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Couturier headlines talented draft class in QMJHL

by Mike G. Morreale
The last time the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League produced as many as four first-round Entry Draft picks was 2007, when forwards Jakub Voracek, Logan MacMillan, Angelo Esposito and David Perron were taken among the top 26 selections.

There's a good chance that mark will be equaled, if not surpassed, on June 24, when the opening round of the 2011 Entry Draft is held at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Heck, don't be surprised if as many as four players are selected from the same team -- the Saint John Sea Dogs. There's also center Sean Couturier of the Drummondville Voltigeurs. He's collected 50 goals and 127 points in 126 games over two seasons and is considered the can't-miss prospect from the QMJHL.

"I think this year is going to be an outstanding year for the 'Q,'" Sea Dogs coach Gerard Gallant told "Couturier is obviously a big guy in there, but just from seeing some of the teams already, there's real good young talent in the league. Last year, we weren't too happy with the talent in the Q that went in the draft, but from what I'm seeing, it's going to be a good draft year for the Q in the NHL. We'll have more high-end talent in the league this year, for sure."

Gallant, who led the Sea Dogs to their first QMJHL President's Cup Final with a league-best 109 points and was named the 2010 Canadian Hockey League Coach of the Year, can sense a few of his top players gripping their sticks a little tighter in their draft year.

"I think some of these kids are feeling some pressure and not just the top prospects … we're coming back from an outstanding year in 2009-10 where we finished first overall in our league," Gallant said. "We might have started the season a little bit cocky and weren't doing the things we needed to do to play good hockey. When you start thinking about the team first, good things will happen and there's a lot going on in their heads right now. We're going to get there. It's a long season."

Here's a look at some of the top draft-eligible prospects who will be scrutinized, publicized and lauded leading up to the draft.

Sean Couturier, Drummondville -- There's reason to believe Couturier will be the first player chosen from the QMJHL in June.

Not only does he posses the size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) and skill any pro scout would crave, but he has become a reliable commodity in his own end.

"At his size, he'll be hard to pass up in the draft," NHL Central Scouting's Chris Bordeleau told "He possesses a very good work ethic and he's out there for every important faceoff. He's very responsible in the defensive aspect of the game -- a rare quality for such a young player in junior hockey. He's No. 1 in Quebec."

Despite missing the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled by G Series in August with an illness, he's returned to form for the Voltigeurs. In 19 games, Couturier has 11 goals, 25 points and a plus-13 rating while winning 57 percent of his faceoffs (223 for 387).

"He's a big centerman and pure scorer that the Quebec league hasn't had in a number of years," Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire said.

Couturier led the QMJHL in scoring with 96 points in 2009-10, becoming the first 17-year-old to do so since Sidney Crosby of the Rimouski Oceanic in 2004-05. He also led the club with a plus-62 rating. Born in Phoenix, Ariz., and now living in Bathurst, N.B., Couturier represented Canada at the 2010 World Under-18 Championships and participated in Canada's World Junior Evaluation Camp in St. John's, Newfoundland, in August as one of only two 18-year-olds (Nathan Beaulieu of Saint John the other) in attendance.

Tomas Jurco, Saint John -- If you haven't already seen Jurco's incredible shootout goal against the Cape Breton Eagles last March 10, do yourself a favor and check it out via your favorite online video source. The 6-foot, 180-pound Slovakian star is exceptionally skilled with fantastic vision.

"He missed all of training camp because he wanted to finish his schooling in Slovakia, but he caught up to speed pretty quickly when he returned," Gallant said. "He's a dynamic player and although he was a little behind in his conditioning at the start, he's going to be outstanding. He's a big-bodied guy with a great skill level and competes really hard."

In 16 games this season, he has 10 goals, 7 assists and a plus-13 rating.

"He's a very good skater with size and excellent puck skills," Bordeleau said. "He has all the tools of a first-round draft pick."

Nathan Beaulieu, Saint John -- The 6-foot-1, 175-pound defenseman, who enters his third season in the league, helped lead the Sea Dogs to the QMJHL championship last season with 16 points in 21 playoff games.

Beaulieu, whose plus-43 rating in 2009-10 was the top single-season mark ever recorded by a Saint John defenseman, works out in the summer with Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, Washington Capitals defenseman John Carlson and Vancouver Canucks prospect Cody Hodgson.

"Last year was an outstanding year for Nathan; he had a lot of points and played very well," Gallant said. "I think this year, I'm seeing a bigger, better and stronger player already. He's playing a lot better defensively. He gets a lot of opportunities because he jumps into the rush very well. He's been pressing a little too hard at the start of the season, but once he gets relaxed and starts playing a more solid all-round game, his points will come."

Beaulieu, a native of Strathroy, Ont., has 2 goals, 6 points and a plus-4 rating in 16 games with the Sea Dogs. He participated in the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled by G Series in August.

"He'll be an offensive-defenseman … he's a good skater, good puck-mover," Bordeleau said. "He has a good shot and is very poised with the puck. He's a veteran who will have a lot of responsibilities for Saint John."

Jonathan Huberdeau, Saint John -- As a rookie in 2009-10, the left-shooting center finished second among first-year players in the league with 18 points (11 goals) in 21 playoff games. He had 15 goals and 35 points in 61 regular-season contests, represented Team Quebec at the 2010 World Under-17 Challenge and played for Team Canada at the 2010 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.

"I can put Jonathan on the ice in any situation … the last minute of a game when we're behind by a goal or ahead by a goal," Gallant said. "He comes to play every time. His vision is outstanding, he has great puck skills and I think he's the complete package."

Huberdeau, who also participated in the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled by G Series in August, has 11 goals, 9 assists, a team-leading 20 points and a plus-18 rating in 16 games for the Sea Dogs this season. He's also racked up 23 penalty minutes.

"You can see when he decides to turn it on how effective he can be," Bordeleau said. "He has pretty good puck skills and is a physical player. I just hope he keeps on working to improve."

Zack Phillips, Saint John -- Phillips made a relatively seamless transition from the prep school ranks at Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts to the QMJHL last season. He finished third on the team and ninth in the league among rookies with 44 points in 65 games.

"Zack centers a line with Jurco and improves every day," Gallant said. "When he came over from prep school, he didn't want to move the puck a whole lot, but now he's playing with top-end players and really moves the puck and is driving hard."

Gallant felt Phillips' participation in the NHL RDO camp was a great experience for him. In 16 games with the Sea Dogs, he has 9 goals (4 power-play goals), 16 points and a plus-11 rating.

"It was good that he saw how guys skated, how they moved the puck (at RDO camp)," Gallant said. "But Zack has great vision and is strong on the puck. He's a solid center iceman and has come a long way in a short time. He kind of reminds me of an Adam Oates-type of player … he's strong on the puck down low and in the corners and has nifty hands."

Christopher Gibson, Chicoutimi -- The 6-foot-1, 193-pound goalie is certainly determined -- he left his native Karkkila, Finland, for Canada at the age of 15 to play at Notre Dame Academy in Wilcox, Sask. He led the team to the 2009 Telus Cup, Canada's national midget AAA championship, on a 43-save shutout in the tournament final.

Gibson might be the best goaltender to come out of the QMJHL since Marc-Andre Fleury (Cape Breton) and Jonathan Bernier (Lewiston). He's 6-3-2 in 11 games for the Sagueneens and ranks second in the league with a 2.14 goals-against average and first with a .929 save percentage.

"I watched one game where he stopped four breakaways in the first period alone," Bordeleau said. "The score would have been 15-1 without him in net."

"He's got very good net coverage, has good size and is very strong in his crease," NHL Central Scouting's goalie scout, Al Jensen, said. "He plays determined and aggressive, his movements are controlled, he tracks the puck very well and he challenges properly and holds his ground."

Phillip Danault, Victoriaville -- The swift-skating Danault put up 10 goals and 28 points in 61 games to lead all first-year players in Victoriaville last season. He also had 3 assists in 5 games for Team Quebec at the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Timmins, Ont., and led his midget team (Trois-Rivières) to the provincial finals, posting 8 goals and 27 points in 44 games.

"He's a very hard-working kid, good skater and smart with the puck," Bordeleau said. "He injured his shoulder at the start of the season, but that shouldn't hurt his status."

Danault, who impressed at Canada's Under-18 camp in Calgary over the summer, is a bit of an unknown at this stage, but won't be for long. He was Victoriaville's first-round selection (No. 9) in the 2009 QMJHL Entry Draft. He led the team in goals and tied for the team lead in scoring among rookies, in addition to ranking third on the team in hits.

Through 17 games this season, he has 8 goals, 12 assists and a plus-8 rating.

Xavier Ouellet, Montreal Juniors -- Despite being a bit undersized for a defenseman at 6-foot and 174 pounds, Ouellet has been praised for his smarts and ability to transition well out of his own end. He's gotten off to an impressive start in his second season with the Juniors, generating 2 goals, 16 points and a plus-9 rating through 16 games.

"He's a Keith Ballard-type of defenseman," Bordeleau said. "He's skilled and poised with the puck. He's obviously got to get stronger, like most of these draft-eligible kids, but he's a good defenseman. He's not a bruiser or anything like that, but he just plays his position pretty well."

Ouellet represented Team Quebec in the 2010 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and finished his first year in the QMJHL with 2 goals and 16 points in 43 games while being named to the league's Rookie All-Star Team. He also represented Team Canada at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament last August.

Olivier Archambault, Val d'Or -- The swift-skating forward stands just 5-10 and 165 pounds, but certainly knows how to protect the puck and release an accurate, hard shot. In 2009-10, he had 12 goals and 27 points in 58 games for the Foreurs. Through 15 games this season, he has 9 goals and 15 points.

"He's just so smart with and without the puck," Bordeleau said. "He's the type of player who scores those picturesque goals. He can dangle and is a hell of a playmaker. He's going to be a good player down the road."

He played for Team Quebec at the 2010 U-17 World Hockey Challenge, notching 3 goals and 7 points in five games.

Maximilien Le Sieur, Shawinigan -- There's little doubt any team in need of a burner down the wing will have the 5-foot-11 3/4, 190-pound Le Sieur in its cross-hairs.

Le Sieur has 5 goals and 13 points -- already career highs as he skates in his third QMJHL season -- in 16 games for the Cataractes. He played for Team Quebec at the 2009 U-17 World Hockey Challenge and had 2 goals and 5 points in five games.

"He's a great skater and skating is what you need in today's game," Bordeleau said. "If you can get to the net with that speed and handle the puck well, you'll be looked at. Le Sieur has that … he's going to be a player."

Jean-Francois Leblanc, Val d'Or -- At this point, Leblanc, tabbed a defensive forward, certainly has the size (6-4, 192) to attract attention. On top of that, through 18 games this season, he's second on the team in scoring with 16 points, including 7 goals, to complement a plus-3 rating. He's also won 54 percent of his faceoffs.

"He's still very raw," Bordeleau said. "His size is fine, but to play in the NHL now you need more than size. If you can't handle the puck and can't take a hit, you won't be able to play. We'll see how he progresses this season."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale
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