The 2011 NHL Draft was a banner year for the QMJHL, with five of their top players being selected in the first round and a total of 22 players hearing their name called over the course of the entire weekend. But unfortunately for the league, the draft class for 2012 doesn't appear to be as strong, with only one player considered to be a lock to be selected in the first round and not much in the way of depth behind him.
There will likely be between 15-20 players selected from the QMJHL, but an unusual thing to note might be the birthdates of those players. Not only are there a number of prominent QMJHL players who were passed over in previous years (notably Tomas Hyka and Roman Will, both Import players in their first season in the QMJHL), but a large number of the top draft eligible players coming out of the QMJHL (such as Martin Frk, Francis Beauvillier and Ryan Culkin) were born in the late months of 1993. While this is merely a coincidental oddity, it will have some impact on those players down the road.
The rights of players drafted out of the CHL can normally be held by the drafting NHL team for up to two years before a decision needs to be made on offering an entry-level contract or cutting ties with the player. Because these players are already considered by the CHL to be entering into their '19-year-old' season in the fall, these late-birthday draftees could make an early jump to pro hockey next summer and play in the minor leagues, or be returned to the QMJHL as over-agers. Some examples of this can be seen in 2011 draft picks Zach Phillips (MIN) and Tomas Jurco (DET), who both figure to be in the AHL next season due to their late birthdays. Meanwhile, their teammate on the Saint John Seadogs, Mathieu Corbeil returned to the QMJHL last season as an over-ager but his rights were continued to be owned by the Columbus Blue Jackets until they opted not to offer him a contract at the end of May.
While these situations are far from rare, it does offer a bit of added flexibility for a drafting NHL team when it comes to player development.
Here's a look at the top 10 QMJHL players eligible for the 2012 NHL Draft:
1. Mikhail Grigorenko, C, Quebec Remparts
6'2, 191 pounds. May 16th, 1994
There might not be a draft eligible player this year who is so high profile but also as divisive as Mikhail Grigorenko. Depending on what media report or scouting service you believe, Grigorenko might be as skilled as fellow countryman Nail Yakupov, who is widely touted as the top talent available this year, or the Quebec Rempart forward could be waiting until the second half of the first round to hear his name called. Regardless of what opinion you share, there is no denying that the big pivot is the top player coming out of the QMJHL this season.
A rookie this season, Grigorenko led both his team and all QMJHL rookies with 40 goals in only 59 games. He finished the year with 85 points, which also placed him top among first year players and second on the Remparts in scoring. But questions dogged him over much of the second half of the year. Playing for Russia at the World Juniors, an ankle injury limited his ability and continued to hamper his play for the first two months of the 2012 calendar year, including the CHL Top Prospects Game showcase event.
In the playoffs, he appeared listless and uninvolved. His scoring pace in the playoffs was a significant drop off from the level he showed in the regular season. In 11 post season matches, he scored three goals and had 10 points. After the Remparts were eliminated in the second round, it was revealed that Grigorenko had been diagnosed with mononucleosis, which also led to him sitting out of the fitness testing portion of the NHL Draft Combine at the end of May.
So who is Mikhail Grigorenko? Is he a player with wonderful talent but questionable work ethic or is he simply a case of bad timing, misfortune, and misunderstanding? Unfortunately for the Russian, there is no more hockey to be played between now and the draft to help answer those questions. In addition, a number of NHL teams have been burned in the past by mercurial Russian players who were unable to high skill level into success on the ice. The combination of these factors appears to have made scouts more wary of Grigorenko and as a result, have caused his tumble in the rankings.
Right or wrong, Grigorenko represents a gamble at this point in time for an NHL team with an early draft pick. While there is a chance that his effort level may never match that of his talent, it is also possible that he could become one of the top scorers on an NHL squad in the very near future. In a business where the future employment of a team's primary decision makers may hang in the balance if such a high profile draft selection busts, it's easy to understand why some teams don't want to risk it. But given the parity of the NHL and how every team is looking for an additional edge, it will be interesting to see who rolls the dice on Grigorenko and whether or not it pays off.
2. Martin Frk, RW, Halifax Mooseheads
6'0, 198 pounds. October 5th 1993
At the beginning of last season, Martin Frk was given equal billing with Mikhail Grigorenko when it came to draft eligible QMJHL players. Unfortunately, not much went in Frk's favor over the course of his sophomore season and now it is hard to say if he will even be drafted in the first round.
Coming off a solid rookie campaign, expectations were high for the Czech winger, especially with the Mooseheads making a number of moves to improve the squad, led by the acquisition of Nathan MacKinnon, an early favorite to be the top pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. But the envisioned pairing of Frk and MacKinnon was put on pause after the hard shooting winger suffered a concussion in the QMJHL pre-season.
He wouldn't return to the ice for the Mooseheads until December and also sat out the World Junior tournament after playing for his home country of the Czech Republic the previous year as a 17-year-old. Though his on-ice agility was never his strongest suit, the cost of sitting out for a number of months showed in his play and when the calendar flipped from 2011 to 2012, Frk had just a single goal to his stat line.
The missed time had taken its toll on Frk's play. While most scouts were hoping he would show improvement over his rookie season's efforts, Frk seemed to struggle with the pace of the game and at times appeared visibly fatigued on the ice.
Working hard to get back in playing shape, Frk finished the year with 16 goals and 29 points in 34 games. In the playoffs, he added another five goals and 11 points in 17 post season matches. His best stretches came in streaks: one in January where he scored six goals and 11 points over six games and another in late February and early March where he potted four goals and eight points over five games.
It has been said that the 2012 draft class is "cursed" with so many of the top prospects missing time due to injury and Frk is no exception. The missed time makes it hard to equally judge not only Frk but all of the prospects who sat out parts of the season. In Frk's case, it is not a matter of what he accomplished in his half season of work, but rather what he projects to be and where he would have been if he didn't sit out the first three months of the season.
3. Tomas Hyka, RW, Gatineau Olympiques
5'11, 165 pounds. March 23rd, 1993
Heading to his second draft after not being selected last year, it must be some solace to Tomas Hyka that he is almost guaranteed to be drafted by an NHL club. In fact, was it not for some miscommunication his rights may have already been owned by the Philadelphia Flyers.
After last year's draft, the Flyers invited Hyka to attend their rookie camp and were some impressed with the Czech's ability that they sought to offer him a contract. However, due to some eligibility rules, Hyka was not able to be signed and so instead he headed to Gatineau to start his QMJHL career. Now, almost a year later, it will be interesting to see if the Flyers finally get their man and select Hyka or if another NHL team beats them to the punch.
What's all the fuss about? Hyka is a speedy scoring forward who, in his first year in North America, put up strong numbers. In 50 games for the Olympiques, Hyka scored 20 goals and finished with 64 points, good enough to place him first on the team in scoring and fifth among QMJHL rookies. Like so many of the players eligible for the 2012 draft, Hyka missed some time with injury, but also played for Team Czech Republic at the World Juniors. He also attended the CHL's Top Prospects Game.
Considering all this attention, one has to wonder how he was ever passed over in the first place. Listed at 5'10 and 165 pounds, Hyka's physical stature hardly screams NHL impact and although he was one of the top players on his Czech junior team during his draft year, his time in Czech Extraliga was not particularly noteworthy.
By coming to North America and showing he can not only play against the top players in his age group at the World Juniors, but also appearing in an NHL pre-season match, Hyka has helped put some of those concerns to bed. While it's not guaranteed that he'll ever be a regular contributor at the NHL level, he's definitely shown enough to make sure that he's not left on the outside looking in for another year.
4. Brandon Whitney, G, Victoriaville Tigres
6'5, 191 pounds. May 11th, 1994
A big goalie who spent much of last season fighting for time in the crease, Brandon Whitney is already guaranteed some job security for the upcoming season, but he certainly would like to add a possible NHL future as well. After the Victoriaville Tigres were ousted in the first round of the QMJHL playoffs, Whitney's former partner between the pipes, David Honzik (VAN), was unceremoniously shipped to Cape Breton and entering next season, Whitney will be the de facto starter for the Tigres.
The big goalie arguable earned the job by outplaying the incumbent during much of his rookie season last year. Appearing in 36 games, Whitney's goals-against-average of 2.74 and save percentage of .896 were both better marks than Honzik, a prospect with the Vancouver Canucks. In addition, Honzik's record of 22-14-1-1 pales in comparison to Whitney's 22-4-0-4. Of course, in a league where only one team did not qualify for the post season, it is really the playoffs that matter most.
Despite entering the playoffs with the fourth best record, Victoriaville were swept out in the first round by the upstart Baie-Comeau Drakkar. Unable to get it done with Honzik in the net, the team was forced to turn to Whitney for the elimination match and if the writing wasn't already on the wall at that point, that move definitely started the clock ticking for Victoriaville to find a way to make Whitney their starting netminder entering next season.
It will be interesting to see how Whitney responds to the increased workload and pressure of being a number one goaltender in the QMJHL. Though his size and his speed in the crease cannot be taught, Whitney's main struggles in the early goings of his QMJHL career have been his consistency and the mental side of the game. Victoriaville will be in a bit of a state of flux after their botched competitive run last season means a lot of their veteran talent is moving on while the team looks to reload. How much stability Whitney can bring to the crease will speak a lot for how well the Tigres do next season.
5. Charles Hudon, LW, Chicoutimi Sagueneens
5'10, 171 pounds. June 23rd, 1994
As is sometimes the case with draft eligible players, their impact on a competitive team is diminished in the second half of the season after the trade period brings in additional talent. For Charles Hudon, he still continued to be one of the offensive weapons for the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, but after separate deals brought in forwards Christian Ouellet and Jean-Gabriel Pageau (OTT) from Gatineau, he was no longer a mainstay on the top line.
His production slowed in the second half of the season, aided in part by a wrist injury that also caused him to miss the CHL's Top Prospects Game, but Hudon still put up respectable numbers. In 59 games, he scored 25 goals and finished with 66 points, six more than his rookie season in four less matches. This was good enough to place him third on the team in scoring. In the playoffs, Hudon's six goals were tied for second among Sagueneens, while his 11 points placed him fifth in team scoring.
The upcoming season will be a big one for Hudon, as much of that talent that Chicoutimi acquired and finished ahead of him in the scoring ranks will be moving on. It will be up to Hudon to take a step forward and lead the offense. He's a player who has a lot of things that he could improve upon, from his strength and physical play to his skating and quickness, but it is a testament to his offensive acumen that he has been so successful thus far. For any interested NHL team, that also bodes well for his future, for he'll be even more dangerous as he continues to improve.
6. Dillon Fournier, D, Rouyn-Noranda Huskies
6'1, 160 pounds. June 15th, 1994
The 2012 draft is mainly thought to be a draft class heavy with defensive prospects, but the offerings from the QMJHL are modest at best. Headlining that list in Dillon Fournier, a player, who like so many others this year, suffered an injury shortened season in his draft year.
In Fournier's case, it was a separated shoulder that caused him grief. First having a problem with the shoulder in December, the decision was made to hold off on surgery and rehab it instead. However, when the shoulder became a problem again in March, he saw his draft year come to an end.
In total, Fournier appeared in 52 games for the Huskies as a sophomore player. Having started his career with the Lewiston MAINEiacs as a first overall pick into the QMJHL, Fournier was also the first player selected in the Dispersal draft when Lewiston folded prior to last season. Playing a big role on a struggling team, Fournier was second on the team in defensive scoring with nine goals and 38 points. This shattered his rookie season mark from the previous year of 14 points.
A puck-mover with great skating ability, Fournier spent a large chunk of the season playing at less than 100 percent and so it is difficult to get an accurate read on his potential. He is in a good situation with the Huskies, where they rely on him quite heavily and thus he gets opportunities in all situations. This not only allows him to improve on all aspects of his game, but also gives him the opportunity to round out his game, including utilizing some previously untapped offensive ability.
7. Francis Beauvillier, C, Rimouski Oceanic
6'1, 176 pounds. October 22nd, 1993
Another former Lewiston player, Beauvillier joined a veteran-laden Rimouski squad for his third QMJHL season and while he hardly set the league on fire, he was a crucial piece of the Oceanic's march to the league's championship finals. One of the fastest players in the draft this year, Beauvillier was tops among the players at the CHL's Top Prospects Game.
In 67 regular season games, he scored 23 goals and had 34 points, including five goals on the man advantage and another two goals coming while shorthanded. But it was in the playoffs that the forward did his best work. Appearing in 21 playoff matches, he scored five goals and had nine points with another two goals coming shorthanded. More importantly, Beauvillier regularly found himself playing a defensive role, utilizing his speed to force decisions and create turnovers.
Though he has only posted modest offensive numbers thus far in his QMJHL career, Beauvillier could be due to a big jump in both ice time and production. As mentioned, Rimouski's team last season was primarily a veteran squad and so they are saying goodbye to a number of players over the summer. This places Beauvillier in a perfect spot to move up in the line-up and fill a larger role. Although he is young, he is already quite experienced, entering his fourth year in the league this fall and he has some untapped offensive potential that could make him a two-way force on the ice.
8. Raphael Bussieres, LW, Baie-Comeau Drakkar
6'1, 192 pounds. November 5th, 1993
For Raphael Bussieres and the Baie-Comeau Drakkar, the 2011-12 season seemed to come in three parts. One of the top teams in the league during the first half of the year, the Drakkar were buoyed by Bussieres scoring at a torrid pace. But in the second half, both the Drakkar and Bussieres cooled off until just days before the start of the post season, the team opted to make a coaching change. The gamble paid off with Baie-Comeau upsetting Victoriaville in the first round and Bussieres rediscovering his offensive touch.
In total, Bussieres finished the year with 21 goals and 44 points in 56 games. But, as mentioned, 37 of those points came before January 1st. In the post season, he saw action in five games and tallied three goals and eight points over that period of time.
A rough and tumble forward, Bussieres plays with an edge, which led him to miss three games in the playoffs due to suspension and also to drop the gloves at the CHL's Top Prospects Game against the WHL's Matt Dumba. As can be seen from his scoring production, consistency might be a concern, but considering his ebb and flow in production coincided with coaching changes, one has to wonder how much of it was something Bussieres' needed to address and how much of it was a larger team issue.
In any case, Bussieres will find himself playing for a new coach again this fall when Eric Veilleux, fresh off his Memorial Cup win with Shawinigan takes over the reins in Baie-Comeau. Bussieres might not have the talent to be a top-six forward at the next level, but he plays an all-weather game that could see him fill many roles for a pro team. That being said, he's still extremely raw and needs to improve all aspects of his play.
9. James Melindy, D, Moncton Wildcats
6'3. 186 pounds. December 11th, 1993
Playing behind Phoenix Coyotes top prospect Brandon Gormley and under the guiding hand of Coach Danny Flynn, James Melindy learned quickly with the Moncton Wildcats. So quick that when the team dealt Gormley away at the midway point of last season, Melindy was ready to step up in a big way and take on the lion's share of the minutes.
In just his second year in the QMJHL, Melindy has gone from being a part-timer with Moncton to finishing last year as their top defenseman seeing time in all situations. He played in 61 games last season and finished with nine goals and 27 points, leading all team defensemen. Four of his goals came on the man advantage. In the playoffs, he saw plenty of action in all four post season matches and finished with two goals (both power play markers) and three points.
Though he has good size, Melindy needs to continue to get stronger on his skates, which will also help him deal with the big minutes he found himself taking on in the second half of the year. A strong skater with two-way ability, Melindy also doesn't back down from a challenge and can play the role of agitator on the ice. The Moncton Wildcats have had success developing defensemen over the past few years from David Savard (CLB) and Mark Barberio (TB) to Brandon Gormley and Daniel Milan. Danny Flynn may have found another gem in James Melindy.
10. Ryan Culkin, D, Quebec Remparts
6'1, 182 pounds. December 25th, 1993
When talking about Quebec Remparts defenseman Ryan Culkin, one word continues to bubble to the surface: underrated. Whether it is scouts or the media or even his own coaches, the popular opinion is that the 18-year-old simply does not get his fair share of attention.
Perhaps it is due to the fact that he plays for a Remparts team studded with young talent. Maybe it is because he was an unheralded draft pick, selected in the 7th round of the 2010 draft after 121 other picks. It might also be due to how he's had to earn every minute of ice time as he went from an occasional contributor at the start of his rookie season to a vital member of the Remparts.
Taking a leap forward in just his second year in the league, Culkin finished the season with six goals and 25 points in 60 games and saw some time as a member of the Remparts power play, where he scored three goals. In the playoffs, he added seven assists in ten post season matches.
Culkin's size, skating and two-way ability all add up to him being a solid prospect. Furthermore, he should be counted on to be one of Quebec's top defenders next season when they are expected to be one of the best teams in the league. Whatever the original reason why some might view Culkin as underrated, it won't be long until he is no longer flying under the radar.
Christophe Lalancette, RW, Acadie-Bathurst Titan
6'0, 170 pounds. May 6th, 1994
Etienne Marcoux, G, Blainville-Boisbriand Armada
6'0, 157 pounds. September 29th, 1993
Francois Tremblay, G, Val D'Or Foreurs
6'2, 201 pounds. August 29th, 1994
Roman Will, G, Moncton Wildcats
6'1, 188 pounds. May 22nd, 1992
Anton Zlobin, LW, Val D'Or Foreurs
5'11, 198 pounds. February 22nd, 1993