The Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League were a popular destination for NHL scouts this season.
NHL Central Scouting invited six players from the Sea Dogs to the NHL Scouting Combine, and had a Canadian Hockey League-leading 10 players listed on Central Scouting's final ranking of the top prospects for the 2015 NHL Draft.
"They have a young team, have done well in the European draft and have had the top picks in the QMJHL draft the last couple of years," Central Scouting's Troy Dumville said. "They've built a good stable of young players."
Among those players are four ranked among Central Scouting's top 55 prospects: Defensemen Jakub Zboril (No. 12) and Thomas Chabot (No. 16), and forwards Nathan Noel (No. 54) and Adam Marsh (No. 55). Also well-regarded forwards Samuel Dove-McFalls (No. 70) and Mathieu Joseph (No. 125), and defensemen Bailey Webster (No. 122) Jack van Boekel (No. 180) and Jason Bell (No. 187).
The last time there was this much draft-related interest in Saint John was for the 2011 draft, when center Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida Panthers, No. 3), defenseman Nathan Beaulieu (Montreal Canadiens, No. 17) and center Zack Philips (Minnesota Wild, No. 28) were picked in the first round, and right wing Tomas Jurco (Detroit Red Wings, No. 35) and center Ryan Tesink (St. Louis Blues, No. 162) also were selected.
"We have a great team moving forward and we're proud of what happened this year; it's great that a lot of guys have a chance to get drafted into the NHL," Noel said. "Everyone looks back at that team that had Huberdeau, Phillips and all those guys who were high picks in the NHL. They won a Memorial Cup [in 2011] and that's what we're striving to do."
NHL Director of Central Scouting Dan Marr said the talent and depth throughout the Sea Dogs' lineup makes them an early Memorial Cup contender for next season.
"I didn't even realize how many [players Saint John has ranked] until it was pointed out to me at midseason," Marr said. "There are a lot of players who have grown and developed; next year they're going to be an exciting team to watch."
VELENO UNIQUE ADDITION TO SAINT JOHN
Saint John Sea Dogs coach Danny Flynn has plenty of reasons to get excited for next season, his first with the team.
In addition to returning many top players to the lineup, including top 2015 NHL Draft prospects defensemen Jakub Zboril and Thomas Chabot, the Sea Dogs will have 15-year-old center Joseph Veleno.
The Sea Dogs selected Veleno with the first pick of the QMJHL draft on June 6, days after he became the first Quebec player to be granted exceptional player status by Hockey Canada. That allowed him to enter the QMJHL draft one year earlier than other players.
He's the fifth player to earn exceptional player status, joining John Tavares (2005), Aaron Ekblad (2011), Connor McDavid (2012) and Sean Day (2013).
A 6-foot-1, 170-pound forward, Veleno this season had 16 goals and 52 points in 41 games as an underage player with the Lac St-Louis Lions of the Quebec Midget AAA Hockey League. He also had four goals and 10 points in six games for Team Quebec at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, British Columbia.
"We are extremely happy to select [Veleno] and welcome him and his family into the Sea Dog family," Sea Dogs general manager Darrell Young told the Sea Dogs website. "Expectations will be high but we will maintain a patient mindset."
Zboril, a native of Brno, Czech Republic, had 13 goals and 33 points in 44 games. He finished 16th in rookie scoring in the QMJHL, and had one goal and three points in the playoffs. Zboril's older brother, Adam, spent 2012-13 as a forward in the QMJHL with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and now plays for SaiPa in Liiga, Finland's top professional league.
"I was mad because he was always better than me so I always pushed harder," Jakub said of his older brother. "I think I'm a good skater with a hard shot. I have good vision and play a physical game."
Dumville said he likes Zboril's toughness along the blue line.
"He's a real gamer," he said. "He brings a lot to the table. He's a good skater, has a great shot from the point and has good mobility. He plays good at both ends of the ice."
Chabot, of Ste-Marie-de-Beauce, Quebec, led all Saint John defenders with 41 points in 66 games.
"I'm an offensive type but want to be a two-way defenseman," Chabot said. "I'm working a lot on my defensive game. I'm good with the puck and good in my decision-making."
The top-ranked forwards on Central Scouting's final rankings are Noel, a center, and Marsh, a left wing.
Noel, 17, led the Sea Dogs with 62 points, and tied Marsh for the lead with 24 goals in 66 games. The second-year native of Saint John's, Newfoundland, also led the Sea Dogs with five goals in five playoff games. At the Scouting Combine he tied for third with 12 pull-ups.
"I'm an undersized center (5-foot-11, 172 pounds) but like to play hard and bigger than I am," Noel said. "I'll use my skating to an advantage and can do a good job finding teammates."
Marsh (6-foot, 160), a native of Chicago, might be the most intriguing of all the prospects in Saint John. He was fourth among QMJHL rookies with 24 goals and was 10th with 44 points in 60 games. Marsh, the son of former NHL player Peter Marsh, spent two seasons with the under-16 Chicago Young Americans before joining the Sea Dogs this season.
"Marsh has a deceptive shot and he scored some big-time goals for Saint John," Marr said. "He's 160 pounds wet, so you're projecting that he's going to fill out. He's got some talent, a little bit of grit, and that's not a bad combination to have."
Dumville also likes what he's seen from Marsh.
"When the game is on the line and the puck is on his tape, it's in the net," Dumville said. "Saint John has a real gift there. He had some challenges in adjusting to life in the QMJHL but he's highly skilled."
Marsh said his parents never pressured him to play hockey, but he's certainly glad it worked out.
"My parents had never made me do anything I never wanted to do and it was basically all me when I wanted to take hockey more seriously," Marsh said. "A lot of people think my dad would push me to play but he was always just there as a fan; just supported me the whole way."
He said he's excited at the thought of several teammates being picked at the 2015 NHL Draft.
"We have a young team but a lot of skill," Marsh said. "You never know what will happen on draft day. I hope everyone who is ranked gets picked but that doesn't always happen. We'll hope for the best."