost four kids to NHL camps and with a new coaching staff you're trying to implement new things they've missed on," said Love, who was hired as head coach in the off-season. "It becomes a bit of a challenge but every team deals with it and you have to adapt."

McLeod isn't the only junior-eligible player still in Oilers camp as of Wednesday, with Edmonton choosing to keep defenceman Evan Bouchard (London Knights) with two more pre-season games to go. Bouchard may even start the NHL regular season on Edmonton's roster.

"He's an NHL player," Knights general manager Mark Hunter said of Bouchard, who was selected 10th overall by Edmonton in 2018.

Hunter, back in charge of London after four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, also is waiting to hear back on the status of forward Alex Formenton, who is at Ottawa Senators camp and could their crack opening-night roster. Hunter did, however, receive good news on Wednesday with forward Liam Foudy returning from Columbus Blue Jackets camp and defenceman Adam Boqvist being sent down by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Tippett's return on Monday kick-started some of the big-name teenagers heading back to junior with their seasons already underway.

Also on Wednesday, the defending Memorial Cup champion Acadie-Bathurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had defenceman Noah Dobson (New York Islanders, 12th overall this year) returned. He was subsequently named team captain.

The Portland Winterhawks will have forward Cody Glass back in the lineup after being returned from the Vegas Golden Knights, while the Montreal Canadiens sent forward Nick Suzuki back to the Owen Sound Attack on Tuesday.

Some of the other players still not guaranteed to stick with their NHL club are eligible to go back to junior in the near future are Michael Rasmussen and Juuso Valimaki (Tri-City Americans), Robert Thomas (Hamilton Bulldogs) and Filip Zadina (Halifax Mooseheads).

The NHL regular season begins on Oct. 3. NHL teams can play a junior-eligible player up to nine games, with the 10th appearance burning a year of his entry-level contract. Typically a club will want to slide the contract, so a player rarely goes over the nine-game mark unless the plan is to keep him for good.

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AROUND THE CHL: Blades forward and 2019 NHL draft prospect Kirby Dach opened the WHL season with three goals and seven points in two games to earn CHL player of the week honours. The 17-year-old produced his first WHL hat trick to help Saskatoon to back-to-back victories over the defending league champion Swift Current Broncos. 

Saint John Sea Dogs forward Josh Lawrence earned QMJHL player of the week honour with two goals and six points in two games, while Niagara IceDogs forward Akil Smith took the OHL player of the week award.

Hunter Jones of the Peterborough Petes is the CHL goaltender of the Week after posting a 2-0-0 record including a shutout victory and a goals-against average of 1.50 and save percentage of .962. He's eligible for next year's NHL draft.

The Sea Dogs, meanwhile, continue to keep their eye on the future as they rebuild through the draft. They sent Czech forward Ostap Safin and a fourth-round pick in the 2021 QMJHL draft to Memorial Cup host Halifax for a 2020 first-round pick. The 19-year-old Safin is an Edmonton Oilers prospect and was Saint John's leading scorer last season with 26 goals and 58 points.

As of Wednesday, the top 10 teams in the CHL rankings are: 1. Halifax (2-0-0); 2. London (1-0-0); 3. Lethbridge Hurricanes (1-1-0) ; 4. Drummondville Voltigeurs (1-1-0); 5. Niagara (1-0-0); 6. Rimouski Oceanic (2-0-0); 7. Spokane Chiefs (0-1-0); 8. Vancouver Giants (2-0-0); 9. Saginaw Spirit (1-1-0); 10. Saskatoon (2-0-0).

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Kyle Cicerella's junior hockey notebook will be published every Thursday.

Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press