Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects. It’s that time again, major junior hockey is back and we’re here to preview the new season for you. The QMJHL kicks off their new season tonight, September 10th, while things are set to start on September 24th in the OHL and WHL. With that in mind we will start our division previews out east and work our way across the country this year.
Unlike previous years this won’t be 11 divisions in 11 days. We will do the QMJHL over the next three days, but I still have some other prospect heavy work to do before we get to the OHL and WHL. In any event, you can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2015-16 QMJHL Maritime Division Preview
THE TOP 3 CONTENDERS (IN ORDER OF HOW I FEEL THEY WILL FINISH)
Charlottetown Islanders: There is one man who I think will give the Islanders the edge in what should be one of the closest races in junior hockey, and that man is Mason McDonald. Clearly the best goalie in the division, and one of the best goalies in junior hockey, McDonald is the backbone upon which this team is built. Upfront they are led by studs in Filip Chlapik and Daniel Sprong, who were both relatively high picks in the NHL draft. They expect big improvement from second year forward Mitchell Balmas, while Shawn Boudrias is a rookie who adds size and skill to the forward group. On defence, they may not have big names, but its a solid group overall and they play a very physical game. Any mistakes they might make get covered up by the goaltending of McDonald though.
Saint John Sea Dogs: After years of rebuilding the Sea Dogs are back. Many will say that 2016-17 is the Sea Dogs year, and I agree, they do look like a team that will be even better next year than this year. That said, I still think they will take a big step and and compete for the division and the QMJHL title this season. This team has an outstanding group of forwards, with five NHL draftees, and new exceptional player Joseph Veleno on board. They are led by Nathan Noel (I still shake my head how he isn’t their sixth NHL drafted forward). The defence has a pair of first round picks in Jakub Zboril and Thomas Chabot, along with a potential first rounder in Luke Green. The only question mark I see on the team is in goal, where the team picked up overager Marc-Antoine Turcotte in an off-season trade.
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: The team will have a strong defence with Loïk Léveillé providing plenty of offence from the blueline and new acquisition Alex Gosselin providing two way play. Overall they have a very experienced group at the back end. Overage goaltender Alexandre Bélanger is back and will provide solid play behind that defence. Up front, Detroit Red Wings prospect Evgeny Svechnikov leads the way. He gets support from compatriot Maxim Lazarev and 2016 NHL draft prospect Pierre Luc-Dubois
Players to Watch
Guillaume Brisebois, Defence, Acadie-Bathurst Titan: A third round pick of the Vancouver Canucks, do not let Brisebois’ poor stats fool you. He is a solid two-way defenceman saddled with playing on a rebuilding club that was amongst the worst in the QMJHL last year, and shouldn’t be much better this year. He is a very good skater, who uses this mobility to play an all-around game. Brisebois is very good with the puck on his stick. He makes smart passes on the breakout and can quarterback the power play from the blue line. His good footwork and solid skating make Brisebois difficult to beat in one-on-one situations, be they off the rush, or in keeping his man to the outside in the cycle game. As the Titan rebuild is likely a few years away from culminating, don’t be surprised if he’s dealt to a contender at the deadline for picks and prospects.
Evgeny Svechnikov, Right Wing, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: The Detroit Red Wings first round pick is a dynamic offensive talent. He has an outstanding wrist shot and release. He also has an impressive snap shot and a very hard one-timer. When it comes to his shooting arsenal, Svechnikov has pro-ready skills. However, he is not just a one-trick pony as Svechnikov also has excellent vision and passing ability. Svechnikov is a strong skater with very good speed and acceleration. He loves to drive the net and can finish in close when he gets there. He will need to work on his defensive game to continue his progression as a prospect.
Filip Chlapik, Centre, Charlottetown Islanders: A second round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Chlapik is a very smart playmaker; he has the hockey IQ to anticipate plays, the vision to see openings, and the passing skills to thread the puck through small openings and put it on the tape for his teammates. He loves to move the puck and then get himself into an open spot for the give and go. Chlapik is a strong stick-handler who is able to protect the puck, and slow the game down in the offensive zone, extending plays and allowing his teammates to get open. He can also score goals as he has a powerful shot and a quick release, as well as soft hands to finish plays in tight. He is a good tw0-way centre who is strong in the face-off circle. Chlapik could stand to improve a choppy skating stride which takes away some of his speed and acceleration.
Mason McDonald, Goaltender, Charlottetown Islanders: A second round pick of the Calgary Flames in the 2014 NHL Draft, McDonald has the ideal height that NHL teams seem to love in recent years. He gets out of his net and makes the most of that size by cutting down angles and giving shooters very little to look at. He has a very good butterfly and gets into and out of it very quickly for a big goalie. One thing that is noticeable is that he very rarely goes into this butterfly too early. His legs are very quick and take away the bottom of the net with ease. McDonald also flashes an impressive glove hand. His movements in the crease are very good for a young goaltender, but like many his age, rebound control could use some work. McDonald could be Canada’s goalie at the World Juniors.
Daniel Sprong, Right Wing, Charlottetown Islanders: A second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, many saw Sprong as an absolute steal in the NHL draft. He is a pure sniper with a bullet wrist shot and a deadly release. Sprong is dangerous every time he touches the puck and loves to shoot. In fact, there are times when he might get too focused on taking the shot instead of looking for a teammate. Don’t get the wrong impression though, Sprong has excellent passing ability and can play the role of playmaker if a linemate has an opportunity. He just needs to work on doing it a little more often. Sprong has excellent stick-handling ability and the soft hands to get the puck past defenders or to finish plays in tight. He also has excellent hockey IQ and the ability to get open in the offensive zone.
Cody Donaghey, Defence, Halifax Mooseheads: Undrafted in 2014, Donaghey went to Toronto Maple Leafs training camp and earned a three-year entry-level contract with the team. Once back in junior, Donaghey was looking forward to playing in the Memorial Cup when the Quebec Remparts defenseman suffered a season-ending injury early last year. This led to him being included in the Zach Fucale trade as the Remparts were gearing up for a 2015 run, while the Mooseheads had the ability to be more patient with his recovery. A good defensive player, Donaghey was showing some added offence (15 points in 27 games) when his season came to an abrupt end on December 10, 2014. The Mooseheads now hope Donaghey can add some experience to a rebuilding blueline this season.
Timo Meier, Right Wing, Halifax Mooseheads: Taken in the first round of the NHL draft by the San Jose Sharks, Meier is a powerful skater who fights through checks to protect the puck in the cycle game or take it to the net off the rush. Meier has great hockey sense and gets to the open areas of the ice, where he can be set up to finish chances with an excellent shot and release. He has a very good arsenal of shots with an excellent snapshot, strong wrist shot, and very good one-timer. He can be very effective off the half-boards on the powerplay. Meier is also a very physical player, establishing his position in the slot and winning board battles to create offence. He has the good hand-eye coordination to tip in pucks and pounce on rebounds. He gets in quickly on the forecheck and can punish opposing defencemen with hits behind the net. Meier also has good vision and passing skills, and the smarts to make a good pass when he is working the cycle. He has some finesse in his game with good stick-handling skills, and the ability to finish plays in tight. He also has a well-developed defensive game.
Conor Garland, Right Wing, Moncton Wildcats: With 35 goals and 129 points, Garland led the QMJHL in points, and was 27 points ahead of his nearest rival in the scoring race. Garland plays bigger than his size (5’8″), winning battles on the boards, and controling the puck in the cycle. He is a great playmaker with outstanding stickhandling, great passing, and superb vision. He also has a very accurate wrist shot, with a quick release. Undrafted in his first go around, Garland was taken in the fifth round by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2015. He could be a 2016 trade deadline acquisition for a team willing to give up a lot for a premium point producer.
Thomas Chabot, Defence, Saint John Sea Dogs: A first round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Chabot is a silky, smooth skater who shows high-end potential as a puck-moving defenseman. He has the speed to join or lead the rush and get back defensively. Chabot is calm and composed with the puck, has good stickhandling ability and can make a strong pass either to start the transition, or set up a play from the blueline. His slap shot is decent, and he has good accuracy, but he could stand to add some more muscle, and make it even harder. He also has a decent wrist shot which he uses off the rush, and when he does not get the time and space necessary to load up his shot at the blue. He has the passing skill to be a very good quarterback on the powerplay. Defensively, Chabot showed real commitment to working hard and improving that aspect of his game last year.
Nathan Noel, Centre, Saint John Sea Dogs: Surprisingly undrafted despite leading the Sea Dogs in points last year, Noel has accepted an invite to Anaheim Ducks training camp. Noel is a very good skater. He has very quick feet, showing short but smooth strides that provide him with excellent speed and acceleration. He has a good first step and can win races to loose pucks. His speed makes him extremely dangerous in transition and off the rush, as he can take defencemen wide and make a pass to a teammate in the slot, or cut to the net himself. He has slick hands, and can control the puck and stick handle in a phone booth. He has good vision, and the ability to thread the needle on a pass through the tightest of openings, with a tape-to-tape pass that will give a teammate a prime scoring opportunity. He also has the ability to finish plays in close to the net, and a hard and accurate wrist shot from further out. Noel has very strong hockey sense, making smart passes, and taking his own scoring chances when they are available. He could stand to fill out his frame a bit more which would make him better at digging out loose pucks along the boards and winning battles in front of the net.
Jakub Zboril, Defence, Saint John Sea Dogs: A first round pick of the Boston Bruins, Zboril is an excellent powerplay quarterback, with strong poise with the puck and good vision and passing skill. He also has a rocket of a slap shot, as well as an excellent wrist shot and good release. Zboril is patient and waits for a proper shooting lane to get his shot through to the net. He is able to use his agility and edge work to walk the line and open up passing and shooting lanes to the net. In addition, Zboril has good instincts for pinching in at the blue line, or for joining the rush. He has the puck handling skills to skate the puck out of danger in his own end, and can make a smart first pass to start the transition game. Zboril has good skating skill and his excellent pivots, edge work, and agility allow him to cover a ton of ice. He has good balance and is hard to knock off the puck. That balance and power is also very useful in clearing the front of the Sea Dogs net, or in battling for loose pucks in the corners and along the boards. He has also been known to throw a big hit if a forward is coming down his side of the ice with their head down.
2016 NHL Draft Prospects to Watch
Vladimir Kuznetsov, Left Wing, Acadie-Bathurst Titan: The Russian winger, who was picked first overall pick of the CHL import draft, is listed at 6’1″ and 190 lbs. He was part of Russia’s gold medal winning team at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge last year. The Titan bill Kuznetsov as a power winger with skill. He won’t have a lot to work with on the rebuilding club, but the Titan expect him to play a big role in their rebuild.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles: After being the fifth overall pick in the 2014 QMJHL draft, Dubois put up 45 points in 54 games as a rookie. He also was part of Team Canada at this summer’s Ivan Hlinka tournament, picking up three assists on his way to helping Canada win gold. Dubois is a power forward type, who has a powerful skating stride and fights through checks as he takes the puck to the front of the net. He has a very good wrist shot and a quick release as well. He gets himself open in good areas on the ice. The son of former AHL journeyman and QMJHL coach Erik Dubois, the younger Dubois’ game is very mature, and he showed defensive skills and awareness that were very advanced for a 16-year-old rookie.
Maxime Fortier, Centre, Halifax Mooseheads: As a QMJHL rookie, Fortier had 30 points in 63 regular season games, and nine points in ten playoff games. He has excellent speed and very good acceleration, and is difficult to defend against when he gets a step on a defenceman. Add to this quick, soft hands and excellent stick-handling, and Fortier is very hard to contain off the rush. Fortier is more of a scorer than a playmaker, as he has an excellent shot and quick release. He can be a talented playmaker as well, but he really has shown a shoot first mentality. Fortier must get stronger physically and work on his defensive game to improve his draft stock this year.
Liam Murphy, Centre, Moncton Wildcats: Last summer the Wildcats convinced the American forward to give up his commitment to UConn and join the club. He had a tough first season with just 7 goals and 12 points in 51 games. However the 6’1″ centre showed flashes of the ability to be a power forward, with a willingness to play a gritty game, get in quickly on the forecheck and create havoc in the offensive zone. He has also shown some offensive skill with a good shot and soft hands around the net, as well as some good vision and playmaking but needs to bring it consistently. With the Wildcats losing some serious talent this off-season due to graduations, Murphy could be in line for more ice time and more production this season. That power forward frame will intrigue NHL teams if he shows offence.
Luke Green, Defence, Saint John Sea Dogs: The first overall pick of the 2014 QMJHL Draft, Green is an elite-level skater with outstanding mobility on the blueline. He skates the puck out of danger in his own end, and can lead the rush through the neutral zone. Green is also a very good stickhandler, and his confidence with the puck improved as last season went on. He held the puck longer, looking for openings and smart passes, and became deadly in starting the transition game, and good on the point of the second power play unit. The goal this year will be to improve his physicality and his defensive play. If he can do that, then Green could be a first-rounder in next June’s draft.
2018 NHL Draft Prospect to Watch
Joseph Veleno, Forward, Saint John Sea Dogs: The fifth player ever given exceptional player status by the CHL, Veleno is also the first from outside Ontario to be granted such status. As such, the 15-year-old became the first overall pick in the 2015 QMJHL draft. All eyes are on the youngster, who played for the Lac St. Louis Lions last year, one of the best development programs in the province. Veleno has tremendous speed and outstanding acceleration. It is his skating skill that truly gave him a leg up on older competition with Lac St. Louis last year, and makes him a good choice as an exceptional player. Right now he looks like more of a playmaker than a goal scorer, as he does have great vision and passing skills, but will need to work on adding some muscle on to his frame and getting more power on his shot to be a consistent scorer in the league.