If it wasn’t quite evident last season, then it’s easy to see this year: Conor Garland is the most skilled player in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Moncton Wildcats winger recorded 54 points in 51 games last season in what was his first year of NHL Draft eligibility. Despite that level of production on a relatively mediocre Wildcats team compared to years past, Garland went undrafted. Offensive totals are not the be-all, end-all when it comes to drafting a player – the last QMJHL player to be selected in the 2014 NHL Draft was Julien Nantel (COL), who had just 34 points in 68 games.
Garland is listed at just 5’8 and 165 pounds, and is often the smallest player on the ice, though he usually has the biggest impact in games. For teams looking for a low-risk, high-reward selection in this June’s draft, Garland might make the perfect pick.
Now in his third season of junior hockey, the Massachusetts product has a league-leading 107 points through 58 games, including an astounding 78 assists. He picked up his 100th point in a Feb 15th contest against Victoriaville and, days later, was named the QMJHL’s first star of the week. He now has a double-digit point lead over Danick Martel, who sits second in league scoring with 96 points. But for Garland, it’s not about individual play or proving a point after going undrafted last year.
“It was more important that the 100th point came on a tying goal late in the game,” the affable, diminutive winger told Hockey’s Future prior to a meeting with the Halifax Mooseheads. “It wouldn’t have meant anything if we didn’t win the game. It just meant more that it helped the team win, that’s all.”
That Garland was passed in the draft is a little odd, particularly given the influx of smaller, shifty wingers developing into quality NHL players in recent years. Johnny Gaudreau (CGY), for example, might even be a few feathers lighter than Garland, but the dynamic winger has been a candidate for the NHL’s Calder Trophy since October. Garland’s ability to stop and start, along with his ability to elude defenders, might just remind some of a young Gaudreau, and, combined with his incredible vision, he has become an elite junior player.
Knowing that, one could imagine Garland being slightly disappointed he didn’t hear his name called at the 2014 NHL Draft. But ever the optimist, Garland holds no ill-will toward any NHL teams for overlooking him; in fact, the 100-point producer who still has a year of junior eligibility isn’t even banking on being selected in the upcoming draft.
“No, not at all,” he replied when asked if he was disappointed. “There’s only 210 guys who can get picked and there’s a lot of great players in Major Junior, USHL, university – so not being picked wasn’t a disappointment at all.
“If a team decides to select me, that’s great. It’s out of my control, I don’t sit at anyone’s table so I can’t make a pick,” he added, smirking.
Garland’s team-first attitude is evident when talking to the player, and on the ice it’s seen through his willingness to make the extra pass to find an open player; quite often, that player is Ivan Barbashev, a first round pick of the St. Louis Blues. The Russian sniper, in his third season with the Wildcats, has 34 goals in 47 games. He is the ideal winger to play with a gifted playmaker like Garland; both players, in fact, make the other’s job a lot easier.
“He’s just a great player and I’m fortunate enough to play with him,” said Garland. “He gets open, he can read a play and it makes my life easier from behind the net.”
Their on-ice chemistry isn’t much of a surprise, considering the pair arrived in Moncton during the 2012-13 season as 16- and 17-year-olds. The Wildcats selected Barbashev with the first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft that year. It was an easy pick to make, knowing the Russian was headed overseas to play in North America. Getting Garland to Moncton wasn’t meant to be as easy, though.
Selected in the sixth round of the 2012 QMJHL Entry Draft, Garland, at the time, was a prized NCAA commit whom the Wildcats felt they could entice to play junior. Garland was committed to Penn State University. But, after playing just six games for the USHL’s Muskegon Lumberjacks at the start of the 2012-13 campaign, he left for Moncton, foregoing a possible collegiate hockey career. This season, the Wildcats have five American-born players; the organization selected eight in the previous draft.
“It helps; I was the first one here, with no others,” said Garland of the American content on the team. “So when (Americans) come in that speaks volumes to how good our organization is, how good our GM is by getting guys who are committed to NCAA and showing them what life is like up here.
“I was lucky enough to come here two years ago and I think anyone who comes up here has been happy.”
And the coaching staff, likewise, is happy to have Garland. The organization didn’t have a first round pick in the 2012 draft, so gambles on players like Garland were necessary.
“I think when he first came in the league at 16 we knew he was going to be a phenomenal player at 18, 19 and he certainly has lived up to those expectations,” said Fabian Joseph, assistant coach for the Wildcats. “He’s a kid that loves the game and wants to be on the ice all the time”
The majority of the time Garland spends on the ice is during five-on-five play or with the man advantage; he sees little time on the penalty kill, but that hasn’t stopped him from potting two shorthanded goals this season. That’s not to say his defensive game is top notch, but his speed and quick feet can surprise some fleet-footed defensemen holding the blue line.
“As a coach you want players like that, who want to be on the ice in all key situations,” added Joseph.
“(Head coach) Darren (Rumble) is on me all the time about being responsible in my own zone,” said Garland. “As a younger guy I wasn’t mature enough to see the importance of it, but then you get older and you see how much of the game is all around the ice and that also helps into your offensive stats.”
Because he was passed over in his first year of draft eligibility, Garland is free to sign a contract with an NHL team, much like Joe Hicketts (DET) did last summer. Better yet, teams might like to secure his rights with a late-round pick in this June’s draft. And if neither happens? Well, then he’d have reason to return to junior with a chip on his shoulder.
Said Joseph, “He’s one of those guys that has had to overcome his size his whole career and certainly his competitiveness and will to win overcomes his size deficiencies.”
Follow Chris Roberts on Twitter via @ChrisRoberts_7