Back in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs used two of their draft picks to select Sean Durzi and Mac Hollowell. Both were defensemen who were overagers, having not been drafted the year before in their first year of eligibility.

Durzi had 2 goals and 36 assists in 60 games during his draft-1 season, while Hollowell had 3 goals and 20 assists in 63 games. Not eye-popping numbers, especially when both were on the smaller end for defensemen (Durzi is listed at 6’0” while Hollowell is at 5’10”) and on the older end for their draft class.

However, immediately following the 2017 draft, the Leafs invited both Sean Durzi and Mac Hollowell to their development camp. It was an extra look for the Leafs on two guys that maybe were late developers who had skill to spare.

And the Leafs were maybe right. Both followed up not being drafted and attending the Leafs’ development camp with breakout years: Durzi putting up 15 goals and 34 assists in only 40 games, while Hollowell had 12 goals and 44 assists in 63 games.

This is my long way of introducing you to Marc-Antoine Pépin, a just undrafted defenseman  who has been invited to the Leafs’ rookie tournament in June, Traverse City tournament in September, and has just received an invitation to the Leafs’ main preseason camp.

Who Is Marc-Antoine Pépin?

There really isn’t a lot known about Pépin. If you check his Elite Prospect page, you will see that he has a grand total of 25 games played in the QMJHL over the last two years — 24 of those came in the final third of this past season. Before then he played in the QCHL, which is a level below the QMJHL.

Pépin is also not technically a Leafs prospect. He is on an ATO right now, but he has not been drafted or signed any contract with the Leafs. He is listed at 6’3” and a beanstalk-esque 168 lbs on, while Shawinigan (his QMJHL team) has him listed at 6’4” and 182 lbs now — so he might have put on some muscle and grown an extra inch.

He is a defenseman who shoots left. He had 1 goal and 13 assists in 24 games last season. For those who don’t want to do the math, that would put him just behind Durzi’s D-1 season points pace but ahead of Hollowell’s. It’s perhaps worth noting that exactly none of his points came on the powerplay.

Some other things to point out:

  • Shawinigan was BAD last year. They finished 3rd last in the league at 14-49-2-3, and had the 4th fewest goals.
  • Pépin had the second most points by a defenseman for Shawinigan. Not pro-rated, I mean raw totals. In 23 games. Did I mention Shawinigan was bad last year?/

That seems like a pretty remarkable pace for a young defenseman. So how is it that he didn’t even get a game in the QMJHL until well into the second half of the season?

Part of the issue seems to be that Pépin simply took an unusual path to get to the Q. In an interview this past July, he described that odd path:

“I didn’t like my experience in pee-wee AAA and I lost some of my passion for playing hockey.” At the start of his second year in bantam, Marc-Antoine received a phone call that would change the course of his career. “Denis Francoeur wanted me to join his team at Collège Marie-de-l ‘Incarnation. I accepted his offer and, from that moment on, I found the sting of hockey. Without him, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you. It really cheered me up, and it allowed me to significantly improve my individual skills. His way of teaching was beneficial to me.”

Pépin describes the Ligue de Hockey Préparatoire Scolaire (LHPS) as one that is underestimated, and more of a “plan B” to the usual leagues that lead to the QMJHL that combines both school and sport.

“Some people claim that the AAA midget and the LHPS are two circuits that cannot be compared. However, I was able to be drafted into the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, even though I had worked in the school system.”

The development he had in the LHPS paid off for Pépin, as he was drafted in 2017 in the 10th round by the Sherbrooke Phoenix. However, he stayed in the LHPS for the 2017-18 season, only getting into one game with Sherbrooke. The next year, he was looking to make the jump full time, but he was the last cut to make Sherbrooke’s roster.

Pépin played in the QCHL for 22 games, where he had 3 goals and 9 assists, until he was called up to Sherbrooke with less than half of the season to play. He had one assist in his first game, and was promptly traded to Shawinigan. Once there, he put up 13 more points in 23 games, and another 2 assists in 5 playoff games — despite not getting much, if any, time on the powerplay.

What Do the Leafs See in Pépin?

After a pretty successful end of the season, Pépin had actually developed some late draft chatter, but as we know that didn’t go anywhere. What he also got, however, was interest from a Toronto Maple Leafs scout.

[Pépin] was able to get the attention of the Maple Leafs. He had discussions with Réal Paiement, a scout for the Toronto organization, a few weeks before the draft. “Réal asked me to fill out a document to learn more about my family and friends. I then had a 45-minute telephone interview with him. He wanted to get to know me as a player and as a person. It went well and the Leafs told me they wanted to invite me to their development camp if I didn’t get drafted.” According to the athlete, the fact that he is a defenseman who is able to generate offense and is defensively reliable are two assets that Toronto appreciates.

You can also get a sense from a quote that comes from his QCHL coach, Nicolas Boucher, when he was recalled to Sherbrooke:

“Marc-Antoine has had a good progression since his arrival with the Filons. He is the perfect example of the player who develops late. He is a young man who has a fine social intelligence, he is well integrated and he is pleasant to work with on a daily basis. He must continue to work hard to achieve his goals and I believe that the fact that he went to play a game at the major junior level will be an additional motivation for him,” said Coach Boucher about Pépin who, in addition to his excellent defensive work, he has nine points on his record this season with the Filons.

The picture we are getting is of a tall, skinny defenseman who flew under the radar due to an unorthodox path to the QMJHL. Whether as a direct result of that or a coincidence, Pépin seems to have developed later than some of his peers.

As the introduction to all of this alluded to, Pépin’s path is not unlike some other recent draft picks. Durzi and Hollowell are the two obvious ones because of their position, skills and slower development. But I also Riley Stotts, who was a relative unknown while stuck on a team that wasn’t playing him, until he was traded and had the playing time to blossom.

What Can We Learn About Pépin So Far This Year?

The season hasn’t started yet, but we’ve started to see Pépin in some pre-season games. He was in the Leafs development camp in June and earned an invite to the Traverse City development camp in September. Before that, he played in three pre-season games for Shawinigan, where he had 1 goal, 1 assist and 6 shots in 3 games. At the Traverse City rookie tournament, he played in 3 games and tallied 1 goal (and maybe should have got an assist, see below) in the final game.

Scott Wheeler wrote a piece summarizing all of the Leafs’ rookie players and how they performed in the tournament, including Pépin:

He took a bunch of penalties and had some tough defensive zone shifts but I really like what I saw out of him when he had the puck on his stick. He’s smooth, he’s a great skater, he manages the offensive zone blue line well and, at 6-foot-3, that’s intriguing, especially considering how raw he is. He didn’t look scared, scored a fluke goal to close out the tournament and sprung Conrad for a breakaway in his debut (though he oddly didn’t get credited with the assist).

Scott also quoted Keefe, who was asked about Pépin:

“I liked him. He’s a guy I know nothing about. I mean, seeing him at development camp, I know the organization has interest in him in wanting to see a little bit more of what’s there. I thought he looked like a very raw player who has some really good skills. I thought the play he made, to have the vision and execute the pass on the first goal by Conrad at an important moment in the game where they had just scored, he makes a penetrating pass like that to send a guy in alone. And I thought there were some other moments that were strong. He’s got a lot of work to do but I see there’s skill and ability there.”

There seems to be clear talent there in Pépin. Scott praises him for his skating, puck handling, and fearless play-making. Keefe praised him for his skills and passing. His QCHL coach praised him for his worth ethic, “social intelligence”, and defensive work. Those are all things the Leafs seem to prize in a defenseman now, although it is weird that Pépin is so tall.

However, pretty much everyone notes that he is also still pretty raw and still in need of development. With the skills in place, and finally some playing time with QMJHL coaching, he might take a big step this coming season like Durzi and Hollowell did.

Right now the Leafs can sign Pépin as a free agent and he would avoid going back into the draft. After training camp is over, he can still be signed to an ELC as long the ATO is in effect with the Leafs — even if they keep him around after camp.

Pépin Highlights

Here is the goal Pépin scored in the rookie tournament. You can see him sneak well into the offensive zone where there were no defenders to take a pass and get off a better quality shot than one from the point.

Here is the one goal of Pépin’s short QMJHL career, which came in an outdoor game no less. The video helpfully gives a few different replay angles, so you can see Pépin jump to join the rush in the neutral zone for an odd man rush that he capitalized on.

In the video below, Pépin (#44) does some nifty moves at the point to get a shot off that was eventually deflected or knocked in on the rebound for the assist.

Pépin might not ever become anything. He might not ever wind up on the Leafs — he’s not a Leafs prospect technically, having not been drafted or signed by them. But he’s apparently on their radar and I can see why.

Personally, I’m excited by the idea of a 6’4” defenseman who has “great” skating and playmaking ability — even if he is still raw. I fell for Fedor Gordeev a few years ago, and since they crudely ripped him away from me I’ve found a new longshot to fill my heart.

Maybe, just maybe, they’ve found another potential diamond in the rough.