QMJHL emerging from the shadow of OHL, WHL

By Kevin Forbes

Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins) and Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers)

Photo: The QMJHL has seen 30 of its players chosen in the first round of the NHL Draft over the past 10 years, including notable alumni Sidney Crosby (L) and Claude Giroux (R) (courtesy of Bill Streicher/Icon SMI)

Over the last ten years, 30 players from the QMJHL have been selected in the first round of the NHL Draft, with a high water mark of five players in a single year being reached twice.

That peak looks like it will be completely blown away in 2013, with as many as ten QMJHL players challenging to be selected among the first 30 players this June in New Jersey. When you couple that with the fact that a QMJHL team has won the past two Memorial Cups, the question then becomes: are we witnessing the emergence of the QMJHL as a force to be reckoned with in the CHL?

For many years, the QMJHL has been viewed as the weaker sister league to the WHL and the OHL. The league produced fewer NHL Draft picks, especially in the top rounds, while also facing tired stereotypes about how scoring was easier in the Q and playing defense was merely a suggestion.

It's a narrative that no longer fits the reality of the situation. The last two Memorial Cups were won by the Shawinigan Cataractes and the Saint John Sea Dogs, respectively. This year, the Halifax Mooseheads are tops in the CHL rankings and are the odds-on favorites to make it three straight for the QMJHL at the CHL's championship event.

Meanwhile, 13 QMJHL players participated in the recent NHL/CHL Top Prospects Game. Seven of those players are listed among the top 15 North American skaters ranked by the NHL's Central Scouting at the midterm mark, in addition to the league boasting the top ranked draft eligible goaltender in the same rankings.

As the commissioner of the QMJHL, Gilles Courteau has heard all the knocks on his league. But since taking the post in 1986, he's been at the helm as the league has transformed into a well-rounded development system for NHL talent.

"[All the credit goes to] the coaching staff for each and every team, because of the great job that they are doing to develop those players at the level they should be," explains Courteau. "The way that our coaching staffs from each and every team are working, I'm very impressed with it and I think you will see benefits from the great job that coaches are doing over the next couple of years."

The effect of these improvements in coaching can even be seen at the highest level, where NHL teams have been eager to snap up successful junior coaches. NHL head coaches like Tampa Bay's Guy Boucher and Vancouver's Alain Vigneault both came from behind the bench at the QMJHL level to make the jump to pro hockey. In addition, assistant coaches around the NHL like Gerard Gallant and Clement Jodoin in Montreal and Pascal Vincent in Winnipeg have all previously won the QMJHL's Ron Lapointe Trophy as the Coach of the Year. 

QMJHL commissioner Courteau has also watched the league grow, with expansion into the Atlantic Provinces now bringing the league to a total of 18 teams. As Courteau is quick to point out, that still places the league as the smallest among their CHL brethren.

"You have to consider that across the CHL, we have the lowest number of teams," says Courteau. "The Western Hockey League has 22 teams, the O has 20 and here in the Q, we have just 18. So when you look at the ratio of players eligible for the draft, we have a good number of players being drafted."

Growth in the ability to find talented players from previously untapped areas and improvements in player development across the league has helped the QMJHL's draft numbers considerably.

The East Coast expansion, in particular, has paid dividends for the QMJHL. Over the past ten NHL drafts, almost a quarter of the first rounders selected out of the QMJHL have come from the Atlantic Provinces, including 2005's first overall pick, Sidney Crosby. In total, among the 76 QMJHL players drafted in the first two rounds over those ten years, 16 have come from the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.

That Atlantic influence is also a factor for the class of 2013 with Halifax Mooseheads forward Nathan MacKinnon, a native of Cole Harbour, challenging for the honor of being drafted first overall.

In addition to the expansion into the Atlantic Provinces, the QMJHL has also had much success with identifying and luring European players to their league. Six of the 30 QMJHL first rounders drafted over the past ten years were Import players joining the league, including three from Russia, two from the Czech Republic and one from Slovakia. When you also consider the second rounds of those ten drafts, the number expands to 13 QMJHL Import players selected out of a total of 76 QMJHL selections.

That trend of producing first-round NHL talent from Import selections is one that should also be continued with the class of 2013. Russian forward Valentin Zykov joined the Baie-Comeau Drakkar with the specific goal in mind of being drafted as high as he could be. Currently ranked eighth among North American skaters, Zykov is a solid bet to be drafted in the first round this summer. Swedish forward Nick Sorensen is in his second year with the Quebec Remparts. After an injury-filled rookie season that saw him play only eight games, his draft stock may not be as guaranteed when it comes to being selected in the first round, but the young forward should still hear his name called among the top 60 players.

Finally, the QMJHL has evolved in how it has developed their top caliber talent. Once simply the bastion of high scoring forwards and butterfly goaltenders, the QMJHL has seen six first round defensemen over the last ten years and a total of 18 defenders picked in the top two rounds from the same period of time. In a change of fortune, only ten goaltenders were selected among the first 60 players over that period, with just two of them being picked in the first round.

Zach Fucale of the Halifax Mooseheads looks to buck that trend and be the first QMJHL goaltender selected in the first round since Jonathan Bernier was chosen 11th overall in 2006 by the Los Angeles Kings.

While 2013 looks to be an exceptionally strong year for the QMJHL when it comes to the NHL Draft, Courteau is optimistic that the league will continue to be at the forefront of developing NHL talent, both on the ice and behind the bench.

"This is a strong year, but it's something that we were expecting," says Courteau. "I think what we've seen over the last number of years is a good quality of players being drafted and a good quality of coaches that have been able to reach the NHL level, which has been great."

Follow Kevin Forbes on Twitter via @kforbesy