So, without further ado, here's the preseason list of QMJHL players to keep tabs on:
1. Sean Couturier, C Drummondville Voltigeurs: A December 1992 birthdate, this big gun has spent the last couple of seasons in the QMJHL and tied for the league scoring lead in '09-10 (he also accomplished the ignominious honor of doing so without hitting the 100-point mark for the first time in league history, scoring 96 points on the strength of 41 goals). At 6-4, he has a huge frame and still has a lot of growing/filling out to do. The son of former NHL journeyman Sylvain Couturier, Sean was born in the U.S. but raised in New Brunswick. He left the Maritimes to spend a season with the storied Notre Dame Hounds AAA program in Wilcox, Saskatchewan where his teammates included Brandon Gormley, the top selection of the Phoenix Coyotes in June. He's not the fastest skater, but has a powerful stride and uses his immense body to ward off would-be checkers and drive hard to the net. He's still developing his coordination, so his balance and agility are still works in progress, but he's improving both in speed and lateral mobility. His real assets are his soft, soft hands and outstanding hockey sense and vision, which allow him to make magic from the mundane. He's so big and talented that he's entering that zone where he's manhandling the competition, so look for big production and a real dogfight with Adam Larsson for the top overall pick, as centers (he's also spent a lot of time on the wing) as huge and skilled as Couturier is don't grow on trees and are always coveted. Of course, so are big, fast uber-talented defenders, so buckle the seatbelts. "He's a complete package," said one NHL scout who works the Quebec region when asked about Couturier. "I've been watching him for years and he just keeps showing that improvement you want to see in a top player. I think he's the best prospect to come out of the 'Q' since some guy named (Sidney) Crosby."
2. Tomas Jurco, RW Saint John Sea Dogs: This skilled Slovak helped get the 'Dogs all the way to the Quebec League finals last season and impressed a lot of people with his high-end offensive potential in just one North American season. Although only average in size (6-0, 180) Jurco skates extremely well, with some real elusiveness and slippery moves. An excellent puckhandler with a bevy of moves, he can also really rip the biscuit as evidenced by his 26 goals as a rookie last year. Another late December '92 birthdate, he's a little older and more mature than a good percentage of the competition, so Jurco should take a quantum leap in his production and play this season. He's made the cultural transition and speaks pretty good English, so watch for Jurco, with minimal distractions, to be one of the more electrifying players on the Q circuit this year. Like most players his size, adding strength and mass to be able to handle the physical rigors of pro hockey is paramount to his development.
3. Nathan Beaulieu, D Saint John Sea Dogs: Jurco's junior teammate is a pretty good package of skill, size (6-2, 175) and upside for this draft, and will no doubt have the scouts flocking to the Maritimes this season to get a closer look. After a real solid performance at Team Canada World Junior Evaluation Camp last month, Beaulieu seems in store for bigger and better things. Another December 1992 born player, he's entering his third season of major junior after breaking out with a 12-goal, 45-point effort last year (he tallied two goals 10 points as a rookie in '08-09). He's a smooth skater with nice acceleration and an ability to rev it up into another gear, and is a player who isn't afraid to jump up into the play. A strong puck-moving defenseman, he uses a combination of vision, hockey intellect and good hands to set the breakout and help his team with the transition game. Beaulieu is also willing to fight when the opportunity presents, and isn't bad in that regard, with a flamethrower style and a willingness to stand in and take punches to give 'em. He's also got a strong background in the sport, as his father is an assistant coach with the London Knights and playedmajor junior hockey with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, even serving as head coach and GM of the Sea Dogs during Nathan's rookie season. Like Couturier, Beaulieu is from New Brunswick and at first glance, appears to have the kinds of traits and skills that would appeal greatly to the Boston Bruins, who lack high-end defensemen in their prospect stable. This is definitely a player to watch, especially if he makes the cut for the Canadian World Jr. (Under-20) squad which will try to unseat the U.S. team in Buffalo this winter. "I thought he had a very good (evaluation) camp and has come a long way from when he first started in this league," the NHL scouts said. "
4. Jonathan Huberdeau, C Saint John Sea Dogs: With the third Sea Dog in the top-four for the QMJHL, you're starting to understand why they pushed Moncton in the league championship series last spring. A skinny beanpole of a kid at 6-1 and just 155 pounds or so, this is one player who is going to have to invest in some serious weight-gainer supplements. That said, he's a very talented player who skates well, has quick hands and is creative with the puck. A member of the gold medal Canada team at the Ivan Hlinka, Huberdeau chipped in with some offense, but didn't have the greatest camp nor tournament by some accounts. As you might expect, his lack of solid mass and strength works against him at this stage of his development, as he can be pushed off the puck easily and tends to retreat into perimeter mode when the hitting picks up. This player is going to be an interesting one to follow, because his overall game is not all that strong even with his high-end offensive upside. If he struggles with play in all three zones or doesn't show the kind of commitment scouts want to see in terms of going to the traffic areas and being willing to take hits to make plays, you could see a precipitous drop over the course of the year. As it stands right now, however, he's so skilled offensively, that you could make a case that he needs to be No. 3, possibly even No. 2 on the Quebec list, but concerns about his overall package move him down a tad.
5. Phillip Danault, C Victoriaville Tigres: If you like upside, then Danault is your guy to watch this season. He's an average-sized player who isn't very strong, but who can really skate and jump out at you when he's on the ice because of his ability to back defenders up. Known more as a playmaker prior to the Hlinka, Danault ripped it up at Canada's camp and opened some eyes among the scouts in attendance. Some aren't yet convinced that he's going to be able to carry that kind of offense consistently this season, but admittedly, his August has raised some eyebrows. He's shown that he can create and finish, so the question remains whether he can do enough this year to develop his body of work to be a top-two round pick and possibly grab some traction for the first 30.
6. Xavier Ouellet, D Montreal Juniors: He's one of those 'tweener guys who can give scouts fits at times. At 6-0, 175 pounds, he's undersized for a defender. And, he's a pretty average skater, too, which always sends up the red flags (and Bruins fans know Dennis Wideman well). But, Ouellet is smart and has the puck skills to move it up and out of the danger areas. More elusive than fast, he relies on his positioning, vision and hockey sense to get the job done, but he's not going to get much leeway from the scouts during the course of the season if he makes too many mistakes simply because of his lack of size and mobility issues.
7. Andrei Makarov, G Lewiston Maineiacs: Admittedly, don't know much about this guy other than the fact that he's tall and lanky (6-1, 155), has freakish athleticism and flexibility, and could become a real draw for scouts if he delivers on the promise he showed at the Hlinka (despite Russia's disappointing finish). That said, I've spent some time in Washington talking to some Russian hockey people and they always tell me the same thing: you don't see an overabundance of Russian goalies in the NHL because most of them don't get much coaching and have to rely on tremendous raw ability to get things done (see: Varlamov, Semyon). In the case of Makarov, the fact that he's over in North America bodes well, because he isn't going to just be left to fend for himself. Whether he can make the cultural and hockey transition remains to be seen, but this will be an intriguing player to keep an eye on. Red Line has him in their preseason top-50 at 47.
8. Jean-Francois Leblanc, C Val d'Or Foreurs: At 6-4, 197, this defensive centerman has the size and raw ability to be an NHL player one day, but probably lacks the skill and upside to be anything more than a checker/grinder. Still, he is someone to watch because he skates pretty well and possesses and inordinate amount of hockey sense, not to mention solid face-off ability, which are always in demand at any level. He had a solid if unspectacular Hlinka tourney, and if he could somehow add an offensive dimension to his game, Leblanc could evolve into a role player somewhere. This isn't someone to get excited about right now, but he's a gritty competitor and brings a lot of the intangibles you win with.
Other QMJHLers to watch for:
Zac Phillips, C Saint John
Olivier Archambault, RW Val d'Or
Jonathan Racine, D Shawinigan
Dillon Donnelly, D Shawinigan