Bruins2011DraftWatch kicks off the analysis of the rankings with the QMJHL and will look at each league separately so as not to create an unreadable mishmash of comments and draft thoughts.
It's no surprise that Sean Couturier sits atop the 'Q' ranking, as he's been on scouts' radars for quite some time now. The big, skilled center just got an audition for scouts during the Subway Super Series against Team Russia and the reviews on his performance were mixed.
"He showed off his impressive size and potential at times," one NHL scout who covers the Quebec and the Maritimes for a Western Conference team told B2011DW via email today. "But he didn't control the play as often or with the consistency that I've come to expect. I still think he's the best player to come out of the (QMJHL) since Sidney Crosby, but his average footspeed got exposed a bit against the quicker, faster Russian squad."
Couturier is still a heck of a talent and draft prospect-- he'll be at the top of the debate all year without a doubt. But, perhaps the Subway Series is the first inkling that the gulf between him and other contenders for the top spot such as Adam Larsson and even Gabriel Landeskog is not as wide as many would think.
A pair of Saint John (New Brunswick) Sea Dogs follow Couturier on the list-- center Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman Nathan Beaulieu. Huberdeau is a tall, skinny playmaker who has had an excellent offensive campaign thus far, leading the team ins scoring with 15 goals and 30 points in 23 games. Coming into the season, Huberdeau was known for his high-end hockey sense as more of a setup man, but he's found the back of the net as often, and players who show balance between goals and assists are always coveted commodities.
"We knew he had the offense prior to the season," the scout said when asked about Huberdeau. "But the goal scoring has been a bonus. He's a very smart, instinctive player. I think he's still learning and needs to improve his complete game, but he's on the rise with the kind of start he's had."
Beaulieu has struggled to live up to the expectations that preceded him after an outstanding summer Team Canada WJC Evaluation Camp. His three goals and 12 points are OK, but looking beyond the stats, you have a nice blend of size (6-3, 191), skating and passion. He may not have elite puck skills, but he's better than his numbers indicate and could develop into an excellent NHL defenseman in time.
"Beaulieu is a very good skater," the scout said. "He didn't get off to a great start, but he's done better over the last month or so, and has the skills to be a fine NHL prospect. I'm not sure of his upside, but with his size and mobility, he's up there."
Rounding out the top-five of Quebec players are a couple of offensively talented wingers in Phillip Danault (Victoriaville) and Olivier Archambault (Vald-d'Or). Neither possesses blazing speed, but have a keen offensive intellect that keeps them in the middle of the action at all times.
"They're smaller guys who know how to score," said the scout. "I'm a little less impressed with their overall defensive efforts and they need to get a lot stronger. But at least in the Quebec League, they are pretty effective."
One player who fell further than expected was Saint John's Tomas Jurco, the third draft prospect from a loaded team that had seven- count 'em- SEVEN players in Central's QMJHL top-25 list.
Jurco is a late-'92 from Slovakia who came over to the Sea Dogs last year and made the adjustment to the North American game pretty readily. He's a puckhandling wizard/freak who is highly effective in traffic and in front of the net. At 6-2, 193 pounds (and he's probably closer to 185 when all is said and done), he's slight and needs to get stronger, but his 12 goals are a little less than half of what he put up all of last season, so he should have 35-40 if all goes well.
"I'm surprised he's lower than Danault and Archambault," the scout said. "It may have to do with his defensive game, which is not as strong, but he does have so much potential offensively. We have him higher than that."
Montreal Juniors defenseman Xavier Ouellet got off to a blazing start offensively and has come down to earth, but is still scoring at about a point-per-game clip (2 goals, 21 points- 23 games) for the club known formerly as the Fog Devils. Ouellet could be one of those prospects who is a better hockey player than an athlete. He doesn't possess great size, or speed and mobility or even an overpowering shot, but he still manages to make the effective first pass and distribute the puck well from the point.
"Every time I've gone to see him, I wanted to grade him down for something but so far it hasn't happened," the scout said. "He's not an explosive skater, but he gets where he needs to go. He doesn't have any real skills that jump out at you, but then he'll make a nice pass and the puck is in the net. He's smart positionally and takes good angles to compensate for the smaller size."
Rounding out the top-10 is Shawinigan power winger Maximilien Le Sieur who is second behind Michael Bournival on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 24 points. Although not tall, Le Sieur is built like a bowling ball and brings some toughness to the table.
"He's got some heavy feet but there's some interesting potential there," the scout said.
Another pair of Sea Dogs in Scott Oke and Ryan Tesink are 9th and 10th-- just ahead of teammate Zack Phillips who was surprisingly not in the top-10. Oke is a lanky winger with very raw, projectable potential, but his three goals and four points in 20 games for Saint John makes his presence in the top-10 is intriguing to say the least. Tesink and Phillips are higher on the depth chart and have been much more involved in the offense, posting 15 points and 24 points respectively. Phillips has already admitted disappointment in where he was ranked, so it will be interesting to see how he responds to the slight.
Moving on to the goaltenders, Finnish netminder Christopher Gibson (the son of a British ex-pat father and mother from Finland) tops the list. He's outperformed fellow draft eligible Robin Gusse in Chicoutimi, posting an outstanding .928 save percentage and 7-6-3 record with 2.20 GAA on a poor team.
"Gibson is that prototype butterfly goalie with size and athleticism from Finland," said the scout. "He came from the Notre Dame Hounds program and won a championship for them there, so he's very accomplished and proving himself in the Quebec league on a team that doesn't score a lot."
Also in the mix for top-two round consideration is Czech goalie David Honzik, who left Europe to play for the Victoriaville Tigres this season. He's struggled a bit with the transition this season, but with a 6-3 frame and terrific athleticism, Honzik is a long-term project who could pay big dividends along the lines of a Jaroslav Halak down the road so long as the team that drafts him is willing to be patient and develop him. Long-limbed and instinctive, he has nice potential so long as you get past the pedestrian stats.
While there are certainly some interesting prospects in the QMJHL this season, Central it appears that got their top-three right. In terms of pure talent and pro potential, Couturier, Huberdeau and Beaulieu are the best that league has to offer. This blog would have Jurco at four, but that's certainly up for debate.
One thing to remember with the CSS preliminary rankings is that they have less to do with performance and more to do with getting names out there for the NHL teams to consider. Of course, that's the party line. (wink wink, nod nod)