With the 30th pick in the 2016 NHL Draft the Toronto Maple Leafs are proud to select from the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, defensemen Samuel Girard.
When we were called upon for the first overall pick in this year's SB Nation NHL Mock Draft, the choice was easy. It had to be Auston Matthews. With the last pick in the mock draft, the decision wasn't so simple. We had discussed all of Vitalii Abramov, Alex DeBrincat and Rasmus Asplund, all of whom were gone to Dallas at No. 25, Washington at No. 26 and Boston at No. 29 respectively.
At 30th overall, this left us with several options. As a staff, we discussed everyone from the QMJHL's Pascal Laberge to the OHL's Markus Niemelainen, Nathan Bastian, Adam Mascherin, William Bitten, and Cam Dineen, to the WHL's Tyler Benson and Sam Steel.
Ultimately though, we settled on Shawinigan Cataractes defensemen Samuel Girard. Not only was Girard arguably the best player available in the slot, but he's also a defensemen.
It is no secret that while the Leafs possess one of the strongest pools of prospects in the NHL, that that group is carried predominantly by forwards William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Connor Brown, Mitch Marner, and others. As an organization the Leafs have a comparatively weak group of young defensemen and goaltenders. With the Marlies, Rinat Valiev -- who struggled in the playoffs -- was the only young standout defender on this year's team. At the junior level, while Travis Dermott and Andrew Nielsen had standout years, neither are top-pairing prospects. Meanwhile, the once-promising Jesper Lindgren took a step back this season, while other 'prospects' continued to age with the Marlies.
And while the Leafs aren't in a position to be drafting for need, and I nearly always recommend drafting the best player available, adding a high-upside defensemen certainly doesn't hinder Girard's chances of being a good fit.
This season, with Shawinigan, Girard played alongside Leafs prospect Dmytro Timashov and thrived as the QMJHL's best offensive defensemen. Not only did Girard lead all CHL-eligible defensemen in points with 74 points in 67 games, he also followed it up by leading all CHL defensemen (draft-eligible or otherwise) in playoff scoring with 22 points in 21 games.
As a result of his strong season, Girard was named to the QMJHL's First All-Star Team (the youngest player to do so).
Named the QMJHL's Most Sportsmanlike Player and the CHL's Sportsman of the Year (won previously by Rourke Chartier of the San Jose Sharks and Sam Reinhart of the Buffalo Sabres), Girard is a mature, disciplined player.
Earlier this year, I wrote a story about Girard's mature, poised demeanour and play. Below are some excerpts from Cataractes head coach Martin Bernard:
"He’s very good with his stick, he can play well one-on-one, he can contain, he can play well with his body," Bernard said. "His principle aspect is actually his defensive side of the game."
"When he’s on the ice, he’s always an offensive threat," said Bernard, who is in his third year behind the Cataractes bench. "He can feed the puck, he can skate with the puck, he can beat the pressure with his feet."
"He’s not going to be drafted because of his physical aspect, it’s because of his offensive part of the game," Bernard said. "They’re going to draft that guy for his offensive tools."
This year wasn't the first time Girard has been a standout among his peers either. Last season, he was named to the QMJHL's All-Rookie Team on route to being named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year when he put up 43 points in 64 games as a freshman of sorts. Internationally, he has twice represented team Canada at the U17 and U18 levels. At Ivan Hlinka, he played top-four minutes on a Team Canada squad that won gold. In this year's CHL Canada-Russia Series, Girard was in on three of the QMJHL All-Stars' eight goals over the two-game mini-tournament. His three assists, two of which were primary, tied him for the team lead.
This season, among all QMJHL defensemen, Girard ranked first in primary points (42) and third in primary points per game (0.63) behind only newly-signed-and-much-older Marlies prospect Nikolas Brouillard and Nashville Predators draftee Alexandre Carrier. Among draft-eligible CHLers, he ranked first in primary points per game (tied with Calgary's Jake Bean), outdoing higher-ranked players such as Mikhail Sergachev (0.60), Olli Juolevi (0.47) and Jakob Chychrun (0.47).
Stylistically, despite standing just 5-9, Girard is an excellent man-on-man defender who moves extremely well laterally by fluidly crossing over and pivoting his waist to keep defenders to the outside and in front of him. Despite his lack of a reach, Girard's strength as a backwards skater also allows him to transition forward and effectively close gaps when a puck is mishandled by the attacker.
With the puck, he is one of the draft's best carriers. Not only can Girard use his aforementioned mobility to weave out of tight corners and away from check attackers, but he's also always got his head up. Because he's constantly surveying the ice, Girard has a unique ability to slow down the pace of the game and create clean zone exits (either by carrying or by finding an open man in stride when others wouldn't have) and entries to open up space and establish calculated possession. In tight to his body, he's able to handle the puck or kick it to a teammate to prevent larger defenders from reaching around him to come away it.
While not an explosive skater, Girard is light on his feat and quick from a standstill, which means he rarely gets beat with pure speed. Used heavily in all situations by Bernard, he has already thrived against top competition in thought minutes. And because he doesn't rush plays under pressure, he's able to dictate play offensively.
On the powerplay, his ability to find lanes with crisp, hard passes while also jumping up into the slot to create chances makes him on of the more dynamic defensemen in the class. His lateral agility and heads-up play also allows him to straddle the blueline and create lanes for himself to get pucks to the net.
After the six top defensemen in the class of Chychrun, Juolevi, Sergachev, Dante Fabbro, Bean and Charlie McAvoy, are gone (which they will almost certainly be by No. 30) Girard is my top-ranked defensemen. He would instantly become the Leafs' top D prospect.