Brassard heads decent goaltending prospect crop from QMJHL

By Kevin Forbes

Francois Brassard - Quebec Remparts

Photo: Now that Louis Domingue has turned pro, Quebec Remparts goaltender and Ottawa Senators prospect Francois Brassard is taking advantage of his status as that team's #1 goalie (courtesy of Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

The development of goaltenders in Canada has been a cause of concern for quite some time, especially with how it affects international competitions like the World Juniors.

With Canada shut out of the gold medal for the past four years, attention has focused in on whether the country is continuing to produce top talent between the pipes. Fair or unfair, up-and-coming Canadian goaltenders have faced increasing scrutiny over recent years, especially as the top NHL netminders are now just as likely to be hailing from Europe or the United States as they are from Canada.

Despite these concerns, the QMJHL could be experiencing a bit of resurgence. While it may not be a return to the mid-90s when Quebec was heralded as a goaltending factory, the league currently boasts six goalies whose rights are owned by NHL teams. This is an increase from four goaltenders the previous season. Furthermore, the future is bright with goaltenders like the Halifax Mooseheads' Zachary Fucale and Philippe Desrosiers of the Rimouski Oceanic expected to be selected high in the 2013 NHL Draft.

Here's a look at the half-dozen QMJHL goaltenders that are currently NHL prospects.

Francois Brassard, Quebec Remparts
NHL Rights: Ottawa Senators
Drafted 166th overall, 6th round, 2012

Francois Brassard is well on his way to fulfilling the classic storyline of 'local boy does good'. A native of Gatineau, Brassard was drafted by the Ottawa Senators and could one day find himself manning the crease across the river from his hometown. So far, he appears to be right on target.

Brassard split the starting duties in Quebec during his rookie season last year with Phoenix Coyotes prospect Louis Domingue. Domingue graduated to the pro ranks in the off-season and Brassard inherited the #1 role for the Remparts.

Despite the extra duties on the ice, Brassard has moderately improved his numbers. After posting a 2.80 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage in 37 games as a rookie, he now boasts a 2.78 goals-against average and a .909 save percentage in 55 games so far in his sophomore year. He currently leads the QMJHL in minutes played and has a record of 30-18-2-2 along with two shutouts.

Projected to be one of the top teams in the QMJHL this year, the Remparts have struggled to live up to those expectations. Currently 6th in the league, Quebec has a talented roster that could make significant noise in the playoffs. Although Brassard did not appear in any post-season matches last spring, he has the ability to steal a game and will be a crucial part of the Remparts' playoff efforts.

Brandon Whitney, Victoriaville Tigres
NHL Rights: Chicago Blackhawks
Drafted 191st overall, 7th round, 2012

Another goaltender that was handed the starting reins this season after splitting the duties as a rookie last year, Brandon Whitney's expanded role has coincided with a re-tooling Victoriaville team. One of the top teams in the QMJHL last year, the Tigres said goodbye to a lot of the veteran talent after a disappointingly short playoff run. As a result, they've fallen from finishing 4th overall in 2012 to currently sitting 11th in the league.

Despite the changes for the team in front of him, Whitney has grown in his starting role. Although his goals-against average rising from 2.74 last year to currently sitting at 3.03 reflects the weaker year that the Tigres are experiencing, his save percentage has risen from .896 to .902 this year. With a record of 27-18-2-4 in 56 games played, Whitney is fifth in the league in minutes played, while his four shutouts tie him for the league lead.

Whitney saw limited time in the playoffs last year and like the rest of the Tigres, he struggled. Although the team will not have home-ice advantage this postseason, Whitney will be looking to gain further playoff experience and build for next season, which should be his final year in junior hockey.

Drafted by the Blackhawks last summer, Whitney was selected later than most expected him to go in the draft, but his combination of size and athleticism makes him an intriguing NHL prospect. Chicago has some depth in their prospect pipeline at the goaltending position, which allows them to take some time in developing Whitney.

Christopher Gibson, Chicoutimi Sagueneens
NHL Rights: Los Angeles Kings
Drafted 49th overall, 2nd round, 2011

A surprise returnee to the QMJHL, Gibson found himself as the odd man out in the Los Angeles Kings development pipeline. With prospects like Martin Jones and Jean-Francois Berube filling the starting duties at the AHL and ECHL levels, the decision was made that it would be wiser for Gibson to return to junior hockey for his overage year as opposed to making the jump to the pro level.

Due to his late 1992 birthday, the Kings continue to hold his rights and do not need to sign him to a contract until June 1st. Gibson is using his final year of junior hockey to ensure that he receives that contract. After taking a step back last season, Gibson has recaptured some of the magic from his draft year when he was the top goaltender in the QMJHL.

In 40 games this season, he boasts a 17-17-0-4 record with a 3.08 goals-against average and a .902 save percentage. While those may not be eye-popping statistics, his save percentage has risen from last year's .893 and his four shutouts are tied for the league lead.

Chicoutimi was the surprise team of last year's QMJHL playoffs, making it all the way to the league's semi-finals as the 8th seed. This season, they are currently 12th in the league, but are looking to make some significant post-season noise yet again. Gibson may have lost some of the shine he had when the Kings selected him in the second round two summers ago, but he is still quite capable of playing as a top notch junior goaltender. Looking ahead, the depth in the Kings' goaltending pipeline may give him the necessary time to reach his once bright potential.

Francois Tremblay, Val d'Or Foreurs
NHL Rights: St. Louis Blues
Drafted 146th overall, 5th round, 2012

After carrying the load for the Foreurs last year, Francois Tremblay has received more rest this year and has responded with improved numbers. Seeing action in 57 games last season, Tremblay has only played in 44 so far this year and boasts a record of 22-15-0-3. Furthermore, he's seen his goals-against average drop by nearly half a goal per game, from 3.79 to 3.38, while his save percentage has raised slightly from .882 to .896. This is the third straight season that Tremblay has improved his numbers.

Val d'Or continues to stand pat in the middle of the league standings, finishing 10th last year and sitting in the same spot this season. One area that Tremblay is looking to improve is in the playoffs. He's played in seven post-season matches over the last two years and has yet to secure a victory with a goals-against average at 5.70. Unfortunately, the Foreurs will still face an uphill battle in the post-season this year.

Still 18 years old, Tremblay has already seen action in 127 games for Val d'Or and is expected to return to the Foreurs again next season. With players like former QMJHL goaltender Jake Allen and OHL star Jordan Binnington ahead of him in the Blues organizational pipeline, Tremblay has another year to prove himself before a contract offer needs to be made.

Maxime Lagace, PEI Rocket
NHL Rights: Dallas Stars
Signed as a free agent, 2012

The 2012-13 season started with plenty of promise for Maxime Lagace. Signed as a free agent by the Dallas Stars and invited to play for Canada during the Canada-Russia Challenge over the summer, Lagace was expected to take the next step in his development with the PEI Rocket.

Unfortunately, things haven't gone exactly to plan. Although his statistics have improved slightly over last year's marks, with his goals-against average dropping to 4.05 from 4.51 and his save percentage rising from .867 to .869, Lagace has found himself losing a battle for starts. After being among the league leaders in minutes last season, Lagace has been challenged by Antoine Bibeau. Not only is Bibeau putting up superior numbers from Lagace, but he's also now seen action in more games.

PEI went from being the worst team in the league last season to now sitting 7th overall in the league standings, but Lagace may not see all the fruits of that labor. With Bibeau playing so well, he will likely be the team's go to option for the post-season.

In the meantime, Lagace, now 20 years old, is eligible to make the jump to pro next season. Already signed to a three-year entry-level deal, his contract will start for the upcoming year, regardless of where he plays. Dallas has some underrated depth between the pipes and so they have the luxury of bringing Lagace along slowly.

David Honzik, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
NHL Rights: Vancouver Canucks
Drafted 71st overall, 3rd round, 2011

A new team hasn't lead to improved fortunes for David Honzik. After falling out of favor with the Victoriaville Tigres, Honzik was dealt to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles during the off-season. But his arrival was delayed due to rehabilitation for shoulder surgery and the Czech native did not hit the ice until November.

Playing for one of the QMJHL's worst teams in Cape Breton, Honzik's 4.27 goals-against average is a tough pill to swallow and his .877 save percentage is a decline from last year's mark of .885. Perhaps the best indication of the situation he's found himself in with the Screaming Eagles can be found in his record. Appearing in 31 games so far, Honzik has a record of 4-22-0-1 with a single shutout.

Honzik showed plenty of promise during his draft year, when he was the driving force behind an inspiring run by Victoriaville in the playoffs. But he's never come close to matching that effort in the two seasons since. Unsigned by Vancouver so far, the time is fast approaching for the team to make a decision on his future. An Import player in the QMJHL, the Eagles already are planning that he will not be returning to the squad as an overager next season. Should he not find a pro contract in North America, either with the Canucks or another organization, Honzik may find himself heading back to Europe this summer.

Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy