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2020 NHL Draft: Looking for hidden gems in the QMJHL

Is there another Mikhail Abramov in the Q that could fall to the Leafs?

Toronto Maple Leafs Headshots Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images

This is the second of a series I will be writing, trying to find hidden gems in the 2020 draft that fall through the cracks for one reason or another. The first looked at 15 overage prospects who were overlooked or late bloomers.

The QMJHL is a funny league. I know I’ve had this perception — mostly gained from what I’ve seen other people say — that it’s an all-offense, no-defense league where all the prospects have inflated point totals.

And yet, I learned a funny thing about that...

Here’s what that looks like over time:

Steve Kournianos @TheDraftAnalyst

I don’t know if scouts and NHL general managers have had the same perception I did, but I can also say that the QMJHL just does not get NEARLY the same attention that the OHL or even the WHL does.

So, a little aside, every year I’ve been on the masthead at PPP I put together a draft day spreadsheet. It contains hundreds of prospects that are ranked by any and every major “prospect ranking” website or analyst. I add each prospect and fill in basic information and links: stats, highlights, scouting reports, etc. It helps us come draft day to very quickly assemble information on whoever the Leafs draft.

It also takes me many, many hours to put together. I do it to help us out on a big day, but also because I learn a lot about prospects in a draft. I can tell you that where OHL, WHL, and USHL/NCAA prospects outside of the top rounds still have a handful of people talking about them, that is NOT the case for the QMJHL. It’s gotten better every year, but the Quebec and Maritime prospects projected to go after the first few rounds are a pain in the ass for me to find even French articles about. They’re as difficult to find information about as USA high school players, or guys playing for junior leagues in Europe like the MHL, or Slovakian/German/Swiss/Austrian/Norwegian leagues.

Suffice to say, I think that prospects in the QMJHL outside of the can’t miss names are easy to overlook. Maybe even from NHL teams who don’t put the same attention into scouting them as they would the OHL, WHL, Liiga, SHL, NCAA, and US development teams.

If you combine playing in the QMJHL with other factors that usually lead to a prospect being underrated — being shorter, a European import — I think there are a few draft eligible prospects from the QMJHL who are being underrated. Maybe even underrated enough to become steals for the Toronto Maple Leafs like MIkhail Abramov who fell to them in the FOURTH round.

With that introduction out of the way, here are seven guys who caught my attention.

Hendrix Lapierre — Center

You might be surprised to see Lapierre on this list, considering he’s been pretty firmly ranked in the first round for a while now. In fact, Lapierre is likely more of a pipe dream than even a remote possibility to fall to the Leafs. He was almost a point-per-game scorer last season as a 16/17 year old, and had 11 points in 5 games during the last Hlinka Gretzky Tournament.

Here’s a scouting report recently written last month in March by Benoit Belanger at McKeen’s Hockey:

He is a creative playmaker and an above–average skater. He possesses tremendous anticipation and ability to find open ice near the opposition goal. Lapierre can play wing, where he uses even more of his skill set in transition, or at center. He is a unique, but explosive skater and very creative offensively. Sometimes, he tries to do too much because of his impressive skill set, instead of letting the game come to him more naturally. Furthermore, his intense, all-out style can lead to too many injuries. When you are watching him, you see the passion for the game. With good health, he is one of the best for the next draft, a tremendously skilled forward.

The injuries that the scouting report touches on is what has caused him to slowly slip down in people’s rankings from a potential top 10 pick to the end of the first round. Future Considerations has him at 26; Elite Prospects has him at 27; McKeen’s currently does not have him ranked in their first round at all (their current rankings only include the top 31).

Lapierre only played 19 games this season due to suffering two concussions, making it three concussions he has sustained in less than 12 months. That’s certainly worrisome, and likely why he’s been slipping down the rankings all year, but we have seen players come back from multiple concussions in a short period — Sidney Crosby comes to mind.

I think it’s a long shot that he falls as far as the Leafs’ first pick, which will be the middle of the second round. But considering he’s a QMJHL boy that barely played this year and has been slipping by a lot already, and there’s no more playoffs or in-person NHL Combine for him to rebuild his stock, I don’t think it’s impossible. You will see others with more recent history and strong finishes to the year get some helium and pass him by.

Hendrix Lapierre Highlights:

Lukas Cormier — Left Defense

Cormier is a 5’10” left shot defenseman playing for the Charlottetown Islanders. With 36 points in 44 games, he would be close to the team lead in points per game — as a defenseman. As a 16/17 year old, he scored 15 goals! Any scouting report I’ve read talks about how offensively gifted he is, as well as being an excellent skater in every sense (speed, edges, etc).

But his rankings vary wildly. At one end, some will have him in the mid-to-late first round precisely because of those offensive skills. Others, however, have him as late as 60th overall (EliteProspects). I think there are a few reasons for this. He is a bit short for a defenseman at 5’10”, which actually isn’t that short, but he’s also had a bit of a late blooming growth spurt. Last year he seemed to be listed at 5’8”. He also suffered an injury later in the year after blocking a shot, missing the last 10 games of the season before it was paused and cancelled due to COVID-19.

Here is a pretty balanced look at Cormier’s strengths and weaknesses from Future Considerations:

Cormier is a puck-rushing defenseman, showing the ability to escape pressure and find skating lanes on the breakout with his agility and shiftiness. He showcases incredible skating abilities, creating many controlled zone exits and entries using his excellent acceleration, speed and agility to blaze through the neutral zone. He possesses some smooth edges, which helps him get great lateral quickness and agility to walk the blue line offensively. His turns are brisk, allowing to escape pressure from behind the net or make a spin move to dodge an opponent.

Playing as the quarterback on the power play, Cormier displays decent deception and puck distribution as he runs the offense from the point. He owns a great wrist and slap shot, displaying a quick release and impressive velocity on both. He displays good gap control and backward agility to stay with his man off the rush. He has an active stick and he loves to close the gap with the attacker to knock him off the puck.

He still has quite a lot to work on defensively, especially off the cycle and in board battles, but the willingness to play defense seems there. He loves to restart the attack promptly with quick, accurate feeds and he owns a decent first pass. Although he has the quickness, speed, vision and passing abilities to lead the breakout, he often seems to lack the poised and patience to make the best decision, leading to many rushed plays and bad turnovers.

So he’s a short offensive defenseman with some worries about his defense and making turnovers. How well he’s improved in those areas this year varies depending on who you ask. While he’s played internationally for Canada, he’s never scored a single point for them. I don’t put much stock in short tournaments, especially if he didn’t have a major role or ice time, but I do think that some do hold that against him. I’ve read more than one report comparing him to Sam Girard for his smaller size and offensive, puck moving ability. Girard, for those who remember, fell to 47th overall in his draft and he had even better numbers than Cormier does.

Add all of that together and I think there’s a decent chance that Cormier falls to a point where he’d be available for the Leafs with their 2nd-round pick. That still might be a bit of a long shot though. We’ll get a better idea when more people’s final draft rankings come out, especially Bob McKenzie’s which really aggregates what teams are thinking.

Lukas Cormier Highlights:

Justin Barron — Right Defense

Justin Barron is a 6’2” right defense who was considered one of the top defensemen in this year’s draft and in the same conversation as Drysdale for the top defender overall. You’d think a right shot defenseman with that hype would not be “overlooked”, but... well stop me if you’ve heard this before — Justin Barron unfortunately only played 34 games this year. He was diagnosed with a blood clot and only played 7 games on his return before the season ended early.

All of that said, his rankings haven’t fallen just because of the blood clot. He did score 19 points in 34 games after putting up 41 points in 68 the year before, which if you don’t want to do the math is more than the pace he was on this season. The result is that I’ve seen him ranked as high as 28 and as low as 70, quite a large range similar to Cormier.

I think this brief report on Justin Barron by Scott Wheeler in November summarizes the mixed feelings about him:

I feel conflicted about Barron in the same way I felt conflicted about Matthew Robertson (taken 40th overall by the Rangers) last season. They both have length, size and are outstanding skaters for their size. Sometimes that’s enough of a package to become a strong two-way defenceman at the NHL level. But with both, I was waiting to see more offensively — to see more talent, truthfully — and the longer I waited, the more that player began to slip. Robertson began as a mid-first-round prospect for me because he was ahead of the curve, plateaued a bit more than I hoped he would and ultimately settled at No. 41 in my final draft ranking. Barron, who was 13th in my preseason ranking and has some really nice qualities, has begun to do the same. I had high hopes for him this season and he just hasn’t met those expectations to date. Does that mean he’s not a legitimate prospect? No. Robertson was (and is) too. But I’m definitely beginning to soften on him.

For what it’s worth, Scott “softening” on Barron had him ranked 21st in November. He’s slipped a bit more since then, as others like Jake Sanderson had strong finishes to their seasons and started to rocket past Barron in the rankings. He’s another I’d still say is an outside shot to fall to Toronto, especially since some still rate him as at least a late first rounder.

And the thing is, he might not have started strong offensively but his team finished 2nd last in the entire QMJHL. They were very, very bad. If you look at the team leaders in points, only four of them played anything like the full season — the rest were trades (to or from the team) or injured like Barron. And despite only playing about half the year, he STILL finished with the team lead in points for defensemen.

To me, a right shot defenseman who can skate well (although some scouts aren’t as high on his skating), move the puck, and play a good two-way game who might have been a first rounder were it not for everything mentioned above... that’s exactly who I’d love to see fall to the Leafs.

Justin Barron Highlights:

William Villeneuve — Right Defense

William Villeneuve is a 6’1”, right shot defenseman for the Saint John Sea Dogs. He was the main defensive partner with Jérémie Poirier, a 6’0” left shot defenseman projected to be picked in the first round. He’s basically the opposite of Justin Barron for how his rankings have gone this season.

Villeneuve has maybe a few people projecting him to go in the first round, but is more comfortably ranked to go in the second. Now, I’ll again say it will be interesting to see where he falls on more final draft rankings as there are some, like Scott Wheeler, who say he is underrated. Scott has tagged him as someone he ranks quite highly but who he thinks could fall even to the third round. I’m seeing more recent reports writing glowingly about him, however, so he definitely has some helium to his draft hype.

Why? Well for one, he led his team in points as a defenseman, with 58 in 64 games, more even than Poirier. He also logged a lot of minutes for what was a pretty young team. Here is what Dobber Prospects said about him in September:

He will make quality shots from the perimeter and completes smart and efficient passes in the offensive zone. Fans should not expect Villeneuve to be one of the more dominant point-getters in the QMJHL as he is far from a true offensive defenseman. Yet, he is efficient in all three zones and has shown to be a dependable puck mover. In terms of his skating, his edgework is exceptional and he transitions well from forward to backward.

His skating and surprising step forward offensively, at least for point totals, has led him to be in the opposite situation as the other three mentioned above — he’s been rising in draft rankings. He might wind up being a late round pick along with Poirier, or he might settle somewhere in the middle of the second round around where the Leafs will pick.

The big knock on him is his raw speed. He’s not said to be the fastest skater, but is noted to be very good on his edges and being elusive as a result. That’s not to say he’s slow, or a bad skater, and that’s certainly something you’d think the Leafs could work on improving with their skills coaches.

Basically, take what I said at the end about Barron potentially falling to the Leafs and repeat it for Villeneuve.

William Villeneuve Highlights:

Ryan Francis — Center

Now we’re getting to a more classic case of a guy who’s been overlooked. Ryan Francis entered the season as a short 5’9” right winger projected to go anywhere between the fourth and sixth rounds. Mind you, he only had 32 points in 64 games the season before, so maybe it wasn’t too surprising — short forwards gotta score their way into being overlooked for their height.

Then a funny thing happened. Ryan Francis became Cape Breton’s first line center, and put up 72 points in 61 games. By now some are ranking him as high as around 40, though usually with some caveats like this report from Dobber Prospects:

I noticed that Francis likes to play predominantly on the perimeter, and is skeptical to join in physical battles for the puck. He avoids any and all contact when he does have possession which I don’t think will be quite as possible at the next level. On the positive side, the puck usually ends up being directed towards the other teams’ net because more often than not, he is able to maintain that possession by avoiding contact. He is always prepared to receive a pass and is stronger on the puck than most of his peers. If he can leverage that skill, it might allow him to transition his more skillful play to the next level.

If the first part of that scouting report scares you, keep two things in mind: that’s one person’s report on him, and it also sounds a lot like what was said about Mikhail Abramov before this season. From everything I’ve read about Francis, that is something that was a problem for him the previous season. He was up and down in the lineup, he wasn’t consistent, he wasn’t doing everything he could and his play suffered for it.

But that’s what makes me think he is being underrated. People formed an opinion about him after last season, and some of that confirmation bias still lingers — especially for a shorter forward.

Others, however, are much rosier about him. Here’s what McKeen’s Hockey said about Francis in December:

Francis is a small forward who is not afraid to carry the puck in traffic and dish off strongly, but also to waltz his way to the net and bury his opportunities. His size could hold him back, but his skills are strong.

Everything else I read about him screams a prototypical Dubas pick: short but crafty, a playmaker, very smart, good edges, and despite his size, most reports note that he does not shy away from the busy areas of the ice with the puck — he just uses his skills to make plays there by avoiding checks rather than trying to out-muscle guys much larger than him. One thing I looked for in his highlights is that he will cut to the net, will try and make plays in tough areas, and doesn’t seem like a purely perimeter player. Can he be, sometimes? It sounds like yes, and apparently inconsistency in that regard was a problem for him the season before. But this past season, he seemed to take a much needed step forward with his skills AND his consistency in using them to greater effect.

If he is a late bloomer physically and grows an inch or two while putting on some muscle (eyes Nick Robertson’s Instagram), he already has the rest of the skills to be a solid 2nd- or 3rd-round pick. We might not see the Leafs take him in the 2nd round, especially if a bigger fish falls to them like Robertson did last year, but he might be a steal in the third round if he falls that far.

Ryan Francis Highlights:

Thimo Nickl — Right Defense

If I had a Nickl for every right shot defense I included on this list... HEYO!

...sorry.

Thimo Nickl is a 6’2” right shot defenseman from Austria. He was an import pick by Drummondville and a rookie to North America this season. He is still slight for his height at 161 pounds, but that didn’t stop him from putting up 10 goals and 39 points in 58 games this year. He added another 3 points in 5 games for Austria in their World Junior qualifying tournament.

I’d say that it’s easy to see why he might be overlooked. He only came to North America this year, having played in Austria’s professional men’s league the season before as a 17 year old. Austria isn’t exactly a powerhouse in the hockey world, so that’s not a recipe for gaining a lot of draft hype. Even being in the QMJHL now is better for exposure, but still not the same if he was playing, say, for the London Knights.

In January, Josh Tessler of Dobber Prospects had a glowing report on the first-year import to Quebec:

In terms of his playing style, Nickl is a strong passer. His cross-ice, stretch, and bounces passes always seem to be accurate. His shot selection is quite sound and often times will generate quality rebounds on the power play. In the defensive zone, Nickl can be physical at times and will look to make smart backchecks along the half wall. If Nickl can continue to put up strong numbers in the second half of the season, you can expect his fantasy appeal and draft stock to rise.

The main knocks on him are the quickness his skating and his physicality. He needs to put on some muscle, and improve his ability to quickly react on his feet. Again, this is not to say that he is slow or a bad skater. Far from it — he is said to have strong straight-line speed and good edges. In fact, he is apparently the fastest in the QMJHL without the puck but middling when skating backwards. Another issue seems to be how quickly he can get to full speed to react to plays in his own end.

In an interview with Nickl himself only a few weeks ago, he notes both of those areas: adjusting to how fast the game is on smaller North American ice, and continuing to work on his speed. He’s also been noted to have very strong gap control and works hard on improving his two-way play.

His play and improvement over the season earned him a spot in the CHL/NHL top prospects game, where he had four shots on goal but no points. His draft ranking has improved to an average that puts him somewhere in the third round or fourth round. The Leafs, unfortunately, do not have a third round pick (barring any trades). They do have two fourth round picks, and if Nickl were to fall to the fourth round he might be a good get with one of them.

Thimo Nickl Highlights:

Jacob Dion — Left Defense

Jacob Dion is a 5’9” left shot defenseman and teammate of Thimo Nickl on Drummondville. Like Nickl, he was a rookie to the QMJHL this year having played in the QMAAA the season before. Also like Nickl, he had a pretty great year with 17 goals and 51 points in 63 games — leading Drummondville’s defensemen in points.

A Future Considerations scout had this to say about Dion back in November:

Dion put on a great display against the Remparts and was the most efficient defenseman for the Voltiguers. He enjoyed controlling the pace of the game and was a quality playmaker in the offensive zone. Dion had spectacular cross-ice passes and great shots from the point. In addition, he showed to have great vision and was constantly finding teammates in open lanes. When he failed to find teammates who were open and found himself in high danger scenarios, Dion completed passes off of the boards to avoid interceptions. While he was exceptional at identifying open teammates and completing crisp passes, he did have a bad pass in the neutral zone which paved the way for an interception and an offensive rush for Québec. It was one mistake and hopefully Dion will learn from it. When you look at Dion’s skating, one is left in awe. Dion has a good stride, solid edges, transitions from forwards to backwards well and has an ace of a spin move. In the defensive zone, Dion will be physical at times and will hunt for the puck along the boards. He will also play very conservatively and will plant himself next to his goaltender. Dion is projected to be a late round selection.

So once again we have a very fast, mobile, and offensively minded defenseman who is on the shorter side. He is, however, also 186 lbs according to his QMJHL player page, so is not so physically immature. On the one hand, that might mean that he doesn’t have as much extra physical development in his future. On the other, he may already be pretty polished.

When you watch his highlights you can certainly see why the FC was gushing about his skating. It stood out the most to me too, although I’m not a scout. If you look at his rankings, the most positive on Dion seem to have him going in the third round. It is likely he may go even later.

After the Leafs took Mike Koster in the 5th round, who is another 5’9” offensively minded defenseman, I’m wondering if the Leafs would take a look at Dion in either the 5th or 6th rounds if he falls that far.

Jacob Dion Highlights:

Which of these QMJHL prospects do you think has the highest chance of being drafted by the Leafs?

Poll

Which of these QMJHL prospect do you think has the highest chance of being drafted by the Leafs?

This poll is closed

  • 8%
    Hendrix Lapierre
    (26 votes)
  • 7%
    Lukas Cormier
    (23 votes)
  • 21%
    William Villeneuve
    (67 votes)
  • 28%
    Justin Barron
    (88 votes)
  • 12%
    Ryan Francis
    (38 votes)
  • 18%
    Thimo Nickl
    (56 votes)
  • 3%
    Jacob Dion
    (11 votes)
309 votes total Vote Now