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CHL top storylines: Hot starts have Cougars, Drakkar atop standings

Zac Funk Prince George Cougars Zac Funk - Prince George Cougars

The 2023-24 Canadian Hockey League season is underway and through the first month, there are several teams that have separated themselves early with Memorial Cup aspirations. 

In the Western Hockey League, the Prince George Cougars have established themselves as one of the biggest threats in the early going while out east in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar are off to the races to sit first in the league. In Ontario, the Mississauga Steelheads and Kitchener Rangers have both come out flying to start the year. 

With analysis from TSN's Director of Scouting Craig Button, here is why all four teams are off to strong starts this season. 

The Prince George Cougars have taken the entire Western Hockey League by storm with a blazing start to their season.

After finishing last in the Western Conference in 2018 and 2019, the Cougars have slowly climbed their way back to sit among the league's elite and lead the WHL.

Prince George has a 10-4-0 record after the first month of the season and lead the league in scoring with 74 goals, 11 more than the next best team.

Leading the charge are forwards Ondrej Becher, Zac Funk, and Terik Parascak, who occupy three of the top five scoring slots in the league.

Funk, an undrafted overage winger, leads the pack with 14 goals and 30 points in 14 games this season.

He was acquired by the Cougars in January and made an immediate impact on the team, recording 13 goals and 26 points to help the Cougars finish fourth in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, he added another five goals and eight points until the team was swept by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the second round.

This season, Funk has eight multi-point games, including three five-point performances to help him lead the league in scoring.

Parascak is in his rookie season in the WHL and leads the league with 17 goals to go along with his 28 points in 14 games.

The Lethbridge, Alta., native is eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft and is looking to make an impression on scouts this season.

He received a "B" ranking on the NHL Central Scouting's preliminary list of players to watch on Wednesday, which indicates that he could be a second- or third-round draft candidate.

"I see him as a first-round draft pick," TSN's Director of Scouting Craig Button said of Parascak. "His offensive abilities are terrific, he's got creativity, competitive spirit, and his room for growth is tremendous."

Becher is in his second season with the Cougars after being selected 16th overall in the 2022 CHL Import Draft.

The Ostrava, Czechia native is tied for fourth in the WHL in scoring with Parascak, recording 10 goals and 28 points in 14 games and is already only 10 points off his total from last season.

After not making the final cut for Czechia at the World Juniors last season, the 19-year-old is in a position to have a prime spot on that roster this year as he also tries to make a case for himself for the 2024 NHL Draft.

Also helping to pave the way for the Cougars is Minnesota Wild prospect Riley Heidt who sits tied for ninth in league scoring with seven goals and 22 points while Vancouver Canucks prospect Ty Young has been steady in the crease, going 7-3-0 with a 3.04 goals-against average and .886 save percentage.

Young, Heidt, and Los Angeles Kings prospect Koehn Ziemmer participated in Canada's World Junior summer camp in July and continue to position themselves as candidates to make the roster for December.


Mississauga Steelheads

Ryerson Leenders Mississauga Steelheads

The Mississauga Steelheads lead the Ontario Hockey League with a 10-3-0 record and a large reason for their success comes in the form of sophomore goaltender Ryerson Leenders.

Leenders has an 8-2-0 record and sits fifth in the league with a .920 save percentage and tied for seventh with a 2.72 GAA.

The 6-foot-1 netminder has two shutouts this season and has only allowed more than three goals three times in 10 games.

"There's so much talk now about height with goaltenders and everyone gets it, but with Ryerson, he just has to go and play, go and show what he's capable of doing," said Button. "He played well last year and is doing it again this year. His path might be a little bit different, but he's showing all the talent and ability, both physical and technical, to be a real good goaltender." 

Leading the way offensively is centre Luke Misa, who is tied for fourth in league scoring with six goals and 20 points in 13 games.

While much of the conversation around the OHL has been on Luke's brother, Michael, with the Saginaw Spirit, Luke has quietly been one of the most dominating offensive players early on in the season.

Misa has five multi-point games including three goals and two assists against the Erie Otters on Oct. 15 and a four-point night to open the OHL season on Sept. 29.

"What I think is really fascinating with Luke right now is that he wants to have his name in the Misa conversation too," said Button. "When you watch someone play with that type of hunger and it's like 'I'm not going to let myself be denied.'

"Whatever motivates you is great, there's no right way or wrong way to do that so [whatever works] go for it."

Leenders and Misa were both given a "B" ranking on the NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list.


Kitchener Rangers

Hunter Brzustewicz Kitchener Rangers

Hot on the heels of the Steelheads are the Kitchener Rangers who sit second in the OHL with a 9-4-0 record.

The Rangers are an offensively gifted team that leads the OHL with 65 goals, while only allowing 40.

Kitchener forwards Carson Rehkopf, Adrian Misaljevic, and Matthew Sop, and defenceman Hunter Brzustewicz are currently the top four in OHL scoring.

Brzustewicz, a Canucks prospect, leads the OHL in scoring with five goals and 25 points in 13 games this season, including four assists over the weekend.

He also has a nine-point edge over Soo Greyhounds defenceman Arttu Karki for the most from a defenceman.

Rehkopf, a second-round draft pick of the Seattle Kraken, closely follows Brzustewicz with 23 points and leads the league with 14 goals in 13 games.

Sop sits third in league scoring with eight goals and 22 points, highlighted by registering two goals and three points over the weekend.

The 6-foot centre has only been held off the score sheet once this season and has seven multi-point games.

Misaljevic is tied for fourth in scoring with Misa and Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds winger Jack Beck with 20 points.

He was held scoreless on the weekend but his 10 goals has him also sitting in fourth in the OHL.


Baie-Comeau Drakkar

Justin Poirier Baie-Comeau Drakkar

A month into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League season, the Baie-Comeau Drakkar is leading the pack with a 12-2-2 record.

They are being led offensively by overage centre Justin Gill who leads the QMJHL with seven goals and 25 points in 13 games and closely followed by forward Matyas Melovsky with seven goals and 20 points.

On the horizon is 2024 NHL Draft eligible winger Justin Poirier who is expected to rise among the scoring leaders to either join or surpass both Gill and Melovsky.

Poirier had 28 goals and 48 points in his 55-game rookie season last year and so far he has 12 goals and 16 points in 16 games this season, including three goals over the weekend.

"Justin loves to score," said Button. "He has a great shot, he's hungry to score and he loves to score."

The 5-foot-8 winger was given a "C" ranking on the NHL Central Scouting's players to watch list on Wednesday, currently projecting him to be a fourth- or fifth-round selection in the NHL Draft.

Shoring up the crease is goaltender Olivier Ciarlo who has a 9-2-2 record with a .876 save percentage and 3.45 GAA this season.