2014 NHL Draft Preview: Thinner QMJHL pack led by Ehlers

By Kevin Forbes

Nikolaj Ehlers - Team Orr - 2014 CHL Top Prospects Game

Photo: Halifax Mooseheads forward and 2014 prospect Nikolaj Ehlers was named the CHL Rookie of the Year for the 2013 -14 season (courtesy of Derek Leung/Getty Images)

After a banner year in 2013 at the NHL Draft, the QMJHL appears to have settled back to more familiar levels when it comes to the draft class of 2014. While there may be no Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin to highlight the list of eligible players this year, it is another Halifax Moosehead, Nikolaj Ehlers, who appears set to be the first QMJHL player to hear his name called on Friday night in Philadelphia.

In 2013, 31 QMJHL players were selected, including six in the first round, both marks highlighting the league's best showings in the last decade. The 2014 class won't challenge those marks set a year ago, with only two players anticipated to be selected in the first round and the total number of QMJHL players drafted likely settling around the mid- to low 20s.

This weaker draft class also provides some opportunity for players who were passed over in previous years. For QMJHL players like Cape Breton's Cameron Darcy, Halifax's Philippe Gadoury and Blainville-Boisbriand's Daniel Walcott, their late arrival in junior hockey may still lead to good news on draft day. For other players, like Drummondville's Louis-Philip Guindon, Blainville-Boisbriand's Nikita Jevpalovs, Halifax's Matt Murphy and Moncton's Jacob Sweeney, they're hoping that an extra season in the league may have made some scouts take a second look and reassess their potential.

Here's a look at the top 10 draft eligible QMJHL players heading into the 2014 NHL Draft:

1. Nikolaj Ehlers, LW
Halifax Mooseheads
5'11", 162 lbs.

With the graduation of star forwards like MacKinnon (Colorado) and Martin Frk (Detroit) to the pro ranks, most expected that Halifax would begin the slow decline that is common among junior teams in the afterglow of a championship season. Even when the Tampa Bay Lightning decided that Drouin would be better served with an additional year of junior hockey, few expected that the Mooseheads would be a significant challenger for the league's championship once again. However, thanks to the offensive boost provided by rookie import player Nikolaj Ehlers, that is exactly what happened.

A dynamic offensive weapon, the dashing Dane torched through the QMJHL to the tune of 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games, leading all rookie scorers and coming in fourth in league scoring. His offensive abilities continued in the post-season when he added another eleven goals and 28 points in 16 playoff matches. An explosive skater who never backed down from a challenge, Ehlers will only get better as he continues to get bigger and stronger.

"I think with Nathan, Nathan's a more powerful guy, in terms of his skating. Not saying that Nathan would beat him in a race, but Nik's a little lighter on his feet. Nathan's more of a north-south guy, not saying that he can't play east-west however. One thing that really impressed me with Nik is his lateral movement, being able to change direction, going east-west as well as north-south. In terms of speed, they're probably very, very close, but Nathan's first three steps are just incredible in terms of power, he's full flight in three steps. Ehlers is a little lighter on his feet, but obviously he's quick as well." – Jim Midgley, assistant coach, Halifax Mooseheads, on who would win in a race: Nathan MacKinnon or Nikolaj Ehlers.

2. Ivan Barbashev, C/LW
Moncton Wildcats
6'0", 180 lbs.

Building on his rookie campaign last year, Ivan Barbashev's all-weather game allowed him to have virtually no problems transitioning to the North American style of play. With a solid frame and no reservations when it comes to getting his nose dirty, the Russian combines offensive ability with competitive spirit and has worked hard to round out his game while playing in Moncton.

After notching just shy of a point-per-game in his rookie season with 62 in 68 matches, Barbashev easily surpassed that mark as a sophomore, tallying 25 goals and 68 points in 48 games. His game really came alive when fellow countryman Vladimir Tkachev joined the Wildcats in the second half of the season. Although the Wildcats playoff run was limited to a single round, Barbashev posted four goals and 10 points in six postseason games.

"Barbs is a North American style player. He hits hard and he's looking to hurt you when he hits, which is something I like. You wouldn't think that Barbs is from Russia based on the way he plays the game. Coming in [as head coach], I was hearing a ton of stuff about [Barbashev]. His character, his work ethic, and the way he plays. Everybody was telling me, wait until you see this guy, you're going to love this guy. So I was excited to see him." – Darren Rumble, head coach, Moncton Wildcats

3. Nicolas Aube-Kubel, RW
Val-d'Or Foreurs
5'11", 187 lbs.

One of the benefits for a draft eligible player participating in a long playoff run is it provides extra opportunity to show off your abilities. For Nicolas Aube-Kubel and the Val-d'Or Foreurs, winners of the QMJHL's President's Cup as league champions and participants in the Memorial Cup, their playoff run could hardly have been longer.

Playing behind league scoring champion Anthony Mantha, Aube-Kubel played an instrumental role in the Foreurs success, providing secondary offense and tenacious fore-checking. This might, one day, be a job description that he fills at the pro level as well. A high-energy, fleet-footed forward, Aube-Kubel had 22 goals and 53 points in the 65 regular season games of his sophomore year and followed that with four goals and 13 points in 24 post-season matches.

4. Daniel Audette, C
Sherbrooke Phoenix
5'8", 175 lbs.

Much is often made about bloodlines when it comes to the draft prospects and while there is no conclusion on whether heredity comes into play when it comes to hockey ability, Daniel Audette, son of former NHL forward Donald, is doing just fine with the extra attention. The face of the Sherbrooke Phoenix since the team first started playing two years ago, Audette is also their most dangerous offensive weapon. Able to skate and dangle with the best of them, the only real question that holds Audette back is his size and his strength, similar questions that his father (listed at 5'8 and 184 pounds while playing) undoubtedly faced.

Both the father and the son share the ability to score and the younger Audette showed that in droves in his sophomore year, leading the Phoenix with 21 goals and 76 points in 68 games. Involved in 42% of the goals scored by Sherbrooke last season, Audette can't do it alone, but if he gets some offensive support, he could challenge for the QMJHL scoring title.

5. Vaclav Karabacek, RW
Gatineau Olympiques
6'0", 196 lbs.

It's always nice to be wanted, and when two teams in the same league start to argue over your rights after your rookie season, you must have done something good to garner their affections. Depending on what side of the story you hear, Vaclav Karabacek was originally supposed to head to Charlottetown after his freshman year to complete a previous trade, but Gatineau was so impressed with him that they decided to keep him, incensing their trade partners who wanted the Czech sniper for themselves.

In any case, Karabacek remains with the Olympiques and will be looking to build on his strong QMJHL debut. In 65 games, he scored 21 goals and had 47 points, adding another six goals and 12 points in six playoff games. Quite simply, he's talented at putting the puck in the net, and, while the rest of his game is coming along nicely, that single attribute makes him a valuable commodity at any level. If he continues to develop at his present rate, it won't be long before the pro ranks will start to see what all the fuss is about.

6. Mason McDonald, G
Charlottetown Islanders
6'4", 186 lbs.

Mason McDonald's numbers look rather pedestrian for the most part, and when looking at his stats in the playoffs, they look downright awful. But it only takes a few moments of seeing his play on the ice to see why he's the top goaltending prospect coming out of the QMJHL this season. The old adage for netminding is that if you want to be good goalie, play for a poor team. In McDonald's case, he sees a lot of rubber, but never gives up on the puck and is a calm and steady presence between the pipes.

His physical tools, both his size and his agility, will guarantee that he gets drafted, but his demeanor on the ice could place him quite high. Not bad for a player who went 8-18 last season with a .900 save percentage, and 0-4 in the playoffs with a .860 save percentage.

"I think he's the most improved that I've seen of a goalie over a one year period. I think for a big guy, last year, I remember that he was very inconsistent in his movement, very much not in control of his movements. This year, I find he's not only reading the play better, but he's better positionally and he's got that ability to control the body a lot better. I see a very steep curve in his development and if he keeps that up, I think there's a lot of upside in his game." – Chris Mooring, Head QMJHL Scout, ISS Hockey

7. Alexis Vanier, D
Baie-Comeau Drakkar
6'5", 215 lbs.

A true wildcard, Alexis Vanier is a towering defenseman who played for one of the league's top teams last season in Baie-Comeau. After scoring just eight points (all assists) in his rookie season and carving out a role as what appeared to be a physical defensive defenseman, he exploded to score 36 points including 15 goals in 61 games this year as a sophomore.

With his size comes limited mobility and, although he quadrupled his offensive output from the previous year, 29 of those points were scored in the first half of the season, with his second half going quiet, including a scoreless six games in the playoffs. Vanier was injured in the second half and opted to play through it before needing to miss the bulk of the Drakkar's playoff run due to shoulder surgery, so that explains the evaporating offense. But it still leaves a player who is hard to slot in. Out of all the draft eligibles in the QMJHL this year, Vanier may be one of the more intriguing names to watch on Draft Day.

8. Vladimir Tkachev, LW
Moncton Wildcats
5'9", 141 lbs.

Tkachev is a small Russian forward who spent the first half of the season in his homeland. Red flags abound when it comes to Vladimir Tkachev at first glance. Will he ever be big enough to survive in pro hockey? Will he even be available or opt to return to the guaranteed money of his home country?

What cannot be doubted is his ability to play the game. A wizard with the puck and a great skater, Tkachev had an immediate impact in Moncton upon his arrival. He scored 10 goals and had 30 points in 20 regular season games and followed it up with another seven goals and nine points in six playoff matches. Finding immediate chemistry with fellow countryman Ivan Barbashev, one has to wonder if an NHL team would consider selecting both of them.

"He's one of the highest skilled players I've seen in a long time. He's got silky smooth hands, he has the ability to bring the puck up the ice on his own. He has this change of speed, almost like Gretzky used to have, where he would slow down and speed up just to buy himself time and space. He has real good shoulder fakes, where he gives a little juke and jive and people just peel off him. His best asset is probably his ability to pass the puck and his ability to bring it up the ice and gain access, unimpeded to the offensive zone." – Darren Rumble, head coach, Moncton Wildcats

9. Julien Nantel, C/LW
Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
6'0", 193 lbs.

A rookie this season for the Huskies, Nantel seemed to want to endear himself to his new teammates all season long by leaving it all out on the ice and going full steam every shift. His quick feet and hard work made him a force at both ends of the ice and he also showed hands and vision that hinted at some still untapped offensive ability.

Playing in every game, Nantel had 14 goals and 34 points in 68 regular season matches and another four assists in nine playoff games. While his effort level no doubt caught his coach's favour, Nantel will be better served going forward adding consistency to his play.

10. Clark Bishop, C
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
6'0", 182 lbs.

It is not often that a draft eligible forward gains notoriety for his defensive game, as usually that comes as he continues to develop as a player. But in Clark Bishop's case, it is his play without the puck, and usually not even in the offensive zone, that has drawn most of the attention. A burly forward with great skating ability, Bishop’s on-ice intelligence makes him a safe, if not particularly splashy pick.

With 14 goals and 33 points in 56 games and a single goal in four playoff games, Bishop may never be a premiere offensive forward, but he has the ability to contribute in other ways that are just as valuable.

"He's the type of kid that I could see playing, even with a few deficiencies, because he makes up for it with his grit and his heart and the way he plays the game. Plus he has good intelligence, he understands the 200-foot game and I think that will help him a long way." – Chris Mooring, QMJHL Head Scout, ISS Hockey

Other Notables

Emil Aronsson, C – Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
Julio Billia, G – Chicoutimi Sagueneens
Alexandre Goulet, C – Charlottetown Islanders
Olivier Leblanc, D – Saint John Sea Dogs
Julien Pelletier, LW – Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Alexis Pepin, LW – Gatineau Olympiques
Francis Perron, LW – Rouyn-Noranda Huskies

Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy