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Cam Russell talks navigating offseason strategy during the pandemic

2020-03-26

The world is suffering through some extremely trying times in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re all longing for a return to normalcy that will hopefully come sometime in the not to distant future. Unfortunately, none of us really know how long this will last. The QMJHL, like every sports league around the globe is faced with many challenges and postponements of games and events.

For the Herd, they missed out on the final five games of the regular season, including the final two on home ice at Scotiabank Centre. The team sat four points behind Gatineau for the final playoff berth and would have needed an incredible final week to overcome the Olympiques to grab the 16th and final playoff spot. So where do the Mooseheads and other QMJHL teams go from here?

General Manager Cam Russell shared what it’s been like from his vantage point and what he expects to happen down the road.

“It felt incredibly strange and disappointing.  Uncharted territory for sure.  The hardest part was the uncertainty of it all.  Not knowing when, or if we would come back to play, or if would it end. I think when they finally cancelled the season, we all understood and accepted the decision because everyone’s health and safety always comes first.”

The cancellation of the season and playoffs meant many players unceremoniously played the final games of their junior hockey careers. That group includes Halifax’s 20-year-old graduating players D’Artagnan Joly, Kevin Gursoy and Denis Toner.

“That is the hardest part of it all for sure”, Russell said.

“All three of our 20’s were class acts and tremendous people. But I guess if you look at the bright side of this, at least this did not happen in November, so they were able to almost complete the entire season.”

The QMJHL also made the difficult decision to change the annual Entry Draft to an online format. The league’s draft is a signature event with a format similar to the NHL Entry Draft and was due to be held in Sherbrooke, QC on June 6th. Along with the draft, important scouting events such as the Gatorade Challenge which features the top draft eligible midget players from Atlantic Canada and Quebec had to be cancelled. The IIHF has also cancelled the World U18 Challenge. Both events are key final viewings for scouting staffs for both the QMJHL Entry Draft and the CHL Import Draft. Mooseheads fans know very well that this offseason is an important one for the franchise as the team holds 11 picks in the top four rounds of the Q Draft and the fifth overall selection in the Import Draft. Russell remains confident in the work the he and his scouts have done throughout the year.

“Our scouts watched plenty of hockey throughout the season, so they have a very good read on the draft field. However, this does make it a bit more challenging to make decisions on some of the players that we haven’t seen multiple times, but every single team is in the same boat as us which evens the playing field.”

Russell also spent a few weeks travelling between multiple European countries this winter scouting in preparation for the CHL Import Draft, where he has historically made some excellent selections.

With no hockey to watch and the drafts a handful of months away, what’s next on the to-do list for the GM and his scouts?

“Our scouting staff is holding meetings this week via skype and conference calls to finalize the Maritime and Quebec lists. Once those have been completed, they will put together the complete list of all players via conference call. We will take some time to digest if over the next month or two and will make our changes accordingly.”

With the province of Nova Scotia currently limiting gatherings to five people or fewer it is tough to foresee what the setup for the online QMJHL Draft will be for the Mooseheads’ staff but Russell plans to seek advice from his friends in Ontario.

“That’s an interesting question. Since we have never done this before, (other than the Euro draft which is done online) I will talk to a few teams in the OHL that do their drafts online and see if they can offer some insight for what to expect. As for how many we will have in the room for the draft, we will decide that as we get closer to the draft.”

There are notoriously several trades made during the QMJHL Draft, most often swapping picks rather than players with 15 being made on draft day last June in Quebec City. Russell said no information has been given to teams from the league at this point whether trades will be part of the online session or not. If trading is permitted, he does think a virtual draft will lessen the amount of deals that are normally worked out on the draft floor.

“Yes I do, and I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think one option for the league is to possibly open the trade period prior to the draft for a few days and allow us to make deals then. Again, at this point I’m not even sure that there will be trades allowed on draft day. Everything in sports is such an unknown right now.”

The Mooseheads gave their rebuilding process a kick-start at Christmas in order to bring as much talented new blood into the next training camp as possible. Provided the league starts up on time in August, Russell says there will be plenty to be excited about for Moose fans.

“We are all hopeful that this pandemic will be over as soon as possible, and we can get back to our regular routines. I really like how our team looks moving forward. Some of our younger players will be back with a year’s worth of playing experience under their belts and will assume bigger roles next season.  We will be strong in net and we have all our defencemen other than Denis Toner returning.  We will draft another European very high in the import draft this coming June and we have a slew of high picks for the next few years.  So, we are excited about our team next season and moving forward.”

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