2011 Draft: QMJHL top draft eligible prospects

By Kevin Forbes
Photo: One of the top offensive players in the QMJHL, Jonathan Huberdeau is expected to be a top five selection in the 2011 draft. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

In 2010, Brandon Gormley (PHX) of the Moncton Wildcats was the only QMJHL player to hear his name called in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. The year before that, three players were selected among the first 30 and in 2008; the league was shut out of the first round entirely.

The 2011 crop of draft eligible QMJHL players is a bumper crop of top end talent with as many as seven players having their names mentioned as potential first round candidates.

Most notable are the plethora of Saint John Sea Dogs. In fact, the rankings of eligible players from the QMJHL almost look identical to the roster of the Memorial Cup champions. In addition to the eight Saint John players currently ranked by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau, another two players also have ties to the Sea Dogs. Guillaume Cloutier and Gabriel Bourret, both defensemen with the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, both started the year with Saint John before being traded, with Cloutier moving at mid-season and Bourret’s rights changing hands at the recent QMJHL draft.

Here’s a look at the top QMJHL draft eligibles for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.

1. Jonathan Huberdeau, C
6’1, 171 lbs, Saint John Sea Dogs

In the eyes of many, Jonathan Huberdeau came out of nowhere for an impressive draft season. After a middling rookie year that saw him score 15 goals and finish with 35 points in 61 games as a 17-year-old, the Quebec forward first served notice that he was ready to make some noise during Saint John’s long playoff run. Over the course of 21 games, Huberdeau scored 11 goals and finished with 18 points.

When his draft season rolled around, his scoring ways continued. On the top line of a deep and competitive team, Huberdeau’s 43 goals and 105 points in 67 games placed him third in league scoring. He then added another 16 goals and 30 points in 19 playoff matches to win the Guy Lafleur Trophy as playoff MVP and lead the Saint John Sea Dog’s to the President’s Cup as league champion.

Continuing on to the 2011 Memorial Cup, the slick forward scored three goals and finished with six points in four games as Saint John was named the CHL champion and Huberdeau won the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy as tournament MVP.

All things considered, it’s hard to imagine how Huberdeau’s draft year could have gone any better.

An offensive wizard when the puck is on his stick, Huberdeau is blessed with great hands and the creativity to make things happen on the ice. Though listed as center, he lined up on the wing for most of the season and found great chemistry with fellow draft eligible, Zach Phillips. Equally apt at finding an open player and making pass as he is with sliding through defensive coverage and scoring a goal himself, he’s a dynamic talent with an excellent work ethic.

Chris Mooring of International Scouting Services describes Huberdeau as "one of those kids that just impresses me with the work ethic, the smarts, the skill level, it’s all there." Meanwhile, Kim Houston from the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau says, "I was a little skeptical last year. But he’s improved so much to me. He’s aggressive both physically and mentally, he’s always thinking, no matter what zone he’s in, it’s offense, always ‘how can I create something when I get the puck’ whether it’s in the defensive zone, neutral zone or offensive zone. He’s assertive and he’s always one step ahead of most other guys."

2. Sean Couturier, C
6’4, 191 lbs, Drummondville Voltigeurs

Entering into the 2010-11 season, most betting money would have been on Sean Couturier to be the QMJHL’s top draft eligible player and perhaps even to be the first overall selection in the draft, but other players have taken a significant step forward to even the playing field.

That’s not to say that Couturier’s draft year was not impressive. For most players, to hear that they simply matched their previous year’s production would be a sign of disappointment. But with Couturier, he was the defending league scoring champion and his 96 points in 58 games (ten fewer than the previous season) placed him tied for fourth in the league. Meanwhile, Couturier was also the only draft eligible player to be named to Canada’s World Junior squad and helped the team earn a silver medal.

A combination of size and skill, Couturier is a solid and safe contributor at both ends of the ice. Perhaps his greatest asset is his on-ice vision and he has a knack for finding an open teammate and threading a pass across the rink. Although he needs to continue to add strength to his frame and he is not known for being a punishing physical player, he uses his body well to protect the puck and make a play.

Thanks to a late birthday, Couturier already has three seasons of experience at the junior level and is considered to be a ‘safe selection’ expected to go early in the first round. Thanks to his size, his two-way ability and his mature game, Couturier could be a good bet to step into the NHL as soon as next season.

3. Nathan Beaulieu, D
6’3, 191 lbs, Saint John Sea Dogs

Another Saint John Sea Dog, Nathan Beaulieu also shares some similarities with Couturier in the sense that his draft year was his third year in the QMJHL and he entered the season coming off a strong showing as a sophomore.

After playing a minimal role as a rookie, Beaulieu was an integral part of the Saint John blue line last season, scoring 12 goals and finishing with 45 points in 66 games. In fact, there were more than a few nights where he was Saint John’s best defender. High praise for a blue line that featured a former first rounder in Simon Despres (PIT) and a former second rounder in Yann Sauve (VAN). Adding another 16 points in 21 playoff games, Beaulieu’s strong play carried on into his draft year.

Though he put up a near-identical stat line with 12 goals and 45 points in 65 games, Beaulieu worked hard to round out his game in his draft year and it came to fruition when the Sea Dogs entered the playoffs. In 19 games, he scored four goals and finished with 17 points. At the Memorial Cup, he added a goal and three points and was named to the tournament’s All-Star team.

Great skating ability like Beaulieu’s cannot be taught and his mobility helps him out tremendously at both ends of the ice. He’s equally apt at making a solid first pass as he is with leading the rush and Beaulieu has both the size and the skill to be a top two-way defenseman.

Kim Houston describes him as a complete package and goes on to explain, "we all knew he could rush the puck and make things happen, but now he’s a lot smarter about when he goes and when he jumps up in the play, when he does, he makes sure it’s an opportunity to create something and that’s very positive for the team. I see a maturity in him and the defensive side of his game has really improved."

Says Mooring, "He’s a kid that’s developing a special skill set, with that skating, the hands, the puck control, and the way he thinks the game offensively when he does have the confidence. He’s a force, so mobile and so skilled carrying the puck."

4. Zack Phillips, C
6’1, 181 lbs, Saint John Sea Dogs

A linemate with Jonathan Huberdeau, Zack Phillips‘ second year in the QMJHL took a similar leap in production as the young forward established himself as not only a key contributor on the Sea Dogs, but also as one of the more promising young players in the QMJHL.

After a solid rookie season, where he scored 16 goals and had 44 points in 65 games, Phillips was largely ineffective during a long playoff run, with just six points in 21 post season matches. As such, he found himself well down on the early-season ranking lists when they came out.

That all changed in a hurry as Phillips and Saint John put a stranglehold on the rest of the QMJHL. Finding chemistry with Huberdeau, Phillips finished the year with 38 goals and 95 points in 67 games, placing him sixth in league scoring and second on the team. In the post season, he was equally impressive with nine goals and 24 points in 17 post-season matches.

Despite suffering a shoulder injury prior to the Memorial Cup, the New Brunswick native still played in all four tournament games and posted a goal and five points.

An offensive forward, Phillips is primarily known as a playmaker but is no slouch when it comes to scoring goals either. Blessed with great on ice vision and loads of hockey sense, his ability to anticipate the play cannot be overstated.

Though some have raised concerns about how he will adapt during more physical matches, Houston believes that any perceived lack of grit is just the way that Phillips plays the game. "It’s just that he’s a cerebral player. It’s not that he’s not trying to rub guys out, it’s just that he does a pretty good with positioning and stuff away from the puck, but he’s not a guy that’s running at guys and playing the angles to make sure they’re rubbed out. You don’t have to be always bringing big hits to take guys out, but what he does do is that he’ll take a hit to make a play and he always does that."

Meanwhile Mooring still feels the young forward needs to round out his game. "He’s got top six forward upside and he makes the players better around him, sees the ice well, has a great set of hands on him, he’s a well-rounded offensive player, but that’s all he is, a well-rounded offensive player. He needs to work on the defensive side of the game and the physical side of the game."

5. Tomas Jurco, RW
6’2, 193 lbs, Saint John Sea Dogs

For most hockey fans, the name Tomas Jurco brings to mind YouTube highlights of shootout goals and wizardry with the puck that can hardly be appreciated properly over a screen. Over the course of his two seasons with the Sea Dogs, the young Slovak has made a name for himself with a dazzling array of moves that have turned him into an Internet sensation.

Joining Saint John last year, Jurco had little difficulty adjusting to the game in North America and was almost immediately a productive player for the squad. In 64 games as a rookie, he finished with 26 goals and 51 points, before adding another seven goals and 17 points in 21 playoff games.

Though he did not take a dramatic leap forward in production like his teammates Huberdeau and Phillips in his draft year, Jurco was once again a familiar face on the score sheet with 31 goals and 56 points in 60 games. He was also selected to play for Team Slovakia in the World Juniors and in six games, he scored one goal. Returning to the QMJHL, Jurco posted six goals and 18 points in 19 playoff games.

But it was his play in the Memorial Cup that really opened eyes. Over the course of the four game tournament, he averaged a goal-per-game and finished with five points.

Despite his highlight-reel shootout goals, Jurco is far from a one-trick pony. A dynamic scoring forward, he displays a willingness to drive to the net and at times, he looks closer to a power forward than a pure sniper. With game-breaking ability, one of the only questions is whether the Slovakian can put it all together. His hands are incredible, but he needs to round out his game and show more consistency in his effort.

Houston believes that Jurco has first round talent, but it all depends on what team likes him. "(Jurco is) a guy who could go in the five to ten spot, he could go in the 25 to 30 spot, depending on who has what opinion of him. He’s a high-end skill guy, but sometimes he doesn’t bring it every game, sometimes he doesn’t bring it every shift, I don’t know how big his heart is. Does he always beat the guy to the puck in the corner? No, but boy, I’ll tell ya, he’s probably one of the best shootout guys that I’ve seen."

Mooring agrees that the Slovak’s future depends on him. "Jurco is one of those guys who is either a top six winger or he’s not in the NHL. But he’s got that top six potential. He definitely has that top six potential." But he also points out that there is a lot to like, stating "he’s got that strong lower half and I won’t say it’s a power game, but he’s able to protect the puck and come off the wing with authority and score some big goals."

6. Phillip Danault, LW
6’0, 170 lbs, Victoriaville Tigres

For a team looking for character and leadership, they need to look no further than Philippe Danault. After a mid-season trade saw Philip-Michael Devos, the captain of the Victoriaville Tigres dealt, the team quickly named the 17-year-old Danault as their new leader.

Playing in his second year with the Tigres, Danault has improved dramatically thanks to his hard work both on and off the ice. After posting 28 points in 61 games as a rookie, the hometown native blew past those totals as a sophomore to finish with 23 goals and 67 points in 64 games.

More importantly, when the playoffs rolled around, Danault stepped his game up even more. A key contributor when the Tigres upset the higher-ranked Acadie-Bathurst Titan in a four-game sweep in the first round, Danault also scored two goals, including the game-winner in the only game that the Tigres won in the second round. While this might not sound like much of an achievement, it is worth noting that Victoriaville faced the powerhouse Saint John Sea Dogs as a second round opponent and this was the only game they lost in the post season prior to the league finals. Overall, Danault posted five goals and 15 points in nine playoff games.

A leader both on and off the ice, Danault’s effort level can never be questioned. Whether it’s scoring a goal, finishing a check or killing a penalty, he plays an all-weather, two-way game. Though he might not be naturally skilled enough to be a scoring forward at the next level, his work ethic should guarantee a future in the NHL. If a team becomes enamoured with the intangibles that he brings to the rink, he could be a late first-round selection.

Mooring believes his future is as a "defensive center. He’s putting up points in this league, but I don’t think he’s going to be that type of player in the next league, I think he’s a very good skater. He’s got some size and uses it too; I think he’s smart on the defensive side of the puck. True leader, I hear all good things about him in the dressing room and on the ice, he leads by example."

Says Houston, "He’s a smart player, he’s got the puck and he’s setting somebody up, when he has the puck, he can make things happen, but sometimes he slows the game down, he just sees things that maybe others don’t."

7. Christopher Gibson, G
6’1, 198 lbs, Chicoutimi Sagueneens

Though his name might be misleading, Christopher Gibson is actually an import player from Finland. Playing in his second season with Chicoutimi, Gibson previously played prep hockey with the Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan and thus had little difficulty adjusting to junior hockey.

After splitting time with fellow 2011 eligible, Robin Gusse in his rookie season, Gibson took the bull by the horns in his draft year. Playing in 37 games, he led the QMJHL with a .920 save percentage, while both his 2.42 goals-against-average and four shutouts were second best in the league. In fact, the young goalie played so well that Chicoutimi opted to deal Gusse to Rouyn-Noranda at the mid-season mark.

Backstopping the Sagueneens to 13th in the league, Gibson faced a tough challenge in the first round of the playoffs: Sean Couturier and the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Over-matched, Gibson’s numbers dropped dramatically, with a 5.20 goals against average and a .865 save percentage in the four-game sweep.

Despite the playoff hiccup, Gibson is still thought to be one of the top goalies available in the 2011 draft. Thanks to his great positioning, any puck that Gibson can see, he’s likely going to be able to stop. A large goaltender, he moves well in the crease and is quick to cut down the angles. In addition to his strong glove hand, he also controls his rebounds extremely well.

Houston had this to say, "Technically, I think he’s very strong, always in the right position, gets himself out and is aggressive out at the top of the paint. He’s pretty solid in his positioning. He moves well, I think he anticipates where the puck is going well."

8. Xavier Ouellet, D
6’1, 177 lbs, Montreal Junior

Playing for a team as deep as the Montreal Junior were this year, most would have expected that Xavier Ouellet would be satisfied with just playing smart and safe, low-risk hockey in a supporting role. Instead, the second-year blueliner shot out of the gate and was an early surprise.

With a six-game 12-point scoring streak to start the season and 19 points over his first 20 games, Ouellet was both a steady and productive performer as the Junior worked hard to integrate a number of new players into the line-up. Although his production cooled slightly as the team continued to gel, he finished with eight goals and 43 points in 67 games to place 17th among QMJHL defenders. A big part of the Junior’s strong season that saw them finish second overall in the league, Ouellet also contributed in the playoffs with eight assists over ten playoff games.

An offensively talented blueliner, it might be easy to assume that Ouellet isn’t as attentive in his own zone, but that certainly isn’t the case. Poised at both ends of the ice and with the ability to quarterback a power play, he plays a mature game and was trusted with a big role on a veteran team. Just scratching the surface of his potential, he’ll only get better as he gets stronger and improves his skating.

Despite the strong play, Chris Mooring believes the young defender still has plenty of work ahead of him, describing Ouellet as an "Offensive minded defenseman, a good skater, but not a great skater. Okay size but not really physical. Good hockey sense, good read of the offensive side of the game. Great passer. Has the upside to be a top four defenseman, but he’s one of those guys that if he’s not top four, he’s not a defensive guy. He’s got some work to do. He’s a smart kid and I understand that he’s a hard worker off the ice, so the likelihood is he’ll come around, it just takes some time"

Kim Houston disagrees on how risky Ouellet plays and provides this counterpoint. "He plays a very steady game, doesn’t take chances. He has exceptional vision and always makes the right play with the puck. Some people think he plays a little loose or aloof in terms of his own end, but I think that’s just the style he has. He always looks like he’s so relaxed on the ice, he’s very calm. I just think he’s got a lot of poise. Maybe he’s a little more mature beyond his years. He’s going to be a very good player. I think his skating is okay. He doesn’t have the strength in his legs yet"

9. David Honzik, G
6’3, 194 lbs, Victoriaville Tigres

Playing his first year in North America, the Czech Republic-born David Honzik adjusted well to life in the QMJHL. As a member of the Victoriaville Tigres, the team made sure he saw plenty of action to acclimatize himself to the new country and new culture. During the regular season, for every 60 minutes of ice-time he played, he faced, on average, 30 shots. All told, Honzik played in 36 regular season games and posted a record of 17-12-0-1. He posted a goals-against-average of 3.54 and a save percentage of .884, with one shutout.

While those may not necessarily be viewed as sterling numbers, Honzik was Victoriaville’s go-to goaltender when they entered the playoffs. Facing the sixth ranked Acadie-Bathurst Titan, few gave the 11th ranked Tigres a chance, but Honzik played extremely well to help his team pull off a sweep in the upset. Unfortunately, their Cinderella run ended shortly after when they bowed out to Saint John in the second round. In nine playoff games, Honzik posted a goals against average of 3.28 and a save percentage of .919, a remarkable improvement over his regular season numbers.

A big goaltender, Honzik moves very well in the crease. Playing a butterfly style, he sometimes drops down too quick, but thanks to his large frame, he takes up a large part of the net even when on his knees. With such noticeable improvement over the course of the season, some think that Honzik is just scratching the surface of his potential.

10. Logan Shaw, RW
6’3, 190 lbs, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles

Taking full advantage of playing on a weaker team, Logan Shaw was able to see plenty of ice time and play in all situations with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. A three-year veteran of the QMJHL, Shaw was utilized as a checker in his rookie year before developing his two-way game more as a sophomore last season. With the Eagles loading up their lineup in hopes of a long playoff run, the Glace Bay native scored nine goals and had 24 points in 67 games last season.

This year, with a large number of veteran players having moved on, the opportunity for a larger role knocked and Shaw was there to answer. He blew past his previous career highs to score 26 goals and 46 points in 68 games, tying for the team lead in scoring.

A big burly forward, Shaw doesn’t hesitate to use his frame to his advantage, but he’s far from just a checking line winger. From taking punishment in front of the net to winning battles along the board, his combination of size, smarts and ability is an attractive mix. A strong skater with a willingness to drive to the net, Shaw can also help out on the penalty kill.

His hard work on the ice made Kim Houston a fan, "I like him a lot. He’s a big kid, he skates well, and he’s a good two way winger. I think he can develop into a solid National Hockey League player, a real good third-line winger, potentially could play some second line for you if you needed him to. But a real good, solid third-line type guy, who can give you some penalty killing, he’s got a heckuva of a shot. He just knows how to play the game and he also knows how to play defensively."

Other Notables

Brent Andrews, LW – Halifax Mooseheads
Olivier Archambault, LW – Drummondville Voltigeurs
Gabriel Bourret, D – Saint John Sea Dogs
Jason Cameron, C – Saint John Sea Dogs
Guillaume Cloutier, D – Chicoutimi Sagueneens
Dillion Donnelly, D – Shawinigan Cataractes
Samuel Henley, LW – Lewiston MAINEiacs
Aidan Kelly, C – Saint John Sea Dogs
Maxime Lagace, G – PEI Rocket
Jean-Francois Leblanc, C – Val D’Or Foreurs
Scott Oke, LW – Saint John Sea Dogs
Jean-Gabriel Pageau, C – Gatineau Olympiques
Ryan Tesink, C – Saint John Sea Dogs
Troy Vance, D – Victoriaville Tigres
Yannick Veilleux, LW – Shawinigan Cataractes