In some ways, it is disappointing that a year after having 31 players chosen at the NHL Draft (including the current Calder Trophy winner), the QMJHL dropped to having only 17 players selected in the 2014 draft. On the other hand, it is a return to familiar territory for the league. Historically, the QMJHL seems to follow particularly strong years with weaker cohorts (and early speculation for the 2015 draft points to an upswing of QMJHL players once again).
This year’s draft class was led by import players, with Danish Nikolaj Ehlers and Russian Ivan Barbashev making up the first two selections.
Selected ninth overall by the Winnipeg Jets, Ehlers was the league’s only first round selection after six players were selected in the top 30 last season. Ehlers represents the second straight year that the first QMJHL player picked was from the Halifax Mooseheads. The “Dashing Dane” isn’t expected to immediately follow in Nathan MacKinnon‘s footsteps and jump directly into the NHL, but he did an admirable job helping replace both MacKinnon’s speed and his lost offense in Halifax. Ehlers led all QMJHL rookies with 49 goals and finished fourth in league scoring with 104 points. His scoring and skating abilities are without question and it appears that the only thing holding Ehlers back is getting stronger and more physically prepared for the grind of pro hockey.
Although most projections had Ivan Barbashev slotted to go in the first round as well, the Moncton Wildcats forward had to wait until the 33rd pick of the draft to hear his name called. Selected by the St. Louis Blues, Barbashev joins an organization that features a familiar face in former Moncton teammate Dmitri Jaskin. The depth of the Blues will allow them to bring Barbashev along slowly, so he is expected to return to the Wildcats lineup for the 2014-15 season. An all-weather center, Barbashev’s development could end up with him filling many different roles at the pro level, but he will have some great examples to follow in the Blues’ lineup. His skillset of gritty physicality and two-way ability will only benefit from watching players like David Backes and T.J. Oshie.
Barbashev’s selection opened the door for a short run of QMJHL players, with four in total being selected in the second round. In fact, the very next pick, the 34th overall choice by the Calgary Flames, was Mason McDonald of the Charlottetown Islanders, who was also the first goaltender selected in the draft. It was a slightly divisive selection with many pre-draft rankings placing Boston College’s Thatcher Demko as the top netminder available. With changes in the front office for the Flames, it is possible that new assistant GM Brad Pascall may have influenced this selection due to his familiarity with McDonald during his previous role with Hockey Canada. McDonald starred for Team Canada at the Under-18 tournament this spring, helping the team win a bronze medal.
Nicolas Aube-Kubel and Vaclav Karabacek rounded out the second round selections from the QMJHL. Fresh off his league championship as a member of the Val-d’Or Foreurs, Aube-Kubel parlayed his strong playoff run into being the 48th overall selection by the Philadelphia Flyers, the host team for the 2014 NHL Draft. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres will be keeping a close eye on sniper Karabacek as he builds off his rookie QMJHL season that saw him score 21 goals in 65 games for the Gatineau Olympiques.
After Karabacek at 49th overall, it wasn’t until the 102nd pick that another QMJHL player was selected, this time by the San Jose Sharks. That player was Alexis Vanier, a big and burly defenseman for the Baie-Comeau Drakkar who opened a lot of eyes early in the season for putting up points, before cooling off due to a shoulder injury that later required surgery. Like Vanier, the other two Q players selected in the fourth round came with questions. Julien Pelletier, a forward for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles selected by the Columbus Blue Jackets, was a 17-year-old rookie in his draft year after opting to stay in midget AAA for an extra year. Alexis Pepin is already on his second QMJHL team in his second season in the league with questions hanging about his consistency and conditioning, but the Colorado Avalanche were willing to look beyond that and pick him 114th overall.
Of the remaining nine players selected in the last three rounds, perhaps the most surprising was Samuel Blais of the Victoriaville Tigres. Blais was selected in the sixth round by the St. Louis Blues, but was previously not included on most pre-draft rankings. A diminutive scoring forward, Blais spent the first half of last season in midget AAA recovering from a shoulder injury, but his 25 games in the QMJHL were enough to convince the Blues to roll the dice. Like Vanier, Pelletier and Pepin before him, the next season for Blais will be telling on whether the drafting NHL team found a hidden gem in the later rounds.
The Montreal Canadiens also found in the later rounds a scoring forward who is small in stature but big in talent. In Daniel Audette, the Canadiens went for bloodlines and history as his father, Donald, played parts of three seasons in Montreal. Forward Francis Perron (drafted by Ottawa) and defenseman Olivier Leblanc (selected by Columbus) are other players who filled big roles for their junior teams, but will still need to add size and strength to become solid NHL prospects.
Keven Bouchard was the other QMJHL goaltender selected in the draft after a strong rookie season with the league champion Val-d’Or Foreurs. The newest Edmonton Oilers goaltending prospect was well on his way to stealing the starting duties away from former St. Louis prospect Francois Tremblay when a mid-season trade sent Tremblay out of town and brought in Leafs prospect Antoine Bibeau. Bibeau went on to pace the Foreurs all the way to the Memorial Cup, while Bouchard watched from the bench. With Bibeau expected to turn pro, Bouchard is in line to carry the load next year.
Cape Breton defensive forward Clark Bishop had to wait until the fifth round before the Carolina Hurricanes made him the 127th overall selection, but he’s widely considered to be a safe selection who could one day be a trusted checking line forward. It might be a similar situation for Rouyn-Noranda Huskies left wing, Julien Nantel. The final QMJHL player selected in the draft, Nantel was selected by Colorado and is reunited with Andre Tourigny, the former head coach and GM of the Huskies who is now the assistant coach of the Avalanche.
Both Daniel Walcott and Cameron Darcy were passed over to be drafted in the previous two years but were selected after their first year in the QMJHL. Walcott, a 20-year-old defenseman, was playing college hockey in the ACHA a year ago before arriving with the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada. A great skater and offensively talented, he showed enough in his one year of junior hockey for the New York Rangers to pick him in the fifth round. Cameron Darcy also saw some time in the college ranks, in his case in the NCAA, before returning to the USHL and then later landing in Cape Breton with the Screaming Eagles. He ended up leading the team in scoring which caught the eye of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who selected him in the seventh round.
Perhaps just as notable were those players who didn’t get selected. Vladimir Tkachev had to wait until the middle of last season to be released by his Russian club and to join the Moncton Wildcats. Waiting in vain at the draft must have felt much longer for the talented forward. Despite being invited to attend the NHL Combine, the combination of the “Russian factor” and his diminutive size was enough for teams to look elsewhere.
Forwards Alexandre Goulet from the Charlottetown Islanders and Philippe Gadoury from the Halifax Mooseheads both showed the ability to put the puck in the net in their first year of QMJHL hockey, but were left out in the cold when it came to the draft. The silver lining is that they both were invited to the Montreal Canadiens’ development camp, so they are still on the radar of at least a few NHL organizations.
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