May 16, 2014 (ISN) – Sometimes the dark horse goes all the way. During a QMJHL season when most of the buzz surrounded front runners like the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Halifax Mooseheads, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada and Rimouski Oceanic, the Val-d’Or Foreurs quietly went about their business under the radar.
Yes, they garnered a bit more attention down the stretch when a late surge pushed them into third overall in the standings. But even then the best they could get was second-tier contender status in most corners.
“It was a team effort,” said Val-d’Or head coach Mario Durocher. “I think a lot of people were talking about different teams all the time and maybe forgot about us a little bit. But that was okay for us. We had a pretty good first half and got some confidence, then we challenged our guys to take another step and be even better, and they did it. We started to work together a lot more as a team, and I think we deserve everything we got. The guys earned it and I’m proud of them.”
The basis for the Foreurs’ success was the play of their elite core. Defencemen Randy Gazzola and Guillaume Gelinas were first-team league all-stars, goalie Antoine Bibeau was consistently outstanding and veteran forwards Louick Marcotte and Samuel Henley provided timely scoring and leadership.
And the main ingredient was winger Anthony Mantha, the league scoring champion and a first-team all-star. He posted 57 goals and 63 assists in 57 games to unseat Halifax superstar Jonathan Drouin as the league’s most valuable player. It’s no surprise the Foreurs were the highest-scoring team in the league with 306 goals in 68 games.
“Obviously our biggest strength is our offence,” Mantha said. “We’ve been scoring lots of goals since the beginning of the year, and we’re still producing. A lot of people didn’t believe in us. I think we showed that they were wrong and that we had the team.”
Like most championship teams, the evolution into a winner did not take place overnight. Players like Mantha, Henley, Gelinas, Nicolas Aube-Kubel, Anthony Richard, Julien Gauthier and Olivier Galipeau were notable picks in past QMJHL drafts who developed into key performers under the guidance of the Val-d’Or coaching staff. With the exception of Mantha and Gelinas, both fifth-round steals, all those players were first-round picks.
“Some of us have been together for a long time and we grew up together in Val-d’Or,” said Mantha, the Detroit Red Wings’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2013. “We’ve been building good chemistry all that time, and it’s fun for us to win together now.”
Other pieces of the championship puzzle were added through timely deals. Defencemen Gazzola and Jeremie Fraser came aboard in 2012–13, as did forward Pierre-Maxime Poudrier. But it was a trio of deals with the Charlottetown Islanders this year that gave the Foreurs the finishing touches.
The first acquisition was Marcotte, a 19-year-old winger who finished fifth in league scoring with 100 points. The second addition was Bibeau in late December, followed by Ryan Graves a week and a half later. Bibeau stabilized the Foreurs in goal, and Graves gave the Foreurs one more big mobile defenceman to round out their top four.
“The trade deadline at Christmas when they decided to go get some guys really helped us a lot,” Mantha said. “The goalie’s been amazing since then, and Graves has done a heck of a job. We knew we could score goals but getting those goals to help us on defence made the difference.”
Durocher said he and general manager Alexandre Rouleau decided to make those last few moves only after an honest assessment of the team’s first half. The Foreurs had an eight-game winning streak just prior to the Christmas break to fuel some enthusiasm, but the two men still weren’t convinced they had enough to go all the way. They decided to go shopping but agreed they would not empty their wallets.
Granted, they had to sacrifice 2013 first-round pick David Henley (Samuel’s younger brother) to get Graves, as well as three draft picks, including a first-rounder, to land Bibeau. But they never felt like they were leaving the cupboards bare.
“Before Anthony Mantha went to World Juniors, the way we were playing and the way our kids were playing led to that decision,” Durocher said. “We didn’t give an opportunity to our GM to make trades to [sacrifice] the future. With the way we were playing, we showed him we had a chance to go a little bit further than we thought.
“I think he was smart. We went for Bibeau and we went for Graves, who is only 18. We paid a lot for him with David Henley but I think all the moves Alex [made] were helpful. . . . We’re really pleased right now [and] the future of the organization will be good too.”
The post-season results they had against the league heavyweights clearly show the moves were justified. Not only did the Foreurs upend the first-place-overall Drakkar in the final, they eliminated the defending QMJHL and MasterCard Memorial Cup champion Mooseheads in the semifinals. The Mooseheads finished three points ahead of the Foreurs in second place overall during the regular season and, prior to facing the Foreurs, had won 21 of 22 games.
But the Foreurs enjoyed some streaks of their own around the same time. They won 15 of their final 17 regular-season games before going 8–2 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, which included a 4–2 series win over the talented Drummondville Voltigeurs. The Foreurs needed seven games to oust the Mooseheads in the semis.
“The more we were winning, the more we were gaining confidence,” said Durocher, who won a league championship with the Victoriaville Tigres in 2002. “You could see the guys were believing in each other more all the time, and they really started to believe in what we were telling them. They deserve a lot of credit for their work ethic.”
Durocher said the biggest element in the master plan coming together was when his players bought in defensively. He told them over and over again they wouldn’t win it all if all they could do was score goals.
“We already knew we could perform on offence,” Durocher said. “We had the best power play in the league in the regular season and our team scored the most goals. But it’s no good if you’re losing 8–7 or 7–6. We wanted them to keep doing what they were doing in the other team’s zone but we wanted more commitment at our end. They had to understand that you can play defence and still score goals, but like I said, they worked hard on that and it’s the biggest reason we got where we wanted.”
The title win is Val-d’Or’s third in franchise history. The Foreurs won in 1998 and 2001, but the results had been pretty lean since then. They went deeper than the first round only once between 2004 and 2012.
“Last year we won our first series in four or five years, and I was probably the only one who was not satisfied with that,” Durocher said. “We were talking about the next step, individually for the players but also as a team. Now we have taken that next step.”