Hockey Canada shook up QMJHL team draft boards Thursday, reversing their original decision and allowing 15-year-old prodigy Joseph Veleno to enter the 2015 QMJHL Draft.
Canada’s hockey brass originally said no to the young star from Kirkland, just outside of Montreal, as he submitted his papers for exceptional status after the deadline, but they changed their minds.
The draft is set to run Saturday at the Palais des Sports Léopold-Drolet in Sherbrooke, home of the Phoenix.
Veleno is a 200-foot player, rare at 15, and a great skater with great instincts. He immediately shot up the draft board into the number one spot and will most likely be the number one selection by the Saint John Sea Dogs come Saturday. His 52 points in 41 games were good enough for 12th in scoring in the Quebec Midget AAA Hockey League this season, as an underaged 14-year-old. He idolizes Jonathan Drouin, another talent from his Lac-Saint-Louis program, and he hopes to follow that path of QMJHL to NHL.
It is the first exceptional status given out to a player from the QMJHL. Four players were previously granted the status: John Tavares, Aaron Ekblad, Connor McDavid and Sean Day. Day was the only one who wasn’t taken first overall in his draft year, and many were questioning if Hockey Canada should ever grant the status again.
The CHL’s other league, the Western Hockey League, drafts players out of bantam, so this issue is avoided entirely.
It is a major asset to not only get a first overall pick, but to be guaranteed three years of service out of that pick. With the NHL’s trend towards youth and players on their entry-level contracts, young players are pushed into the top league like never before. The extra year for a junior team to market and harness the skills of a top-level junior player is invaluable, and it’s a major reason why the Sea Dogs are expected to call out Veleno’s name first on Saturday.
It’s the fifth time in their history that Saint John will make a first overall selection.
Acadie-Bathurst picks second and Victoriaville picks third. Behind the now-available Veleno are two intriguing prospects out of Quebec, Maxime Comtois and Antoine Morand. Both players were members of the Châteauguay Grenadiers, and both won the Jimmy-Ferrari Cup. Rumour has it that both the second and third picks could be in play for the right price.
Comtois is the top-ranked prospect on QMJHL’s central scouting list. He is a prototypical power forward and has a powerful stride to match. He’s got a knack for putting the puck in the net, as his 23 goals would suggest, and he’s scored them in timely fashion. His playmaking ability is enough to focus on it’s own and isn’t just a decoy for his shot; he also had 33 assists in 41 games for the Grenadiers, and he ran the point on their power play this year.
Morand added 55 points of his own, playing on the same line, and he lead team Quebec in scoring at the Canada Games, with 11 points in six games, where Comtois had eight. The name of his game is speed, whether with the puck on the rush or on the forecheck or the penalty kill. He creates turnovers and plays using his speed. He’s fearless and a foot soldier, and competes hard despite his small frame, listed at 5’9” and 156 pounds. He joined Comtois on the Grenadier power play on a rare five-man unit. He’s ranked second on the Q list.
Third on the league’s list is an intriguing name and one that has been on scouts lists for a while: Halifax’s Shane Bowers. Bowers is an interesting case – a do-it-all offensive forward that the Sea Dogs were believed to have their eyes on with the first overall pick until Veleno came available. Bowers is also a risky move for the wrong team, as it’s believed he will only report to certain squads, or may forgo the whole QMJHL arena entirely and explore his options stateside.
They may still make a move to get him, with three first round picks in tow, one of only two teams to boast that.
Bowers can put together some great offensive plays with his speed, puck-handling, shot or playmaking skills. The biggest factor he brings to the table is that he can perform all his fundamentals at a high-speed, a very tough skill to master at his age. He had 52 points in 31 games in the regular season for the Halifax McDonald’s Major Midget Team.
Unfortunately for the Sea Dogs, the other team with three picks is the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, and they sit at 4th and 6th. They might want the Haligonian offensive star, who is the top ranked non-Quebecker in the draft by a mile.
The Halifax Mooseheads, his hometown team, are also rumoured to be making a run for a higher pick than their 7th spot for the purpose of grabbing Bowers.
All three players are great talents who could lead a QMJHL team to a championship if they develop as expected.
Rounding out the top five on the Q list are Antoine Crete-Belzile and Jocktan Chainey, a pair of blueliners.
Crete-Belzile is a coach’s dream on the back end. He may be a bit undersized (5’11” and 165), but he wins more battles than he loses and brings plenty to the table as a stabilizing blueliner. He has the speed to keep up with top forwards bearing down, and the elite hockey sense to know when to make a move to shut them down. He brings a good shot from the point and a great eye for the transition.
It is rumoured that Crete-Belzile might be eyeing the U.S. college route, and whether that’s to avoid a team or two or whether it’s a serious venture remains to be seen.
Chainey brings some solid point work to a team; he has a great point shot, maybe the best in the draft, and good mobility. His hockey sense isn’t elite, but he moves quickly and gets out of trouble well. He has a big frame at 195 and could be a physical force if he hones in on that aspect of his game.
The top netminder in the draft, according to the league’s scouting bureau, is St-François’s Dereck Baribeau, ranked seventh.
Baribeau is a tall, agile goalie with quick moves and reflexes. He stays big well with his 6’4” frame. His only issue seems to stem from his calm and cool demeanor; some scouts think he needs to work on his work ethic and effort.
The Sea Dogs and Screaming Eagles both have three picks in the opening round, the most of any team. Cape Breton has a unique pick though, the 19th pick, the last pick of the round. That is a compensatory pick for the Screaming Eagles releasing the rights to their first rounder last year, Michael O’Leary.
The Sea Dogs and Screaming Eagles have already been willing trade partners this season, with the Sea Dogs sending Olivier LeBlanc and Declan Smith to the Screaming Eagles for Jason Bell and the first pick of the draft, which was originally a Drummondville pick.
With three picks apiece, they may wheel and deal their way to whomever they want on the board.
The Voltigeurs will pick 18th instead, picking up the Rimouski first rounder.
The Val-d’Or Foreurs and the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada are the only teams with two first rounders. The Armada are at the 11th and 16th spots, while the Foreurs are sitting at 13th and 15th.
The Gatineau Olympiques, Baie-Comeau Drakkar, Rimouski Oceanic, Quebec Remparts and the hometown Sherbrooke Phoenix are all sitting the first round out. Expect the Phoenix to make a splash at their own party and trade into the first round.
The QMJHL’s trading period opens Friday and closes Saturday in a small window for teams to shuffle their decks during the draft. Their official central scouting rankings are available here.