Once considered mostly an afterthought in the ongoing and ever-present recruiting battle between college hockey and the Canadian Hockey League, the QMJHL has made a more concerted effort to attract top-end talent from the United States. This summer, it may be starting to pay some dividends, if only for a few teams.
For years, the QMJHL had been essentially a non-factor, with the number of American players competing in the league at a rather low number. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that as the QMJHL lagged behind on attracting U.S.-based talent, the Ontario Hockey League and Western Hockey League were taking big steps forward and strengthening their leagues.
However, coming off the third straight year of a QMJHL team winning the Memorial Cup and a draft in which the league boasted the first and third overall picks — Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin — as well as four other players taken within the first 22 picks, the QMJHL made a statement in regards to its ability to attract and produce elite players.
Perhaps that is part of what has led to a larger number of American-born players heading to the QMJHL this summer, which has been one of the most intriguing storylines of another rough summer of decommitments.
In 2012, the QMJHL adopted a new rule stating that each team in the league was required to select two American-born players during its draft. The first draft for this rule was met with rather passive drafting from the member clubs, as detailed by Y! Sports Canada’s Buzzing the Net:
A total of four Americans were taken in the first seven rounds of the draft, with a whopping 17 taken in the final two rounds, where teams had to complete their American quota picks. None of those 17 picks played in the QMJHL this season.
From that draft, only one player — Conor Garland, a former Penn State commit — ended up playing in the Q the following season, but didn’t report until December.
Jack Eichel, who Halifax took in the first round that season, never reported and the Mooseheads eventually gave up his draft rights for a compensatory pick. The Boston University commit affirmed his allegiance to BU and the National Team Development Program last year, triggering Halifax’s move.
So, basically, the QMJHL still wasn’t gaining much traction as a viable option for most American prospects. In fact, even some high-profile players within the QMJHL’s borders started making the decision to go elsewhere.
Michael Matheson and Kevin Roy are two of the biggest names in that mix. Matheson and Roy both chose the USHL over their native QMJHL, due to a desire to stay on the college path. Matheson played a year with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in 2011-12 and ended up as a first-round pick the next season.
Roy meanwhile set the USHL ablaze, becoming the first player to top 100 points in the league’s Tier 1 era, and scoring more goals than anyone had in two decades (54). He was a third-round pick of the Anaheim Ducks in 2012 and was a standout freshman for Northeastern University last season. His rights were held by the Quebec Remparts, a Q team that has had very few problems getting the players they want over the years, be they native Canadian, American or European.
The more recent history of American players going to the QMJHL is also fairly short. Keith Yandle is probably the most notable current American NHLer who played in the QMJHL. Charlie Coyle was also a fairly high-profile guy who left college hockey for the Q, but he only played half a season with the Saint John Sea Dogs.
More recently, Adam Erne left the USHL after one season to play for the Quebec Remparts. Over two years, he was highly productive and was a second-round pick in the NHL Draft this summer for Tampa Bay.
There’s also a cautionary tale, and that belongs to Brandon Shea, who decommitted from Boston College and walked out on a player agreement with the NTDP to sign with the Moncton Wildcats. He played half a season in 2011-12 and eventually quit the team and went on a roller coaster ride that ended in the EJHL last season. Once considered one of the top American-born players in the 1995 birth year, he went undrafted in this year’s NHL Entry Draft. He is reportedly set to rejoin the Quebec Remparts who he spent a few games in 2012-13 with.
So there’s some good and bad in the crib notes version of the Americans-to-the-Q story.
It should be said that the QMJHL has a few disadvantages right out of the gate when it comes to attracting American talent. For one, most of the teams are in predominantly French-speaking towns, which can be intimidating for an unilingual American. Secondly, unlike the OHL’s wide swath of U.S. states to pull from, the Q essentially can only draft out of the New England region.
It is much more difficult to pluck a Massachusetts native, for example, than it is for an OHL team to attract a Michigander. A lot of New England-based players traditionally have chosen to stay close to home, favoring the EJHL or prep hockey as their path to a college scholarship.
More are starting to matriculate to the USHL as the league continues to grow and develop more top talent, but it is still usually a challenge to get a New Englander to leave the region.
Like the USHL in recent years, the QMJHL is starting to break down those barriers.
In the 2013 QMJHL Draft, it was clear more teams were taking the new American drafting rules to heart as eight Americans were selected within the first seven rounds. Western College Hockey Blog has the full rundown.
Perhaps that is part of the reason the Q is starting to attract more players this summer. A lot of these signings have been coming faster in the latter stages of summer.
Cam Askew was picked by Drummondville in the first round and he could be the biggest name of the summer for the QMJHL. He had been on a run of commitments and decommitments over the last few years including a pulled commitment from Northeastern in favor of Boston University. Askew then signed a tender with the Indiana Ice, who probably knew the risks they were taking when signing him, which made him the de facto first pick in the USHL futures draft.
When Drummondville picked him 13th overall in the Futures Draft, everyone knew where he’d play next year. Askew is widely considered one of the top U.S. forwards in the 1997 birth year, so he could be an interesting case study in this ongoing recruiting battle.
The Moncton Wildcats, which has been one of the more successful teams at luring American talent, drafted Massachusetts native Willy Smith in the sixth round and eventually signed him, nullifying Smith’s commitment to UMass.
Update (8/22): Late Wednesday night after this was published, Moncton announced it had signed Holden, Mass., native Tucker White, a 1996-born 6-foot-5, 200-pound defenseman. He played for the Boston Jr. Bruins last season.
The Q also attracted Cam Darcy, who left Northeastern University last season and played in the USHL for the second half of the year. He still had college eligibility, but probably would have had to spend another year in the USHL. Instead, the undrafted 19-year-old signed with the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles.
Even later in the summer, the Sherbrooke Phoenix was able to lure a pair of American-born players to the QMJHL. Chase Harwell, a 1997-born forward who was formerly committed to Quinnipiac University, was a fourth-round pick in the last QMJHL Draft and recently signed with the team. As did Mitchell Lundholm, a 6-foot-4 winger who the Phoenix drafted in the eighth round of that 2012 draft that included so many late-round American picks.
Just last week, the Halifax Mooseheads scored a pair of New Hampshire natives in brothers Connor and Danny Moynihan. Connor, a big 1997-born forward was a fifth-round pick of the defending Memorial Cup champions this summer. His brother Danny, a 1995-born forward I don’t believe was ever drafted, so he signed as a free agent.
There was also the signing of a 1997-born Canadian-born goalie who looked to be on the college path. The Quebec Remparts signed Callum Booth, a native of Quebec who was playing prep hockey in New England.
One of the important things to remember is that some of these players, perhaps most, may not be high-impact players in general. Usually when an American signs with a CHL club, it’s a fairly big to do regardless of the player’s ability. All this really says is that the QMJHL is trying harder and maybe succeeding a bit more in at least drawing more guys to the league. The jury is still out on a lot of these players, even Askew, though he remains the most promising of the bunch.
Will this open the floodgates of Americans to the Q? It’s hard to say, but it’s certainly a start and the QMJHL maybe can no longer be considered of little threat to college programs recruiting New England talent.
Again, it could just be a one-summer thing and the Q will probably never find the success the OHL has had in recruiting American prospects, but what has been happening this summer won’t go unnoticed.
It certainly won’t go unnoticed by the Q’s competitors in college hockey and the American junior and prep ranks. Perhaps more importantly, however, it won’t go unnoticed by prospective players. Like with the OHL, there’s potential for a domino effect. Not a big one, but as more players make the move, it seems like a more viable option to players that may not have had previously considered it.
With a fairly new front in the ever intensifying recruiting battle between college hockey and Canadian major junior, the landscape has become even more complicated.