Acadie-Bathurst Titan: At Long Last
When opportunity presented itself, Sylvain Couturier pushed all his chips to the middle of the table.
The Acadie-Bathurst Titan general manager, a former pro himself and the father of Philadelphia Flyers centre Sean Couturier, recognized during the first half of the QMJHL season this was his year to go for broke and kept wheeling and dealing until he had a powerhouse. The aggressive approach paid off with the franchise’s first league championship since 1999 and a trip to this year’s Mastercard Memorial Cup in Regina.
“I never like using cliches but I have to say we really did just take it one step at a time,” Couturier said. “We went game by game all season, then we focused on making the right trades and then we kept going day to day in the playoffs. We stayed in the present all year. We’re not done yet so we’re still going step by step and it’s been working so far.”
Although Couturier had been working on a rebuild for a couple of years, he wasn’t convinced he had the right core until a third of the way into the regular season. His key players were all playing up to his expectations by then and he knew he had the assets to surround them with a deep supporting cast. At that time, Couturier decided it was time to make a splash and pursued an impact forward as his first big step.
Because Quebec league rules stipulate only imports and overagers can change teams outside of the designated trade periods, he targeted a European sniper with a blue-chip pedigree. He found his match with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, who dealt him 2016 Philadelphia Flyers first-round pick German Rubtsov, a 19-year-old centre from Russia.
“We knew we were close,” Couturier said. “We looked at our lineup and the experience we had last season winning 40 games and we knew we were getting there. In early November we went out and got Rubtsov and that gave us some new expectations. Then we looked to add some more pieces at Christmastime. When the new ownership came here five years ago we had a plan. We were hoping to build up to this kind of year. We liked the way our team looked in the first half so we decided to go all in.”
The Rubtsov deal led to several more dominoes falling in Bathurst. Couturier added more scoring punch in Mitchell Balmas and Samuel Asselin from the Gatineau Olympiques and Shawinigan Cataractes, respectively, and then went back to Chicoutimi for the league’s highest-scoring defenceman, Olivier Galipeau. The Titan also acquired star goalie Evan Fitzpatrick, the fourth overall pick from the 2014 QMJHL draft and a St. Louis Blues second-rounder.
“He’s a guy that we can count on every day,” Couturier said. “He calms the team down when he’s out there. The guys know if they make a mistake, he’s going to be there to cover for them. And his attitude has been tremendous; he’s a great teammate and everybody loves him in the dressing room. We had to give up (goalie Reilly) Pickard to get him and he’s also a very good goalie, but the bottom line is I think both guys needed a change of scenery…I know we’re very happy with what we have in Fitzy.”
The Titan bulked up largely at the expense of draft picks over the next three years but in return acquired championship qualities to give them the best shot for an immediate run at a title.
“I think if you decide to go for it, you have to go all in so that’s what we did,” Couturier said. “We traded for Balmas, Fitzpatrick, Galipeau and Asselin because those guys give us a lot of experience and a lot of depth. We were really aggressive at Christmas and so far it’s working out the way we hoped it would.”
But it also isn’t fair to say this was a hastily created roster through last-minute trades alone. Core players Noah Dobson, Michal Ivan, Antoine Morand and Jordan Maher were all first-round picks in the QMJHL and CHL import drafts, while others were carefully researched acquisitions from the past few years. Among them were Ethan Crossman, Adam Holwell, Keenan MacIsaac, Cole Rafuse, Samuel L’Italien, Justin Ducharme, Liam Murphy and captain Jeffrey Truchon-Viel. All of them have been huge contributors to the Titan success.
“The draft is very important but it’s really scouting overall,” Couturier said. “When we decided three years ago to rebuild, we made some trades for players with qualities that we feel are important. They had to have skill but also be good people and good teammates, so the role of the scouts in that is just as important as it is in the draft. These guys spend a lot of time watching the players and getting to know everything about them so when trades come up and you have different options on the table, the information they give you is so important. They recommended guys to me and I think they did a great job.
“Jeffrey Truchon-Viel is a good example and so is Samuel L’Italien. Both of those guys are really good team players. Then last year when we made the deal with Moncton to get Adam Holwell, yes we paid with a first-round pick in 2019 but behind that is we knew how good he was going to be at 20 years old and it was going to be in the year were going for it. Again, our scouts told us he would be a good fit two years down the road.”
Because of all that background work, Couturier didn’t worry the extensive mid-season additions would be detrimental to his team’s chemistry.
“I think character was one major thing we were looking for; that and experience” Couturier said “Those players will be your leaders and we looked for that in the players we traded for. You ask your scouts to do some searching on that for each player because you have to make sure you get the right guy and put him in the right place. We were very comfortable with every trade we made.”
And now that the Titan have delivered, fans in Bathurst have a reason to celebrate again. The team had five winning seasons after relocating from Laval, Que., two decades ago, but then the franchise fell on hard times. Outside of a run to the semifinals in 2005-06, the Titan only made it out of the first round three other times since 2002-03 and missed the playoffs entirely three times. Attendance and finances suffered for many years but this run is sparking a revival.
“I think we were overdue with our fans,” said Couturier, who was an assistant coach in Bathurst for three years before taking over as GM in 2005. “I’ve been here a long time and we definitely had a change in philosophy five years ago when the new ownership took over the team. We wanted to give something to the fans and I think we did that. We had a good season and it’s not over yet, we want to win the whole thing, but the people here deserved to watch a winning team.”
Story contributed by Willy Palov who covers the QMJHL for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald.