Although recent graduates of the QMJHL include defensemen like Simon Despres and David Savard, as well as up-and-coming prospects like Xavier Ouellet and Nathan Beaulieu, the league does not have a reputation as being a breeding ground for defenders.
This year, no QMJHL defensemen were invited to Canada's final selection camp for the 2014 World Junior Championship, nor were any included on the roster for the summer development camp. Meanwhile, the league's top two defenders this season are arguably a pair of undrafted, overage teammates in Guillaume Gelinas and Randy Gazzola. The duo from the Val-d'Or Foreurs sit in the first two spots of the defensive scoring race with a combined 130 points this season.
Even the next wave of defenders does not appear to feature many standouts. Alexis Vanier tops the list for 2014 draft-eligible defenseman coming out of the QMJHL, but despite participating in the Top Prospects Game, the big Baie-Comeau defender was listed as 82nd among North American skaters when Central Scouting released their midterm rankings. No other QMJHL defender cracked the top 100.
The QMJHL currently boasts eleven defensemen who have been drafted by NHL clubs, ranging from first round draft picks to those selected in the final rounds.
Three of the defenseman play with the Rimouski Oceanic, with the remaining spread across eight other QMJHL teams. All eleven players have been drafted by separate NHL clubs.
Samuel Morin appears to have all the qualities to succeed as a defenseman at the next level. First and foremost is his size; at 210 pounds, he is just beginning to fill out his 6'7” frame. He does not shy away from putting those physical tools to work on the ice, where he is a punishing hitter. In addition to his play in the defensive zone, Morin's mobility makes him a dangerous option in the offensive end, as well.
He has already set career highs in scoring production this season with six goals, including four power-play markers and 23 points. But Morin's third season in the QMJHL has not been entirely rosy. After struggling with injuries in the second half of his draft year, the injury bug has struck again this season with Morin only appearing in 39 of Rimouski's 51 games so far this season. Staying healthy hasn't been the only concern for the St-Henri, Quebec native though, as he has been suspended on three separate occasions this season for a total of five games. Most recently, he was fined and suspended for two games after an incident that saw him throw his stick into the stands, where it struck a fan.
Despite these bumps, the Philadelphia Flyers have every reason to be excited about the development of the 18-year-old. While they will need to be patient as he continues to develop and put the different pieces of his game together, Morin's potential remains high. The Flyers have already signed Morin to an entry-level contract, but he is eligible to return to junior hockey next fall.
The team captain with the Quebec Remparts, Ryan Culkin found himself pulling on a different junior hockey sweater for the first time in his QMJHL career this January after being dealt to the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Due to his birthday in late 1993, Culkin is considered an overager this season, which facilitated the move.
Even with the change in address, Culkin is one of the premiere offensive defenseman in the QMJHL this season. He is currently fourth among league defenders in scoring with six goals and 42 points in a combined 49 games between his two teams. This puts him well on the way to surpassing his career high of 46 points. That isn't to say that he is solely an offensive minded player, though; a leader on the blue line for both clubs this year, Culkin sees plenty of time in all situations.
With Drummondville and Quebec separated by a single point in the standings, it is unlikely that Culkin and the Voltigeurs will face his former team in the playoffs until at least the second round. Already a veteran of almost 40 post-season games, the Montreal native will be looking to close out his junior career on a high note. Not yet signed to an entry-level deal, the Calgary Flames will lose his rights if he is not signed by June of this year.
Passed over in the draft the first year he was eligible, MacKenzie Weegar has definitely made up for any lost time. From making the jump to the QMJHL, to winning first the President's Cup followed by the Memorial Cup, and then being chosen at the NHL Draft, Weegar's 2012-13 season was a whirlwind of good news for the Ontario native.
While the Mooseheads might not be the hands-down favorite this season, Weegar's game has taken another step forward as he is being called upon to fill a larger role with the defending champions. In addition to being well on his way to surpassing his rookie season numbers with 11 goals (including six power-play markers) and 39 points in 46 games, Weegar has shown increased confidence in his own zone and added a physical element to his game.
The Florida Panthers are not required to sign Weegar for another season even though he is eligible to play in the AHL in the fall. Should he be returned to the QMJHL, he will be considered an overager and could potentially be the top offensive defensemen in the league.
It appears that luck has never been on the side of Dillon Fournier. After being the first player selected in the QMJHL draft in 2010, Fournier joined the Lewiston MAINEiacs, but he was soon on the move as the team folded after the 2010-11 season. Landing with Rouyn-Noranda through a dispersal draft, his draft year was hampered by shoulder injuries that ended his season early and also led to him missing the start of the following year.
Now in 2013-14, Fournier has found his hockey career in turmoil again. Having already established a career-high in goals with 13, including five with the man advantage, Fournier was well on his way to putting up career offensive numbers across the board when shoulder issues once again put him on the shelf. With reports putting him out for the remainder of the season recovering from surgery, Fournier's stat line sits at 32 points in 36 games, a pace that would have put him among the league leaders in defensive scoring if he was healthy.
A highly-touted two-way defender, Fournier has yet to be signed by the Chicago Blackhawks and will be eligible to re-enter the draft this summer if he is not inked to an entry-level contract. While his injury issues are a continuing concern, there is little doubt about Fournier's skill level.
Off-season shoulder surgery delayed the start of Jonathan Diaby's fourth QMJHL season until December, but since rejoining the Victoriaville Tigres, he has wasted little time in making an impact. Known primarily as a no-nonsense defensive defenseman who uses all of his 6'5”, 240-pound frame to inflict punishment on the opposition, Diaby has shown an additional offensive element to his game this season.
After posting 26 points in 67 games last season, the Blainville, Quebec native has posted six goals and 22 points in just 23 games so far this season. In fact, if he had played the whole season, his 0.86 point-per-game pace would have placed him third on the team in scoring.
With a late 1994 birthday, Diaby will be considered an overager next year, but given the time he missed this season, the Predators may still opt to return him to junior to continue his development. Already signed to an entry-level deal, the first year of his contract will activate next season no matter where he ends up.
It has been a steady development for Jan Kostalek since he chose to come to North America prior to last season. Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets after a strong rookie effort with the Oceanic where he continued to improve as the season went on, Kostalek's second year in the QMJHL has included a trip to the World Junior Championship as a member of Team Czech Republic. In five tournament games, he registered a single assist.
Although he has already surpassed his scoring effort from his rookie QMJHL season with 20 points, Kostalek has found himself snake-bitten since mid-November. Even counting the games missed to attend the World Junior tournament, the Czech defender has registered just two points in 18 games. Furthermore, he has just a single goal on the year after posting six over the course of the previous season.
Despite this offensive cold streak, Kostalek's future remains bright. He does not need to be signed by the Jets until June of 2015 and he is a key part of a young core in Rimouski that is growing and developing together.
Junior hockey is a cyclic business with the fortunes of franchises rising and falling as core groups of players develop and then graduate. In the case of the Shawinigan Cataractes, they are still recovering from their Memorial Cup win in 2012. The win came at a cost, with the team sacrificing some of their future for immediate success. As a result, the team missed the playoffs last season and are a good bet to sit out of the post-season dance this year, as well.
It is in this environment that Dylan Labbe finds himself. A two-way defender, Labbe has been leaned on to play a large role for the rebuilding Cataractes right from the start. Although some aspects of his stat line are ugly, like last season's -40 plus/minus rating, the 19-year-old is seeing time in every situation and playing plenty of minutes.
This season, he has matched his rookie season's output in goals with seven and is well on his way to at least matching his total point output of 28. In 51 games this year, he has 23 points. This places him second on the Cataractes in scoring. He should close out his junior career next season, where he could be an attractive trade target for a contending team to add to the lineup.
Like Dylan Labbe before him, Justin Hache found himself playing plenty of minutes last season but with a team that, more often than not, found themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard at the end of most nights. After winning the Memorial Cup with Shawinigan in 2012, Hache landed in Cape Breton, who finished at the bottom of the standings last year.
Things have improved in Cape Breton this season and Hache continues to fill a huge role for the Screaming Eagles. Seeing time in all situations, Hache has already blown past most of his personal bests by posting 41 points in 49 games.
Still unsigned and eligible to re-enter the draft in June, Hache faces an uphill battle when it comes to earning a contract with the Coyotes. Phoenix's prospect pipeline on the blue line is incredibly deep and despite the role he's filling for Cape Breton, it remains to be seen if it is enough to cement a pro future for the New Brunswick native.
Despite recent changes to the draft rules, Americans remain relatively rare in the QMJHL. In Troy Vance's case, he might be considered even more unique with the fact that he is an overager playing junior hockey after signing an NHL entry-level contract.
The Dallas Stars opted to return the New York native to the QMJHL for a fourth junior season, despite the fact that he was also eligible to play in the AHL. With the Stars already having a large number of defense prospects playing at the pro level, this extra time in junior hockey should help the 6'5”, 220-pound defender round out his game.
So far this season, Vance has exceeded his career-high in goals with five, while seeing time in all situations. With 16 points in 44 games, he is more known for being a physical force in the defensive end than an offensive weapon. Already assured a pro future next season, Vance still needs to establish himself in the deep Stars system.
A stay-at-home, defensive defenseman, Ryan Graves found himself on the move this winter during his third season in the QMJHL. Traded from the Charlottetown Islanders to the Val-d'Or Foreurs, Graves joins a team that is looking to make noise in the playoffs this year, but also an organization where he will be tapped to be a steady contributor on the blue line in the coming seasons.
With a career high of 16 points, Graves is not going to be challenging for any defensive scoring crowns, but what the 6'4”, 225 pounder does provide is solid defensive play. Not afraid to get his nose dirty and drop the gloves, Graves has three goals and 14 points in 49 games so far this season.
Another solid stay-at-home defender, Loic Leduc also found himself on the move this year during the QMJHL trade period. Making the move from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles to the Rimouski Oceanic, Leduc joins an already deep blue line where he will be counted on to provide steady defensive play.
After struggling with injuries as a member of the rebuilding Screaming Eagles last year, joining a Rimouski team preparing for what they hope will be a long playoff run has to be a welcome sight for Leduc. With the Chateauguay, Quebec native still looking for an NHL contract (and his rights expiring in June), an impressive post-season run might be his final shot at winning a deal from the Islanders. In 47 games this season, he has exceeded his career high of 10 points and set a new career mark with four goals.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy