The QMJHL may not be traditionally viewed as a fertile development ground for defensemen. But recent history has proved the opposite, with the league producing NHL talent such as Florida's Dmitri Kulikov and Pittsburgh's Kris Letang as well as top prospects like Montreal's Nathan Beaulieu and Phoenix's Brandon Gormley.
With that said, the cycle may be returning back to a natural mean. It may yet be too early to tell but the 2013 NHL Draft class, though impressive overall for the QMJHL, does not feature much in the way of high-caliber defensive talent coming out of the league.
There are currently 13 defensemen playing in the QMJHL whose rights are owned by NHL teams. The Phoenix Coyotes lead the way with two prospects, with 11 other clubs each having a single defensive prospect in the league. On the QMJHL side, the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, the Moncton Wildcats, the Quebec Remparts and the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies all have two NHL prospects patrolling their blue line. Furthermore, three of these defensemen won the Memorial Cup last year as members of the Shawinigan Cataractes, although it is worth noting that none from that trio play for that club now.
Here's a look at the top defensemen in the QMJHL whose rights are owned by NHL teams.
It has been a banner year for 19-year-old Xavier Ouellet. Not only is he the captain of the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada, one of the top teams in the QMJHL, but he also cracked the lineup of Team Canada and competed at the 2013 World Junior Tournament in Ufa, Russia. Although the World Juniors did not end as hoped, with Canada being shut out of the medals for the first time since 1998, Ouellet was a revelation for the Canadians, playing a crucial stay-at-home role. This was a change of pace for Ouellet, who scored 21 goals last year, but the Quebec native has showed continued dedication to rounding out his game since being drafted. In the QMJHL, the acquisition of veteran defender Samuel Carrier has also taken some of the blue line scoring load off of Ouellet's shoulders. He's established himself as a complete player on the back-end, just as capable of helping out offensively as he is with taking care of business defensively. In 32 games this year with the Armada, Ouellet has six goals and 28 points, placing him second behind Carrier in defensive scoring on the club. Already signed to an NHL contract, Ouellet is preparing for a final playoff run this year with the Armada before graduating to professional hockey.
Drafted in the identical spot as Xavier Ouellet, but a year later, Dillon Fournier is also working to round out his game. A key piece of a young team in Rouyn-Noranda, the 18-year-old Fournier excels primarily at the defensive end of the game. Playing alongside of veteran Mathieu Brisebois, one of the top scoring defensemen in the QMJHL, Fournier keeps things safe in his own end and plays big minutes for the Huskies. In 41 games this season, Fournier has scored six goals and 16 points, well off his marks from last year that saw him tally nine goals and 38 points in 52 games. However, hockey is a results-based business and while Fournier may not be as productive offensively, the Huskies have risen from being one of the weakest teams in the league last season to currently sitting sixth in the league standings. Fournier will continue to grow and develop among the rest of the young core in Rouyn-Noranda. This season's playoff run will be a great experience for the squad and they should be even better next year.
While Fournier has another QMJHL season ahead of him after this one, Artem Sergeev already has his plans set for next year. Signed last June by the Tampa Bay Lightning to a three-year entry-level contract, the 19-year-old is set to make the jump to pro hockey next fall. In the meantime, he's a crucial piece of the Val d'Or Foreurs. An Import player in his third year in the QMJHL, Sergeev has acclimated himself well to his surroundings in Quebec and now wears an 'A' on his sweater as one of the leaders in Val d'Or. Equally accomplished at the International level as he is in the QMJHL, Sergeev played for Team Russia at the past two World Juniors and he came away with both a silver and a bronze medal. A smart, puck-moving blue liner, Sergeev has already surpassed his career high with 29 points in 37 games, placing him among the top defensive scorers in the league. Also, Sergeev's six goals on the year leaves him one shy of his career high in that category.
Another two-way defenseman, Ryan Culkin has also set career highs in points this season with the Quebec Remparts. But the rest of the story for Culkin and the Remparts isn't as sunny. Expected to be one of the top teams in the QMJHL, the Remparts have not lived up to that promise so far. Currently seventh in league standings, the Remparts are on pace to finish slightly lower than last season, despite having a roster expected to take a significant step forward. Despite these surroundings, Culkin has progressed and in 47 games, he has scored three goals and has 31 points. This places him tops among Remparts defenders and eighth in the league in defensive scoring. With a late-1993 birthdate, Culkin is eligible to turn pro and play in the AHL as early as next season, but he has yet to be signed to an entry-level deal by the Flames. Should he return to the QMJHL next season, he would be considered an over-ager, but Calgary continues to own his rights for another year.
The top offensive defenseman among NHL prospects in the QMJHL, Konrad Abeltshauser is enjoying a "victory lap" of sorts with the Halifax Mooseheads. An over-ager this year, the San Jose Sharks opted to return the big German to Halifax instead of promoting him to the pro level. Although the first year of his entry-level contract has been activated nonetheless, Abeltshauser is benefiting from the experience of playing on the QMJHL's top team. As Halifax's #1 defenseman, Abeltshauser sees plenty of minutes in all situations and so it is no surprise that he is already well on his way to setting career marks in every offensive category. In 37 games, he has scored five goals and has 40 points, placing him fourth in defensive scoring in the league. Abeltshauser's previous high-water mark was 44 points in 57 games. Halifax is a favorite to win the QMJHL and compete for the Memorial Cup this season and the expected lengthy playoff run will be a great experience for Abeltshauser before he moves to the pro ranks next fall.
Jonathan Racine already has a pretty remarkable post-season experience under his belt. When the dust settled on last year's CHL season, Racine and the Shawinigan Cataractes were the Memorial Cup champions. But there wasn't much time for celebration for the 19-year-old Racine, who was soon joining the Moncton Wildcats to finalize the Brandon Gormley trade. Joining Danny Flynn's defense-first philosophy has worked out well for Racine as he's already set career highs in points while continuing to bring a hard-nosed stay-at-home presence. In 42 games this year for the Wildcats, Racine has seven goals and 18 points. Playing in what should be his last year in the QMJHL, Racine has yet to be signed by the Florida Panthers but should receive a deal.
7. James Melindy, Moncton Wildcats
Drafted 88th overall (3rd round) in 2012 by the Phoenix Coyotes
James Melindy, a teammate of Racine's in Moncton, has not been as fortunate so far this year. There were high hopes for Melindy to be a young leader on the blue line for the Wildcats after a dominant second half and playoff appearance during his draft year. After Moncton traded away veteran Brandon Gormley, Melindy stepped up and filled the void, playing a huge role for the Wildcats. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to recapture that magic this season. In 48 games, the 19-year-old has three goals and 15 points, but it looks doubtful that he will match last year's output of nine goals and 27 points in 61 games. Moncton has had a strong season overall and they currently sit fifth in league standings. After bowing out in a four-game sweep last year in the first round of the playoffs, they should be on track to have a more extended post-season run this time around. If Melindy can replicate his strong play from last year, the team will benefit even more. With a late-1993 birthdate, Melindy is eligible to make the jump to pro hockey as early as next season, but it is more likely that the Coyotes will keep him in junior hockey for another year to continue to develop.
Playing in his third year in the QMJHL, Troy Vance is on his second team this season after a mid-season trade saw him move from the Victoriaville Tigres to the PEI Rocket. A big defensive defenseman, Vance went from 12th-ranked Victoriaville to 8th-ranked PEI. Not known for his scoring prowess, the 19-year-old ranks fourth among PEI defenders in scoring with three goals and 19 points in 48 total games this year. He may have seen more offensive opportunities in Victoriaville due to their blue line depth as in the nine games he has played for PEI, he has just a single assist to his record. Already signed to an entry-level contract by the Dallas Stars, Vance is set to make the jump to pro hockey next season.
Another player who has been traded recently is over-ager Andrew O'Brien. Unlike his fellow over-ager Konrad Abeltshauser, O'Brien was just drafted over the off-season as a 19-year-old. Thanks to a late 1992 birth date, O'Brien is playing in his last season of QMJHL eligibility. After spending the last two seasons as a member of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens, O'Brien was dealt to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies to start this season. He brings a veteran influence to the young team and currently wears an 'A' on his sweater. In 49 games this year, he has two goals and 17 points, but it is O'Brien's hard-nosed defensive play and leadership that is most valued by the Huskies. Presently unsigned by Anaheim, O'Brien's future after this season is a bit murky. The Ducks will own his rights for another year, but it remains to be seen whether they will ink him to an entry-level deal at that point in time.
10. Justin Hache, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Drafted 208th overall (7th round) in 2012 by the Phoenix Coyotes
Justin Hache finished last season at the top of the CHL as a Memorial Cup champion with the Shawinigan Cataractes. Now with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, he might not even see the QMJHL post-season. The only team with a weaker record than Cape Breton this year is, in fact, Shawinigan. Dealt to Cape Breton over the summer to finalize the Morgan Ellis deal, Hache has benefited from an increased workload on the island. After playing a minimal role in the second half of his draft year, mainly due to the trades made by Shawinigan, Hache's draft placing may not accurately represent his ability. Although Cape Breton has allowed the most goals in the QMJHL so far this year, Hache has set personal career highs in most offensive categories with five goals and 21 points in 50 games this year. He is also part of a young core group in Cape Breton that should be due for improvement next year as they continue to develop. For Hache, his experiences in the previous two seasons with Shawinigan will only help he and his Cape Breton teammates.
Other NHL prospects
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