Out of the three leagues within the CHL, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) had the weirdest season. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still showing its ugly face in Fall 2020, the CHL as a whole was in jeopardy. The WHL was limited to a 24-game campaign with a February 2021 start, while the OHL didn’t even have a season.
Meanwhile, the QMJHL tried to start their season on time but only made it until October 2020 before postponing until further notice. After several efforts to resume play and more postponements, the league could scrape together an unconventional season. However, because of local travel restrictions and outbreaks happening within certain teams, every team played a different amount of games. Some teams played as many as 43, others played as few as 27. Because of this, seeding was determined based on points percentage rather than total points.
Related: 2021 THW NHL Draft Guide
The point here is that the entire 2020-21 QMJHL season was a headache that I’d imagine most teams, players, and scouts will be happy to move on from. This obviously made scouting a little more difficult, with some teams having a smaller sample size to work with than others. Be that as it may, I’ve managed to put together who I believe are the top ten QMJHL prospects heading into the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
10. Lorenzo Canonica, C, Shawinigan Cataractes
NHL Central Scouting rank: 62nd (among NA skaters)
Canonica is a name that some may be surprised to see I have ranked where I do. The primary reason I have him ranked at 10th is the fact that he’s incredibly young and he’s put up some pretty impressive totals for his age. The Swiss native split the 2020-21 season between his hometown team of Lugano U20 and the QMJHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes.
Overseas, he put up 19 points in 20 games for Lugano U20 and finished in the top ten in scoring on his team despite having played 20 fewer games than most of his teammates. With the Cataractes, he had 16 points in 24 games. He’s a very slick forward who has a wide variety of offensive skills, with playmaking and puckhandling being among his strong suits.
He’s still only 17 years old, not turning 18 until September 3, and while I think he’s most likely to go in the third or fourth round, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a team go off the board and take him with a second-round pick, or even a late first. Hey, was anybody expecting the Columbus Blue Jackets to take Yegor Chinakhov in the first round? There you go.
9. James Malatesta, C, Quebec Remparts
NHL Central Scouting rank: 64th (among NA skaters)
Malatesta has multiple attractive aspects to his game, but one that sticks out in my mind compared to the others is his drive. He never, and I mean never stops moving his feet when he’s on the ice, and despite being on the smaller side at 5-foot-9 and 179 pounds, he will always be the first one in the corners to retrieve the puck.
His motor and will to win is something that doesn’t come naturally for every player, but it does for Malatesta. He put up 23 points in 32 games in 2020-21, so an argument could be made that he didn’t really take much of a step forward from his rookie season, where he put up 45 points in 59 games. But it’s tough to judge something like that when you only have 32 games to work with.
Of course, his work ethic will make NHL GMs and scouts drool, which is why I think it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll end up as a second-round pick. Maybe a third, if anything.
8. Joshua Roy, C, Sherbrooke Phoenix
NHL Central Scouting rank: 66th (among NA skaters)
If you’re looking for a guy who lives and breathes scoring goals, look no further than Roy. The first overall pick in the 2019 QMJHL Entry Draft was electric in his QMJHL draft year and while he obviously doesn’t project as a first overall pick in the NHL draft, the skill that earned him that pick is still evident.
After being traded from the Saint-John Sea Dogs to the Phoenix mid-season, he finished the year with a whopping 22 goals and 35 points in 35 games. Despite his goal-scoring prowess being his most glaring trait, he’s no slacker on the playmaking side of the game either. He has a knack for finding teammates in open areas as well as putting himself in said open areas, which leads to his ability to put the puck in the net.
Roy is another younger player in the draft, as he won’t turn 18 until August 6. He stands at 6-foot and 190 pounds, and while his physicality and two-way game needs improvement, he has some good potential to be a regular NHLer. Look for him to go somewhere between the second and third round.
7. Justin Robidas, C, Val-d’Or Foreurs
NHL Central Scouting rank: 47th (among NA skaters)
While we’re on the topic of smaller, skilled forwards, Robidas fits the bill to a tee. The son of former NHL defenseman Stephane Robidas, Justin plays an entirely different game than his father. Standing at only 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds, he’s not going to be the guy throwing big hits and causing a stir with his opponents, but he’s hard to knock off the puck for somebody his size.
What sets Robidas apart from other players his size is the fact that he’s got more of a well-rounded game than players like Malatesta and Canonica. He’s not necessarily the best playmaker or shooter in the world, but he does the little things right and has a very diverse toolbox. He had 36 points in 35 games for the Foreurs this year and likes to compare his game to Tampa Bay Lightning star Brayden Point.
His hockey IQ, skating, and puck control are among his best strengths and will be the most inviting qualities when it comes time for an NHL team to take a gamble. He’s likely going to be a second-round pick, but he could go anywhere between the late first round and the third round.
6. Cole Huckins, C, Acadie-Bathurst Titan
NHL Central Scouting rank: 44th (among NA skaters)
After a flurry of small-ish centers, Huckins comes in at 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds. And he’s one of those players who’s going to remind you of his size every time he’s on the ice. He spent time playing both center and wing for the Titan, and it was almost as though his style of game shifted depending on where he was playing. At center, he played more of a playmaker’s game. At wing, he projected as more of a power forward.
Regardless of if he plays along the boards or up the middle, you’re guaranteed to get a gritty style of game when Huckins is on the ice. He possesses a strong all-around game and has some solid offensive prowess to go along with his size, finishing the 2020-21 season with 32 points in 33 games for the Titan.
Despite the NHL transitioning to more of a skill-based league, players with good size are no strangers to getting drafted in the early rounds for that reason, especially if they’re good skaters too. While the Fredricton native is ranked all over the board by various outlets, I can’t see him going anywhere but the second round.
5. Zach Dean, C, Gatineau Olympiques
NHL Central Scouting rank: 21st (among NA skaters)
While his offensive totals won’t blow you away, Dean is a very skilled forward who, like Huckins, will mix in a strong physical game to go along with it. He’s not the biggest guy on the ice, standing at 6-foot and 178 pounds, but the fact that his physicality is already one of his best assets tells me that when he puts on a little extra muscle, he’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
After an impressive rookie season with the Olympiques that saw him register 46 points in 57 games, Dean slightly improved his totals to finish with 20 points in 23 games in 2020-21. While that may not strike you as a massive jump in points, it’s hard to judge what his pace would have been if he had the opportunity to play a proper full season.
Dean is the first prospect on this list who I believe has a solid chance to go in the first round. While I still think that, overall, he’s more of a second-round talent than a first, scouts and GMs may be intrigued enough by his unique mix of skill and physicality to take a flier on him with their first pick.
4. Zachary Bolduc, C, Rimouski Oceanic
NHL Central Scouting rank: 17th (among NA skaters)
Any time you have to fill the shoes of a guy like Alexis Lafreniere, it would be hard not to feel any sort of pressure. But Bolduc was in that very position and ran with it. With the 2020 first overall pick dipping his feet in NHL waters for the first time, Bolduc took over and led his team in points in his first season without Lafreniere. He finished the season with 29 points in 27 games.
What impresses me the most about Bolduc’s style of game is the way he’s able to combine his offense with his skating ability. When I say offense, I mean everything from his passing, to his shooting, to his hands. He’s an elite puck controller and has a good hockey IQ to go with it, so you know that most of the time, the play he makes will be the right one. The only fallback to his game is his consistency, but as an 18-year-old, I wouldn’t worry much about that right now.
There’s the odd outlet that has him ranked outside of the first round, but there seems to be a general understanding that he’ll be a late-first round pick, maybe an early second-rounder at best. If he can figure out his consistency issues, he may leave teams wondering why he wasn’t ranked higher.
3. Zachary L’Heureux, C, Halifax Mooseheads
NHL Central Scouting rank: 30th (among NA skaters)
If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of among QMJHL draft prospects this year, it’s players named Zach. And if we’re going to compare the Zachs, L’Heureux’s game is more comparable to Dean’s rather than Bolduc’s. He’s sort of cut from the same cloth as Dean in the sense that they’re both small-ish forwards with a knack for throwing the body and generating offense at the same time.
With 19 goals and 39 points for the Mooseheads this season, he loves scoring goals. He utilizes his slap shot from the hash marks on the power play, and he’s been compared to Brad Marchand and Nazem Kadri in the sense that while you would love to have him on your team, it would be an entirely different story if you had to play against him. He’s always the first one into a scrum after the whistle and while his lack of discipline has proven to be an issue at times, he certainly gives his team a sense of security and confidence when he’s on the ice.
While some pundits have him ranked outside of the first round, I get the sense that his tenacity combined with his offensive skill will be too much for 32 teams to pass on in the first round. The type of game he plays screams playoff performer, and he strikes me as a guy who will do whatever it takes to help his team win.
2. Evan Nause, D, Quebec Remparts
NHL Central Scouting rank: #22 (among NA skaters)
Nause being ranked at number two on my list may come as a surprise, but there’s a lot to like about him as a defenseman. One of his top qualities is his skating ability and mobility, so when you consider that he’s 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds who likes to throw the body, it makes it that much more appealing. He’s also very stable defensively and has a high hockey IQ, so that mistakes won’t come too often.
Nause has had a unique career to get to where he is now. He was born in BC, moved to Nova Scotia to play hockey, and then spent one year in the USHL before returning to Eastern Canada to play in the QMJHL. He had a very successful rookie season in the Q, putting up 22 points through 32 games.
If Nause can work on his speed and maybe put a little bit of work into his shot, he has the potential to be an all-situations top-four defenseman at the NHL level. It’s just a matter of whether or not his development stays on track. While he’s projected by most to be an early second-rounder, I see him being good enough to sneak into the first round.
1. Xavier Bourgault, C, Shawinigan Cataractes
NHL Central Scouting rank: 13th (among NA skaters)
Bourgault comes in as the unanimous top prospect hailing from the QMJHL between my list and the rankings provided by our draft experts at THW. A teammate of Canonica, Bourgault has a quick and accurate shot and can be a scoring threat from just about every area of the ice. He’s also a great passer and has a knack for finding open lanes to reach his teammates. With these two assets combined, he’s a dream to have on the power play and around the net in general.
While his skating and two-way game could use some work, those are two very fixable flaws. What sets Bourgault apart from the other prospects is that, when he isn’t clicking on the scoresheet, he rarely ever finds himself in a position where he’s holding the team back in any way. He always finds a way to contribute in some capacity. Like some of his other counterparts, he didn’t take much of a step forward following his 71-point campaign in 2019-20. However, his 20 goals and 40 points in 29 games are still super impressive and should be an indicator of what’s to come.
Bourgault is about as close as you can get to a guaranteed first-round pick, but there’s still a minimal chance he ends up getting selected in the second round. Overall, I’d say it’s a safe bet to expect him to go somewhere in the 15-25 range.
If there’s one thing you can take away from my list, it’s that there are lots and lots of talented centers coming out of the QMJHL this year. While some of these centers may project as wingers long-term, it should be comforting for the teams that draft them to know that they have that versatility. The pandemic didn’t make things easy for the league, the players, and the personnel, but these players will be rewarded just the same come Friday.
Alex Hobson is a third year broadcasting student at Niagara College. He has been writing about sports since 2005 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Maple Leafs Lounge Podcast, presented by THW. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.