"Don't call it a comeback, I've been here for years…"
Although the QMJHL is a long way from its 1990's heyday, when it regularly knocked out similar junior leagues when it came to the development of NHL goaltending prospects, the league currently boasts nine netminders who have been drafted or signed by NHL clubs. This number was bolstered by a bumper crop of five current QMJHL goalies drafted in the 2013 NHL Draft.
Outside of those nine goaltenders, there is even more quality puck-stopping talent across the league. Undrafted veterans like Blainville-Boisbriand's Etienne Marcoux, Moncton's Alex Dubeau and Saint John's Sebastien Auger might not have the size that NHL scouts are looking for, but that hasn't stopped them from putting up big numbers as they sit near the top of the statistical leaders. Baie-Comeau's Philippe Cadorette and Drummondville's Louis-Philip Guindon were both passed over in last year's draft, but their continued strong play may earn them a second glance. Looking ahead, both Charlottetown's Mason McDonald and Chicoutimi's Julio Billia are highly touted draft-eligible prospects for the 2014 NHL Draft to be held in Philadelphia in June.
Of the nine goaltenders whose rights are owned by NHL teams, two of them play for the Victoriaville Tigres, with a total of four playing in Victoriaville's TELUS East Division. Another four play in the TELUS West Division and Zach Fucale is the sole drafted goaltender playing out of the TELUS Maritimes Division.
The Dallas Stars own the rights to two goaltenders in the QMJHL, while the rest are distributed between seven NHL teams.
1. Zach Fucale, Halifax Mooseheads
Drafted 36th overall (2nd round) in 2013 by the Montreal Canadiens
Still only 18 years old, Zach Fucale barely needs an introduction. Already a QMJHL and Memorial Cup champion when the Habs drafted him in the second round, Fucale has spent his third season in the league setting records as the fastest and youngest goaltender to 100 wins. Overall, he posted strong numbers once again in his third season, with a 36-9-0-3 record and his .907 save percentage slightly lower than the championship year. Most notably, after posting two shutouts in each of his previous two seasons, Fucale has six this season. All of these stats place Fucale among the league leaders as Halifax heads into the QMJHL playoffs as one of the league's top teams, looking to defend their title.
The only blemish thus far on his resume is the World Juniors. Selected to play for Canada at this winter's tournament in Stockholm, Fucale took over the starting reins shortly after the tournament began. He was unable to change Canada's fortune, however, with the team finishing outside the medal-winners for the second straight year. Appearing in five of the seven tournament games, he was solid with a record of 2-2 and a .902 save percentage, but, like the rest of his team, was ultimately judged by the end result.
Fucale will have a chance at redemption, however, as he will be eligible to play in the tournament again next winter when the World Juniors are hosted in Canada.
2. Philippe Desrosiers, Rimouski Oceanic
Drafted 54th overall (2nd round) in 2013 by the Dallas Stars
Fucale isn't the only QMJHL goaltender setting records. In February, Philippe Desrosiers of the Rimouski Oceanic put his name in the record books for stinginess with a shutout streak that stretched over 243 minutes and included three shutout wins. Desrosiers strong play wasn't just reserved for the month of February, though. In fact, the second half of the season has been nothing short of lights-out for the Dallas Stars prospect. He was unbeaten for a streak of 14 games over the course of February and March and since the turn of the calendar to 2014, he has boasted a record of 19-4 to go along with a .931 save percentage.
Overall, he carries into the playoffs a record of 31-14-3-4 to go along with his .907 save percentage and five shutouts. As can be seen from their second half play, both Desrosiers and Rimouski as a team have rebounded from a slow start to the season that saw them drop 10 out of their first 14 games. They've roared back since then and will enter the postseason as one of the QMJHL's top seeds. Desrosiers' playoff experience last season was limited to just four games as the Oceanic were upset in six games against first round opponent Gatineau. This year, he'll be looking to add to that resume significantly. Part of a core group of players in Rimouski who are all in the same age group, Desrosiers will return to the QMJHL next season.
When Philippe Desrosiers set a new shutout streak record in February, he was not improving on a long-held mark in the history books. In fact, the league may have not even had the chance to update their record books at all, considering that Francois Brassard set the record in November that Desrosiers later surpassed only a few months later. Brassard's streak stretched just over 212 minutes and included two shutouts. When Brassard first set the record, he was replacing one that dated back to the 1997-98 season, but there was no way to anticipate that his spot in the history books would only stay for three months.
League records aside, Brassard has had an up-and-down season with his numbers dipping slightly overall. His record sits at 28-12-4-5 and he has a .909 save percentage as well as six shutouts (after putting up only two in each of his previous two seasons). He faced more shots this season and also faced some internal competition from 2015 draft-eligible Callum Booth. The Remparts seem to always be a competitive team and this season is no exception. With Brassard turning 20 at the end of January, this might be his final playoff run before he turns pro in the fall. Although the Senators have yet to sign him to an entry -level contract, he should be a part of their plans going forward.
Another player closing out his QMJHL career, Brandon Whitney is also hoping for an entry-level deal from the team that drafted him, but he has also faced his own unique challenges this season. At the beginning of January, Whitney was playing some of the best hockey of his season when a freak accident in practice saw him take a puck to the throat and suffer multiple fractures near his larynx. Missing almost a month and a half of hockey while recovering, Whitney has been able to return to the Tigres lineup, but not to his role as the starting netminder in Victoriaville. Francois Tremblay, acquired over the trade period just before Whitney's injury, filled in admirably during the absence, which means Whitney faces the prospect of watching his QMJHL career come to an end from the bench.
No matter how his year finishes in the playoffs, Whitney has shown improvement in his third full season, with his save percentage rising to .906 despite facing an average of more than 34 shots per game. Even though he appeared in 17 fewer games than the previous season, Whitney was able to match last year's mark of four shutouts.
Victoriaville has drawn Drummondville in the first round and, since Tremblay has faltered in the postseason in the past, Whitney should be ready to step back into the crease if necessary as the Tigres enter the 2014 QMJHL playoffs.
Antoine Bibeau is also a 19-year-old goaltender, but his situation when looking forward to next year is a bit unique. Drafted last summer by the Leafs, Bibeau does not need to be signed for another season. So, Toronto could opt to return the Victoriaville native back to the QMJHL as an overager without having to ink Bibeau to an entry-level deal. But before looking ahead to next year, there's plenty of action still left in this season for Bibeau and his new team, the Foreurs.
Bibeau was a mid-season addition to Val-d'Or, joining the team after Charlottetown looked to get younger and the Foreurs were looking for a stronger option between the pipes. This was the second season in a row that Val-d'Or brought in a new goaltender during the trade period. The gamble appears to have worked with Val-d'Or winning their division and heading into the playoffs as the third seed. But Bibeau's numbers with Val-d'Or are actually weaker than his first half numbers with Charlottetown, dropping from a .911 save percentage to a .900 in the second half. In total, he finished with a .907 save percentage and a record of 21-18-1-5 with two shutouts.
As the playoffs begin, Bibeau perhaps has the greatest opportunity out of all the goaltenders on this list to establish himself and his future.
6. Francois Tremblay, Victoriaville Tigres
Drafted 146th overall (5th round) in 2012 by the St. Louis Blues
The writing might have been on the wall for Francois Tremblay's future in Val-d'Or last year when the Foreurs opted to bring in a veteran goaltender to carry the load into the playoffs and relegated the St. Louis Blues prospect to backup duty. But it wasn't until this season's trade period before Tremblay was packing his bags and heading to Victoriaville. With the Tigres, Tremblay landed in a fortunate situation: shortly after the trade, Victoriaville's starting goaltender, Brandon Whitney, went down with an injury and the team turned to Tremblay by default.
Tremblay's second half in Victoriaville has been nothing short of incredible. Despite facing more shots per game than he was in Val-d'Or, his save percentage shot up from .890 in the first half of the year to .920 in the second half. Even though Val-d'Or was also a far stronger team, Tremblay was able to put up near duplicate records with both squads of 16-7 and 16-7-0-1. In total, he finished with a record of 32-14-0-1 with five shutouts and a save percentage of .906.
Tremblay looks to be tasked with carrying the load into the postseason for the Tigres, but with Whitney waiting in the wings, he could still find himself on a short leash. Looking for a contract to make the jump to the pro level next season, an impressive showing in the playoffs could do wonders for Tremblay's future.
A late round pick by the Minnesota Wild, Belanger is in his second season in the QMJHL and his second year as the starter for Rouyn-Noranda. Seeing time in 52 games, Belanger had a record of 28-18-2-1 and a .881 save percentage along with one shutout. This was a slight improvement over the previous season, even though Rouyn-Noranda slid slightly in the league standings over the previous year's effort.
But it was in the post-season that both Belanger and the Huskies started to shine. Last season as the eighth seed, Rouyn-Noranda made it all the way to the semi-finals, including knocking off fifth-seeded Quebec in the second round. Belanger was a key part of that surprising run and he'll be counted on even more if the Huskies hope to duplicate that magic during this year's playoffs. Rouyn-Noranda is entering the postseason as the 10th seed and thus will not have the benefit of home-ice advantage in the first round.
Still only 18, Belanger has another year of QMJHL hockey ahead of him before the Wild need to make a decision on whether or not they will offer him a contract.
It was a great moment at last summer's draft when Martin Brodeur, the legendary goaltender for the New Jersey Devils, announced his team's final pick as his son, Anthony. The younger Brodeur was drafted out of prep school but soon made the jump to the QMJHL and joined the Gatineau Olympiques. Splitting time with veteran Robert Steeves, Brodeur appeared in 30 games and, although he played well, it is far too soon to expect that he will be challenging any of his father's records.
With a record of 13-10-1-1 and .887 save percentage as well as two shutouts, Brodeur established himself as a solid option between the pipes at the QMJHL level, but his pro future remains murky. Steeves should get the first stab at playoff starts, but he is an overager and won't be eligible to return next season.
In terms of his development, next season will be crucial for Brodeur because of the possibility of him being asked to carry the starting duties for the Gatineau Olympiques.
9. Maxime Lagace, Sherbrooke Phoenix
Signed by the Dallas Stars in July of 2012
Things have not gone as planned since Maxime Lagace was signed as a free agent by the Dallas Stars in the summer of 2012. Although, shortly after the signing, he was invited to take part in the Canada/Russia Challenge in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the famed 1972 Canada Cup Series, Lagace's career has been a roller-coaster at the junior level ever since. In the 2012-13 season, he lost his starting role to Antoine Bibeau, which led to him be being moved last summer to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
An overager this season, Lagace has actually dressed for three QMJHL teams over the course of the season, starting with Cape Breton before heading to Shawiningan and finally landing in Sherbrooke. In total, he appeared in 26 games with a record of 6-14-1-3 and a .887 save percentage as well as one shutout. With Sherbrooke missing the playoffs this year, Lagace's season, and indeed his entire QMJHL career, has come to an end.
Due to the fact that he was an overager this season, one year of his entry-level contract has already been used up and he'll enter the Stars' minor league system for the next two years in hopes of recapturing the spark that led to him being signed in the first place.
Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy