Every year there are legitimate NHL prospects who, for one reason or another, slip through the cracks and end up back in Junior hockey playing out their 20-year-old seasons as undrafted or unsigned free agents. And every year there are a handful of these overage Junior players who are rewarded for their years of hard work and dedication with NHL entry-level deals.
Last year, there was a lot of fanfare over Moose Jaw Warriors overage forward Dryden Hunt, who was turning heads with his stellar play in the WHL. Hunt had been passed over in consecutive NHL drafts before finally raising his stock enough to be considered a legitimate NHL prospect in the eyes of several organizations. The native of Nelson, British Columbia was reportedly recruited by multiple NHL teams in the midst of his fifth junior season before signing with the Florida Panthers in early March 2016.
Looking to follow in Hunt’s footsteps are a trio of QMJHL products currently playing out the final year of their Junior hockey careers.
1. Matthew Highmore (F)
Saint John Sea Dogs
As the leading scorer on the QMJHL’s top scoring team, Matthew Highmore has put together a solid and, more importantly, consistent 2016-17 season to date. The always-improving Saint John Sea Dogs assistant captain is coming off a week in which he took home the QMJHL’s first star honors with seven points in three games–a total which included power play and shorthanded tallies for his first-place club.
Highmore, originally drafted eighth overall in the 2012 QMJHL draft, is now a fifth-year veteran in the league and is looking to cap off his Junior career with a Memorial Cup and an NHL contract.
The Nova Scotia native is a terrific all-around player who excels on both the power play and penalty kill. He is solid on the forecheck, doesn’t quit on the backcheck and he has tremendous skills around the net. Skating is perhaps Highmore’s most valuable asset as he often displays good edgework, quick acceleration and fantastic speed, all critical for success in today’s pro game.
The biggest knock against the career-Sea Dogs forward is his size but, at 5-foot-11, he wouldn’t be the first player of his stature to make it to the big leagues. In fact, you don’t have to look far from Highmore’s hometown to find a 5-foot-11 Cole Harbour native who’s had a fair share of success at the NHL level.
Highmore impressed scouts enough with his play in the past to get a small taste of the NHL. He has twice earned NHL development camp invitations but was forced to miss out on his chance with the Panthers organization in 2016 due to injury. The winger is looking to do one better than a rookie camp invitation next year as he hopes that his play will be enough to land him a contract from one of the NHL’s 31 organizations ahead of the 2017-18 season.
2. Olivier Leblanc (D)
Cape Breton Screaming Eagles
Olivier Leblanc has had some ups and downs in his search for an NHL career. The left-shot defenseman was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the seventh round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft but was not offered a contract before his rights with the club expired. The defender re-entered the draft in 2016 but was ultimately passed over before officially becoming a free agent.
— Tom Ayers (@tomayers2262) February 19, 2015
Not letting the absence of an NHL contract deter him, the Quebec-native accepted a training camp invitation from the Arizona Coyotes in 2016 with the goal of turning pro with their AHL affiliate. Leblanc’s path to the NHL would take another detour, however, as he was subsequently released from camp and returned to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles for his 20-year-old campaign.
Leblanc was taken 11th overall by Saint John in the 2012 QMJHL draft, three spots after Highmore was selected by the same team. His leadership traits were apparent and the blueliner was named captain of the Sea Dogs during his 18-year-old season which is a rare honour in Junior hockey.
The Sea Dogs would later trade their captain, along with forward Declan Smith, to Cape Breton on Jan. 5, 2015 in a substantial move that would jumpstart their rebuilding plans. In exchange, the Sea Dogs received defenseman Jason Bell, who was the 12th overall pick in the 2013 QMJHL draft, and the Drummondville Voltigeurs’ 2015 first-round pick which wound up being the first overall selection. The QMJHL’s first ever exceptional status player, Joe Veleno, was eventually taken with the pick.
Slight in stature, the 6-foot defender is not a major physical presence on the ice but relies on his hockey sense and positioning to keep the opposition at bay. The current Screaming Eagles captain is a fluid skater and possesses an excellent breakout pass which helps his team’s transition game.
There’s little doubt that Leblanc is the top overage defenseman in the QMJHL this season and has the skillset to succeed beyond Junior hockey. The smooth skating defenseman should be playing professional hockey somewhere in 2017-18.
3. Alexis D’Aoust (F)
— Hockey Le Magazine (@HockeyMagazine) June 16, 2016
A 44-goal scorer in 2015-16, Alexis D’Aoust knows how to put the puck in the net. The 20-year-old sniper has only played in 17 games this season but has 13 goals to his name.
The stocky forward attended Vancouver Canucks training camp in September where he made a positive impression and earned an extended look. D’Aoust was eventually cut but stayed within the Canucks’ organization for a stretch longer as he also participated in training camp with their AHL affiliate Utica Comets. Despite the lengthy try out, the Quebec-native eventually returned to the QMJHL for his overage season with the Shawinigan Cataractes.
D’Aoust finished one point behind Columbus prospect Pierre-Luc Dubois in 2015-16 and is currently outscoring the third overall pick this season. D’Aoust is one of those coveted right-shot snipers and his superb finishing skills could be his ticket to the next level. The winger is perhaps the best pure goal scorer in the QMJHL right now.
The 20-year-old should have lots of opportunities to impress visiting scouts as his Cataractes are rumoured to be loading up for a long playoff run.
There are a few other notable overage players suiting up in the QMJHL who have more than an outside chance at professional careers in the sport.
Some names to watch include Julio Billia (G), Kameron Kielly (F), Francois Beauchemin (F), Antoine Waked (F), Tyler Boland (F), Joey Ratelle (F), Alexandre Goulet (F) and Christophe Boivin (F).
Just because a player doesn’t get drafted into the NHL doesn’t mean that the dream is over. Look at current examples like Tyler Johnson, Mark Giordano and Dan Girardi who went from undrafted Junior players to vital pieces of their NHL organization.
Mark Bowie covers the Edmonton Oilers and the QMJHL for THW.