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. All three leagues are kicking off this week. With that in mind we will start our division previews today and make our way around the country.
You can check out all of this year’s Top Shelf Prospects articles here.
2016-17 QMJHL Maritime Division Preview
Top Three Contenders (In Order of Projected Finish)
Saint John Sea Dogs
The Sea Dogs are exceptionally deep. They are not just a favorite to win the division; but a favorite to win the whole league, and a contender for the Memorial Cup. In Thomas Chabot, Jakub Zboril, and Luke Green the defence has a big three of elite players. Up front all eyes are on 16-year-old Joe Veleno. It is the second year in the league for the exceptional player. However, Veleno is just one of many talented forwards on a stacked roster. Forwards Nathan Noel, Matthew Highmore, Samuel Dove-McFalls, Spencer Smallman, Mathieu Joseph and Bokondji Imama were all in NHL training camps. Goalies Alex D’Orio and Alex Bishop battle for starts in the crease. If either falters, the Sea Dogs could go all in with a trade for a goaltender.
Antoine Morand will be one of the most watched prospects in the QMJHL this year, and is a potential first rounder. He will be joined by Vladimir Kuznetsov, and Christophe Boivin on what should be one of the best lines in the league. Jonathan Bourcier, Jeffrey Truchon-Viel, Daniil Miromanov, Jordan Maher, and Cole Rafuse will be asked to provide secondary scoring.
The defence is a work in progress. Luc Deschenes was acquired in the Guillaume Brisebois trade, and will be asked to help fill the void left by the former captain. Nicolas Dumolong, Elijah Francis and import Igor Galygin fill out the top four. They will need to be better than expected if the Titan are going to challenge Saint John. Reilly Pickard is back as the team’s starting goalie. Danil Timchenko will also compete for starts.
Daniel Sprong will be out until at least Christmas, but his addition will be a big boost to this team in the second half. Until that happens the offense will be lead by Filip Chlapik. He will need to improve on last season’s numbers. Overagers Kameron Kielly and Jake Coughler are back to lend support. Mitchell Balmas will also lend support. The defence has been completely remade with Guillaume Brisebois, Cody Donaghy, and Saku Vesterinen all brought in. In net, Matthew Welsh and Blade Mann-Dixon will battle for starts.
Players to Watch
Vladimir Kuznetsov, Right Wing/Left Wing, Acadie Bathurst Titan
Surprisingly undrafted, Kuznetsov will be looking for a big season to get the attention of NHL scouts. He plays the game like a budding power forward. With the puck on his stick, he’s often looking to drive to the front of the net. He is also more than willing to cause havoc near the crease when he doesn’t have the puck, looking for a pass out front, for a rebound or for the opportunity to deflect things home. Kuznetsov has excellent size and makes use of it to protect the puck in the cycle game or to win battles along the boards.
While Kuznetsov does have decent vision and passing skills; the majority of his assists come from his grittiness and hard work down low. Kuznetsov has a hard shot as well as a very good release. He can score with his wrist shot off the rush or with shot from the half-boards. He has good hockey sense and makes the right plays with the puck on his stick as well as being able to find soft spots in the opposing team’s defence. Kuznetsov’s skating is a bit of a work in progress. His stance seems a bit hunched over, and his stride choppy. This robs him of potential speed and acceleration.
Pierre-Luc Dubois, Centre/Left Wing, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
We honestly don’t expect Dubois back in the QMJHL this year, but felt he also must be mentionned, just in case. It should also be noted that if he is returned to Cape Breton, it is unlikely he will finish the season with them, as the Screaming Eagles are rebuilding, and he would be an excellent trade chip at the deadline.
Dubois is a power forward with a powerful skating stride. He fights through checks as he takes the puck to the front of the net. He has excellent lower body strength and balance, which allows him to win board battles, and establish position in front of the net. Dubois is hard to knock off the puck. He uses his body as a shield in the cycle game. Dubois also shows speed, acceleration, as well as very good agility. Off the rush, he is able to take his man wide and cut to the net. His agility and ability to change gears makes him capable of playing a finesse game as well as his power one.
Dubois has a very good wrist shot and a quick release which fools goaltenders. He has excellent hockey sense and gets himself open in good areas on the ice. From there Dubois can unleash an excellent one-timer. He has the size and the hand eye co-ordination to get tip-ins and knock in rebounds after he has established position in front of the net. Dubois has a long reach, and combines that with his strong puckhandling skill to protect the puck in the cycle and create time and space to make plays for his teammates. He also has good vision and the passing ability to be a play maker off the wing or at centre.
Olivier Leblanc, Defence, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
A late round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2015; Leblanc is an undersized defenceman who is currently at their NHL camp. He could return to Cape Breton as an overager and leader for a young and rebuilding team. Leblanc is a very strong skater who loves to join the rush, or even lead it with strong puck handling and passing skills. He also has a very good shot from the point. He needs to add muscle to be better in the defensive zone, but should have room to do so on his frame.
Guillaume Brisebois, Defence, Charlottetown Islanders
A 2015 third round pick of the Vancouver Canucks, Brisebois is a solid two-way defenceman who was traded to Charlottetown in the off-season. 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.
Filip Chlapik, Centre, Charlottetown Islanders
A 2015 second round pick of the Ottawa Senators, Chlapik is a 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 on his teammates tape. He loves to move the puck and then get into position for the give and go. Chlapik is a strong stickhandler who protects the puck, and slows the game down in the offensive zone. He extends plays, allowing 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 in tight. Chlapik is a good two-way centre who is also strong in the face-off circle. Chlapik could stand to improve a choppy skating stride which takes away some of his speed and acceleration. He needs to bounce back after a down year.
Daniel Sprong, Right Wing, Charlottetown Islanders
A 2015 second round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins, many saw Sprong as an absolute steal in the NHL draft. He proved those predictions true when he made the Penguins out of training camp, but was sent back to the QMJHL when Mike Johnston was replaced by Mike Sullivan. 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. There are times when he gets 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. Unfortunately Sprong will miss the first three months of the season with a shoulder injury.
Liam Murphy, Centre, Moncton Wildcats
Much was expcected when the Wildcats convinced the American forward to give up his commitment to UConn and join the club in 2015. He hasn’t produced much during his first two years in the league. However the 6’1″ centre showed flashes of the ability to be a power forward. He is willing 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. Murphy also shows flashes of 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 finally shows some offence.
Manuel Wiederer, Centre/Right Wing, Moncton Wildcats
A fifth round pick of the San Jose Sharks, Wiederer has a powerful skating stride. This gives him good speed and acceleration. It also allows him to fight through checks as he drives to the net. Wiederer also has a hard and accurate wrist shot with a quick release. He does good work along the boards as well, but must get stronger in order to continue to play this way at the next level. His two-way play is also pretty good.
Thomas Chabot, Defence, Saint John Sea Dogs
A first round pick of the Ottawa Senators in 2015, 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. He has good stickhandling ability. He also makes a strong pass either to start the transition, or set up a play from the blue line.
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 power play. Defensively, Chabot showed real commitment to working hard and improving that aspect of his game last year.
Nathan Noel, Centre, Saint John Sea Dogs
Drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks on his second time through the draft. 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 also has slick hands, and can control the puck and stick handle in a phone booth.
Noel 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. This 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 2015 first round pick of the Boston Bruins, Zboril is an excellent power play 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. This opens up passing and shooting lanes. 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. Zboril also makes a smart first pass to start the transition game.
Zboril has good skating skill. 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.
2017 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Antoine Morand, Centre, Acadie-Bathurst Titan
Morand had 50 points in 48 games as a QMJHL rookie, and will be looking for more in his draft year. He is a little undersized, but is a tremendous skater. Morand’s speed, acceleration, agility and edge work should make him amongst the best skaters in this year’s draft. He has a great first step, excellent agility, and the edge work necessary to make quick cuts on a dime. He combines this with the soft hands to control the puck and make plays in tight spaces and at top speed. This makes him deadly on the rush. He can take a defenceman wide and drive the net, or can quickly pull up to take advantage of a shooting or passing lane as defenders back off.
Morand is extremely elusive in the offensive zone. Morand is deadly in close to the net. He can make a quick deke on a goaltender, fire the puck to the top of the net, or make a quick pass to a teammate. Morand might be small, but he is not afraid to get involved in battles for the puck in the corner, or in front of the net. He is often found at the middle of post-whistle scrums. His compete level is very high, and Morand is willing to work in his own end of the ice as well.
Jocktan Chainey, Defence, Halifax Mooseheads
Chainey is strong defensively. He has good positioning and instincts. He reads the play well, and cuts down passing and shooting lanes. Chainey is not afraid to block shots. He uses his quick stick to create turnovers. Once he does so he is quick in transition, with a good first pass as well as the ability to skate the puck out of his own end.
Arnaud Durandeau, Left Wing, Halifax Mooseheads
Durandeau had 12 goals and 29 points in 63 games last year. As the Mooseheads rebuild, he should be in a bigger role this season. He plays a pests game, getting in quickly on the forecheck and pressuring the defence to create turnovers. He also is willing to battle in the dirty areas of the ice, putting pressure on the goaltender. Durandeau has the soft hands to tip in pucks or bury rebounds and close in shots.
Nico Hischier, Right Wing, Halifax Mooseheads
Drafted 6th overall by the Halifax Mooseheads in the CHL Import Draft, the Swiss sensation is headed to North America. He already has experience playing against men, with 15 games for Bern in the Swiss A League, and seven games for EHC Wisp in the Swiss B League. He also has plenty of experience playing for the National team at the Ivan Hlinka tournament, the U18, and the U17 levels.
Hischier is a playmaker, with outstanding vision and passing ability. He has very good hockey sense, and anticipates his teammates movements in the offensive zone. Hischier has a very quick first step, excellent acceleration and agility, as well as great edgework. This, along with quick hands, allow him to avoid defenders and make him very elusive when working the puck in the offensive zone. Hischier also has a very high work ethic, he never seems to stop working during a shift.
2018 Draft Eligible Players to Watch
Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Centre, Halifax Mooseheads
The son of legendary QMJHL coach Benoit Groulx was the first overall pick in the 2016 QMJHL Draft. Groulx is a pure sniper. He has the soft hands to finish plays in tight to the net, as well as a strong wrist shot and quick release. He is an excellent stickhandler and can make plays off the rush as well as on the cycle. Groulx can also play the role of playmaker, with good vision and passing skills.
Jared McIsaac, Defence, Halifax Mooseheads
After selecting Groulx, the Mooseheads executed a draft day trade in order to take local boy Jared McIsaac second overall. McIsaac has very good mobility, with good speed and acceleration in both directions, as well as the edge work and agility to cover 360 degrees of ice. He is very difficult to beat one-on-one. McIsaac can carry the puck out of his own zone and lead the rush, as well as make a strong first pass.
Joseph Veleno, Centre, Saint John Sea Dogs
Veleno has tremendous speed and outstanding acceleration. It is his skating skill that truly gave him a leg up on older competition 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. He will need to work on adding some muscle on to his frame and getting more power on his shot to be a consistent goal scorer.
Veleno is also gritty and not afraid to get involved in battles on the boards at both ends of the ice. He has already shown to be good on the backcheck and to understand defensive responsibility. This is rare enough for a 16 or 17-year old player, never mind Veleno who came into the league at just 15 years old. Veleno’s compete level is very high.