Underrated in its ability to produce quality prospect defensemen, the QMJHL has been the starting ground for a respectable number of current NHL blue liners such as Stephane Robidas, Keith Yandle and Kris Letang. The future is just as bright, as can be seen by the players listed below, in addition to 2010-eligible Brandon Gormley, a likely first rounder in this year’s draft.
Below is a look at the top ten defensemen in the QMJHL. Note that only drafted prospects were considered in this listing.
1. Marco Scandella, 55th overall (2nd round) in 2008
QMJHL representative on Team Canada’s blue line at the 2010 World Junior Championship, Marco Scandella has filled what at times must seem to be a thankless role for the Val D’Or Foreurs. Scandella broke into the QMJHL the year after the Foreurs made it all the way to the league final. As is often the case in junior hockey, the team’s fortunes have not been as rosy since that success, with Val D’Or continuing to rebuild for another championship run in the future.
What that means for Scandella is that much has been asked from him ever since the start of his QMJHL career. His career plus/minus is -31 as a third-year pro, but that is more a reflection of the quality of the team he has been playing on compared to his own play. Scandella has been fortunate enough to receive plenty of responsibility throughout his time with Val D’Or. At 6’3 and 220 pounds, Scandella rules the corners and he often makes opponents pay for crossing the blue line with their head down. In fact, more often than not, attackers choose to try to enter the zone on the opposite side of the ice to try to avoid Scandella’s wrath.
Primarily known as a shut-down defender, Marco Scandella has made significant inroads in the offensive side of the game since breaking into the league three years ago. This is partly due to Val D’Or’s need to utilize the lanky blue liner in every situation, allowing him to be exposed to much more responsibility than he might have been elsewhere.
Possessing a hard and heavy shot that he lets fly frequently, Scandella’s offensive peak came last season when his 10 goals and 37 points placed him far atop all Foreurs defensemen in scoring. So far this season, Scandella has nine goals and 29 points in 30 games, having missed part of the season to play for Team Canada at the World Juniors. It’s possibly that Scandella’s production would be even higher if his team had more offensive weapons up front to bury his feeds.
2. David Savard, Moncton Wildcats
Drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets, 94th overall (4th round) in 2009
Allowing the fewest number of goals against this season, the Moncton Wildcats adhere to a strong defense-first system and David Savard is a key cog of that plan. That attention to defense is part of the character of the Wildcats: last season, they allowed 35 fewer goals than any other team in the league. Listed at 6’2 and 212 lbs, Savard is already approaching NHL size, while his steady play in his own end will land him in the NHL in the very near future. Though not a banger and crasher, Savard uses his body well to separate the players from the puck and plays strong against the boards.
Savard’s primary defensive strength is his ability to read the play as it develops and react correctly. Though it may sound minimal, Savard has a reputation for playing mistake-free hockey and he often finds himself as the last man back when the play heads into Moncton’s zone. A smooth skater, Savard has worked hard over the past few seasons in improving his speed and agility, which only makes him even harder to beat in his own zone.
In addition to his air-tight game in his own zone, Savard has proven to be a talented attacker with the man advantage. One of the top-scoring defensemen in the QMJHL this season, it’s hard to dismiss Savard’s production. As is the case with his defensive game, Savard’s vision on the ice is the prime reason why he is so useful in offensive situations. His ability to read a play and make the right decision makes him a prime puck-mover for Moncton and a key component of their transition game.
As well as being able to simply thread a pass, Savard’s confidence with the puck has continued to grow. Improving as a skater has allowed him to rush with the puck when an opportunity presents itself and he seems more willing to unload his heavy shot. Already this season he has surpassed his career high in shots, while his nine goals so far has tied last season’s output. In total, the Wildcat blue liner has 57 points in 48 games, placing him atop the QMJHL defensive scoring chart. At 19, Savard’s October birthday means he’ll likely make the leap to professional hockey next season after just three years in the QMJHL.
The highest drafted member of this list, Simon Despres has filled a key defensive role for the Saint John Sea Dogs since breaking into the league as a 16-year-old. As Despres has continued to improve, so have the Sea Dogs, culminating in this season with Saint John atop the QMJHL standings as well as the CHL rankings.
A tower on the blue line at 6’4 and a lanky 219 pounds, Despres doesn’t use his size to his advantage as much as one would expect. Instead, he relies on smarts and positioning, while keeping things simple in his own end. To his credit, Despres’ strongest attribute might be his unflappable play under pressure. Even as an 18-year-old, Despres’ ability to keep calm under pressure makes him appear experienced beyond his age.
One of the youngest players eligible for the 2009 draft, Roussel is a prolific puck-mover for Shawinigan. Despite being just 17, he was a key part of the Cataractes attack during their 2008-09 playoff run, with 18 points in 21 playoff games. He’s built off of that success and so far this season his 44 points in 50 games ties his career record set last season. Meanwhile, his 12 goals, with nine of them coming on the power play, are both a career high.
Talented at moving the puck, Roussel’s mobility helps him both offensively and in his own end, while his willingness to mix it up physically allows him to often win puck battles against the wall. Though he needs to continue to polish his game, Roussel’s ability to recognize opportunities in the offensive zone and capitalize on them means he is a valuable member of the Cataractes attack.
After over 225 games as a member of the Quebec Remparts, Samuel Groulx will finish his QMJHL career as a member of the Victoriaville Tigres. It’s a small change of fortune for the Gatineau native; although Victoriaville is just three points ahead of the Remparts in the standings, they are expected to go much farther in the post-season, due in part to the league’s playoff format. In any case, Groulx’s strong stay-at-home play is a welcome addition to the Tigres line-up.
Listed at 6’2 but only 177 pounds, Groulx seems to excel at simply ‘being in the way’ in his own zone, which is to say his positioning is always spot on. From blocking shots, to keeping attackers along the boards, to intercepting passes, Groulx’s ability to anticipate plays makes him an effective player in his own end. Couple that with strong skating and an aggressive nature in front of the net and the Tigres have one less thing to worry about when Groulx is on the ice.
A two-way defender for the Saint John Sea Dogs, things couldn’t be going better for Yann Sauve. Playing a key role for the top team in the QMJHL (and arguably the top team in the whole CHL), Sauve is closing off his junior career in style. There’s only one thing missing at this point: an NHL contract. As Sauve and the Sea Dogs continue their march toward the league playoffs and maybe even a berth at the Memorial Cup, the Vancouver Canucks are watching their defensive prospect closely.
Sauve has come a long way since being selected first overall in the QMJHL draft in 2006. So far this season, he has six goals and 29 points in 46 games. Always a talented puck mover, he’s worked hard to round out and improve his game. At 6’3 and 214 pounds, he’s more than willing to get his nose dirty and often surprises attackers with devastating hits. But at times, he struggles with coverage in his own zone.
Eric Gelinas is rounding into becoming a pretty decent defenseman. Having spent the majority of his time in the QMJHL with the Lewiston MAINEiacs, Gelinas was dealt (via the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles) to the Chicoutimi Sagueneens during the league’s mid-season trade period. Although the move meant a new division, the rangy Ottawa native is in a familiar situation, with Chicoutimi, like Lewiston, far from being contenders this season.
Despite the team struggles, Gelinas has continued to develop his game. His primary strengths remain at the offensive end of things, where his poise with the puck and strong passing abilities allow him to direct the attack from the blue line. In 44 games this season, Gelinas has three goals and 22 points. Unfortunately, this pace places him behind last season’s output, namely due to adding just three helpers since joining Chicoutimi 11 games ago. But it’s the other aspects of the game that Gelinas continues to work hard at. Despite a solid frame at 6’2 and 194 pounds, Gelinas is just beginning to play a strong game against the boards and protect the puck with his body. Further development of the defensive side of his game will only help his future.
Joel Chouinard has continued to develop, his offensive abilities have become only more prolific. Currently leading all defensemen in goal scoring with 19 goals, Chouinard’s shot is his most notable attribute, with his ability to get it through both quickly and accurately, even under pressure.
All told, Chouinard has 54 points in 50 games, which already surpasses his career high in offensive production. A talented puck mover, Chouinard’s ability to track and intercept loose pucks serves him well at both ends of the ice. A huge part of Victoriaville’s success this season, his development over the years mirrors that of the Tigres and now he’s looking to end his QMJHL career on a strong note with an extended playoff run.
Although his teammate Savard has been statistically more prolific this season, Mark Barberio‘s offensive abilities are undeniable. At times, it even seems like the Moncton blue liner plays like a fourth forward, especially during the man advantage. Unfortunately for Barberio, his riverboat gambler style features as much high risk as it does high return.
Thus far, Barberio has tallied 11 goals and 44 points in 47 games for the Wildcats, which puts him on pace to surpass his career high in points. A talented puck mover, Barberio is a regular triggerman on the power play, where four of his goals have come so far this year. Although he still needs to round out his game, particularly his play in his own zone, Barberio is on pace to turn pro following this season.
Although he’s already well on the way to establishing career numbers offensively, Mathieu Brodeur will never be mistaken for a scoring blue liner. After all, his career mark in goals in a season remains at three. But his play in his own end is what attracted the Phoenix Coyotes to him in the first place. At 6’6 and 214 pounds, Brodeur’s size is glaring, but looking further, it is his air-tight game in his own zone that draws most of his praise.
Despite his physical attributes, Brodeur isn’t known as a physically punishing blue liner. Instead, he relies on positioning and smarts to play an effective game in his own zone. A dedicated shot blocker, Brodeur often relies on his stick to knock the puck away and his frame makes it hard for players to get around him. Although he is still improving his skating, Brodeur’s lack of mobility is balanced by his ability to read the play as it is developing and thus be in the right place at the right time.