- 5 USNTDP Players to Watch
- 5 Russian Players to Watch
- 5 WHL Players to Watch
- 3 NCAA Players to Watch
- 9 European Players to Watch
- 5 OHL Players to Watch
While the 2020 NHL Draft hasn’t happened yet, this would normally be the time where we start to turn our attention to the following edition of the event. For the sake of normalcy, I’m going to begin the 2021 NHL Draft coverage with a seven-part series introducing some of the names you’ll want to keep an eye one when the 2020-21 hockey seasons start – whenever that may be.
This is the second edition in the series, taking a look at our first Canadian Hockey League; the Québec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). And let me tell you, this will be a year to watch in the Q. There are some seriously exciting centermen coming up in the next draft from the league, and a few of them even have top-10 potential. Also, it appears that in 2003 (when these players were mostly born), they really liked the name Zach. You’ll see.
As we begin to look towards the upcoming hockey season, here are five players in the league that you need to keep an eye on (alphabetically listed).
Zachary Bolduc, C, Rimouski Océanic
Zachary Bolduc made sure that everyone knew his name this season and it started early. After playing two games in the USHL for the Sioux City Musketeers, the centreman decided that he wanted to go play in the QMJHL for Rimouski Oceanic instead. And so he did.
He then scored in his first game in the Q, before going on to hit the 30-goal mark in his rookie season. His goal totals led all rookies in the league. He also added 22 assists for 52 points in 55 games, winning him the QMJHL Offensive Rookie of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and a spot on the All-Rookie Team. To cap off his impressive campaign, he dressed for Team Canada Red at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge and collected five points (two goals, three assists) in five games.
Bolduc’s shot stands out as one of his greatest strengths. 30 goals in the QMJHL is nothing to scoff at, especially for a rookie. He boasts a full arsenal of shots and can bring any one of them out at a moment’s notice, from a quick wrist shot to a hard slapper. When he has the puck, goaltenders take notice.
On top of this, Bolduc is a strong, fluid skater and can make plays on the rush. Despite the knack for goals, he passes well and can surprise defenders with the plays he makes. It’s far out, but the forward is looking like a first-rounder at this point and another big season could push him up draft boards.
Xavier Bourgault, C, Shawinigan Cataractes
The lone second-year QMJHL player on this list thanks to a 2002 birthday, Xavier Bourgault took a big step forward from his 20-point rookie season to tear up the league for 33 goals, 38 assists, and 71 points in 63 games. If he can replicate even a portion of the success in 2020-21 – watch out.
Bourgault thrives with very little space. The centreman can make magic happen when he has to puck down low, and his 33 goals this season can help to prove that. His fast hands allow him to get very creative with the puck, and then before you know it, it’s in the back of the net.
On top of this, the forward is very light on his feet. He’s agile, he’s crafty, and there are times where he seems to sneak up on defenders without them realizing he’s already past them. He’s always in great position in the offensive end and should be a leader in the QMJHL next season.
The 2003s that are on this list should all take big steps forward, but Bourgault, entering his third season in the league, could very well be one of the league leaders. Watch for him to be a serious contender to lead the league in goals after finishing 15th in the league this past season.
Zach Dean, C, Gatineau Olympiques
After being drafted fourth overall in the 2019 QMJHL Entry Draft, Zach Dean had an extremely impressive rookie season. He racked up 46 points (18 goals, 28 assists) in 57 games for his first campaign, enough to earn him a spot on the QMJHL’s All-Rookie Team. He was also a finalist for QMJHL Rookie of the Year.
He played in the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge for Team Canada Black, where he collected three goals, four assists, and seven points in five games. With the Gatineau Olympiques bringing on a ton of talent through the QMJHL and CHL Import drafts, the team should take a step forward in 2020-21 and Dean should be at the forefront of that.
While the first thing you’ll notice about Dean is his excellent skating, his ability to get through traffic with crisp passes and open up the play for his teammates are what set him apart. He also has extremely fast, nimble hands when the puck is on his stick. That shows up often in games and results in many goals in the shootout.
With the Olympiques likely taking a youthful approach to the upcoming season, I’d expect Dean to be a leader on the Olympiques and he should be a riser on 2021 NHL Draft boards.
Zachary L’Heureux, C, Halifax Mooseheads
Zachary L’Heureux may very well be the best of the bunch heading into his draft year, very close to Bolduc. In fact, while Bolduc impressed with his 52 points, it was L’Heureux who led all rookies in points – with 53. Could we be watching a battle for the top-QMJHL prospect this season? After Alexis Lafrenière ran away with that title for the 2020 NHL Draft, this could be an excellent story to follow through the year.
L’Heureux’s 53 points were made up of 20 goals and 33 assists for the freshman, playing on the Moncton Wildcats. He was actually traded this offseason to the Halifax Mooseheads, where he and defender Cameron Whynot should be 2021-draftee stars this season. The Mooseheads will be happy with this acquisition.
The centreman’s strongest asset is his skating, where his top speed and ability to change direction when he gets going makes him a very crafty player. His elusiveness can get him into the zone, and once he’s there, he can use his strong shot or accurate passing to create offensive chances.
He’s not afraid to get physical as well, racking up 70 penalty minutes this season, including a couple of times where he dropped the gloves. While this can get him into some trouble at times, it’s that level of gritty, hard-working pressure that NHL teams love. Combining that aggressiveness with his offense? There will be a number of NHL teams looking to add L’Heureux to their roster in 2021.
James Malatesta, C, Québec Remparts
James Malatesta is the last player I’m highlighting here, which was tough, because I could easily include Isaac Belliveau, Joshua Roy and/or Cameron Whynot in this spot. However, I ultimately went with the Québec Remparts centreman because he’s just so exciting to watch.
But he almost wasn’t on this list, having previously committed to the NCAA’s Kimball Union Academy before deciding to go the Q route. It turned out to be a great choice, as the forward put up 23 goals, 22 assists, and 45 points in 58 games in his rookie season. This includes an impressive start to his campaign where he collected nine goals in his first nine games.
When you watch Malatesta play, you can be sure of one thing: shots. He loves to shoot the puck and it’s just going to keep going in at higher and higher rates for him. He led all rookies with 231 shots in 2019-20. The closest to him? Maxim Bykov with 176.
On top of this, Malatesta adds speed and creativity to his game, making him a dangerous and dynamic offensive threat. He drives to the net, he forces himself and the puck through gaps, and it pays off for him. If there’s one player on this list that I expect to take a big step forward this season, it’s Malatesta.
Others to Watch
As I mentioned, this one was tough to limit to five, because there’s a lot of talent to watch from this league. Here are some of those other players to keep an eye on:
- Isaac Belliveau, D, Rimouski Oceanic
- Lorenzo Canonica, F, Shawinigan Cataractes
- Justin Robidas, C Val-d’Or Foreurs
- Joshua Roy, C, Saint John Sea Dogs
- Cameron Whynot, D, Halifax Mooseheads
QMJHL Will Be Center of Attention Ahead of 2021 NHL Draft
See what I did there? Because of all the centremen from the QMJHL in the draft. You get it.
There’s a ton of centres in the Q draft class this year and it will be something to behold. Sure, one or two of them might end up shifting to the wing at the next level, but it should be an exciting campaign for these players nonetheless. The moral of the story is that the QMJHL has a very strong group of prospects eligible for the 2021 NHL Draft that will be commanding your attention all season long.
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Starting out as an Ottawa Senators contributor for The Hockey Writers, Josh is now an editor and at-large contributor, focusing on prospects, the NHL Draft, hockey history, and breaking news stories.