2019 NHL Draft, Editor's Choice, Jordan Spence, Long Read, Maxim Cajkovic, NHL Entry Draft, QMJHL, Valentin Nussbaumer

2019 NHL Draft: QMJHL Sleeper Picks

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The 2018 NHL Entry Draft was a bounce-back year for the QMJHL. Four players were selected in the first round, double the results of 2016 and 2017. Filip Zadina was the first taken from the league at sixth overall by the Detroit Red Wings. Noah Dobson nearly joined him in the top ten, going to the New York Islanders at the twelfth spot, and Joseph Veleno closed out the first round, also landing with the Red Wings at the 31st selection.

Related: 2019 NHL Draft: WHL Sleeper Picks

But a concerning trend emerged as the draft wore on. Nearly every highly-ranked prospect playing in the QMJHL saw their draft stock slip. Zadina was supposed to go top-three, Dobson was supposed to be one of the first defensemen to be picked, and Veleno was projected as a top-15 selection.

Joseph Veleno Red Wings
Joseph Veleno was one of the most surprising draft-day fallers in 2018. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

That trend may continue in 2019. Only Raphael Lavoie and Samuel Poulin consistently projected as first-round selections, but rarely higher than 20th overall. Jacob Pelletier offers an outside chance to sneak in, but scouts are split on the undersized forward. This does not mean that the Quebec leagues lack talent, however: scouts just need to know where to find it.

Jordan Spence

Position: Defense / Team: Moncton Wildcats / Central Scouting Final Rank: 59 (North American Skaters)

Once upon a time, the Quebec league was the place to find top-tier goaltenders: Martin Brodeur, Jose Theodore, and Roberto Luongo all played in the QMJHL before joining the NHL. Nowadays, the trend has turned to undersized defensemen. Kris Letang, Francois Beauchemin, and more recently, Vincent Dunn and Nicholas Beaudin have shown you don’t need size to excel. The next name to join that list could be Jordan Spence.

Jordan Spence of the Moncton Wildcats
Jordan Spence of the Moncton Wildcats (Daniel St-Louis/Moncton Wildcats)

Only 5-foot-10, Spence has become one of the most dynamic defenders in the QMJHL this season. Playing for the Moncton Wildcats, he scored six goals while adding 49 assists in 68 games, earning him the Raymond-Lagace Trophy as the league’s top rookie defenseman, as well as Rookie of the Year honors. Scouts have praised his puck control, vision, and hockey sense, but most of all, they gush over his skating abilities.

“Spence is a complete puck-mover two-way defensemen. His skating is simply incredible. His edge work is amazing and his turns are quick and seamless. He just moves around the ice so well.”

Andy Lehoux, Scout for Future Considerations

The Central Scouting Bureau (CSB) has steadily been moving Spence up their rankings, but he has been held back by his diminutive stature. At only 165 pounds, he can be forced off the puck by larger opponents, which has cast some doubt on his long-term potential. However, when compared with QMJHL-grads Letang and Marc-Edouard Vlasic at the same age, it’s Spence who has earned the most points.

In fact, when compared with more recent first-rounders, like Thomas Chabot and Pierre-Olivier Joseph, Spence has outscored the too. There’s no real weakness to his game, and this is just his first year in the QMJHL. If teams can look past his size, they will find a fantastic player with the potential to become a top-four, power-play specialist, and chances are, he’ll still be available in the third round.

Valentin Nussbaumer

Position: Center / Team: Shawinigan Cataractes / Central Scouting Final Rank: 72 (North American Skaters)

Early this season, Nussbaumer was projected to be a first-round pick. At just 17 years old, he’d already debuted with the top league in his home country of Switzerland and played in both the U18 and U20 tournaments. Taken fourth overall in the CHL Import Draft, Nussbaumer looked primed to take over the QMJHL with the talent-starved Shawinigan Cataractes.

However, after 58 games, Nussbaumer was fifth in team scoring with 17 goals and 21 assists. More troubling was his minus-49, one of the worst in the league. The Cataractes made the playoffs, but were out after six games, and Nussbaumer only had a goal and three assists in that stretch. Scouts began to sour somewhat on the Swiss star, and he is now slated to go somewhere in the third round of the NHL Draft. Nothing he did especially stood out.

However, Shawinigan only won 14 games in 2018-19, barely squeaking into the playoffs, only to face the eventual champions, the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. The team was far more talent-starved than anticipated and the arrival of Nussbaumer was unable to change the team’s fate. Although few of his traits stand out, scouts have praised Nussbaumer’s ability to play in any situation, along with his speed, vision, and versatility. He does everything well; a jack-of-all-trades kind of player.

With several Swiss players rising to prominence in the NHL, Nussbaumer could be one of the next to join them. Currently, he is projected to fall to the third round, which is very good news for teams looking for an excellent two-way center.

Maxim Cajkovic

Position: Right Wing / Team: Saint John Sea Dogs / Central Scouting Final Rank: 91 (North American Skaters)

Like Nussbaumer, Cajkovic came into the 2018-19 season as a potential first-round pick. As the number-one pick in the 2018 CHL Import Draft, expectations were high for the talented Slovakian. He was a force at the 2018 U18 tournament and dominant in Sweden’s U20 Junior league. Cajkovic’s talent had him as one of the top CHL prospects to watch in October along with Kirby Dach, Bowen Byram and Arthur Kaliyev .

However, just like his Swiss counterpart, Cajkovic’s first season in the QMJHL was comparatively disappointing. In 60 games, he scored 22 goals and 24 assists while accumulating 40 penalty minutes and a concerning minus-33. Saint John, like Shawinigan, struggled this season, winning only 13 games, although Cajkovic’s 46 points led the team while his plus/minus was nowhere near as low as it could have been.

NHL Draft Prospect Maxim Cajkovic
NHL Draft Prospect Maxim Cajkovic. (Dan Culberson/Saint John Sea Dogs)

Nonetheless, Cajkovic’s draft stock fell. In the CSB’s midterm rankings, he sat 59th among North Americans; by the final rankings, he had plummeted to 91st. On top of his performance, scouts have cited his poor defensive play and lack of maturity. Advanced stats have pointed out his reluctance to shoot from ‘high danger’ areas that have the highest scoring percentages.

Related: Maxim Cajkovic – 2019 NHL Draft Prospect Profile

Luckily for him, though, the season didn’t end there and he has been slowly regaining ground. At the 2019 U18 tournament, he was a lone bright spot for the relegated Slovakians, scoring seven points in seven games. Still a gamble, it’s difficult to ignore the Slovak’s speed and incredible shot from outside the defensive box. Cajkovic will almost certainly end up a third-round selection, but easily could be one of the best in the round.

Justin Bergeron

Position: Defense / Team: Rouyn-Noranda Huskies / Central Scouting Final Rank: 153 (North American Skaters)

Rouyn-Noranda had an incredible 2018-19 season. They won 59 of their 68 games, losing just a single overtime game, and piled up an incredible 119 points. They steamrolled through the playoffs, losing just two games en route to a QMJHL championship, then lost one more before they claimed the Memorial Cup. Several players stood out with career seasons, but one of the most intriguing is Justin Bergeron.

This season, Bergeron became one of the league’s best offensive defensemen. He tied for third in points among QMJHL defensemen with 57, 16 of which were goals. In the playoffs, he ascended to another level, ending top-ten in postseason scoring with 20 points in 19 games. A pair of playoff home games in April saw the defender score five assists and record a plus-6 alone, earning him QMJHL Player of the Week.

The Quebec defender has above-average skating, is effective on the power play, has great vision and hockey IQ, passes well, has NHL-size…yet this is Bergeron’s second time at the draft. Eligible by a matter of hours, Bergeron was the youngest player available a the 2018 NHL Draft. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, to see him left off the CSB’s rankings and was undrafted, despite finishing his first season in the QMJHL third in rookie scoring with 30 points and averaging two shots a game.

However, Bergeron was almost left unranked again this year, not making the CSB until the final list. Sure, there are deficiencies in his defensive game and physicality, but his on-ice mistakes are few and far between, and he’s made incredible strides between seasons. Teams are generally hesitant to select overage players, but to call Bergeron ‘overage’ feels like a disservice, and he will be a solid selection for a team willing to ignore that title.

Jeremy McKenna

Position: Right Wing / Team: Moncton Wildcats / Central Scouting Final Rank: not ranked

When a 17-year-old scores over 100 points, like Alexis Lafreniere, its almost guaranteed that he’ll be a top pick in his draft year. When a 20-year-old scores over 100 points, though, scouts hardly bat an eye. An overage player is expected to dominate against opponents two to three years their junior. However, despite entering into his third draft, Jeremy McKenna hopes to convince NHL teams otherwise.

Jeremy McKenna Moncton Wildcats
Moncton Wildcats forward Jeremy McKenna. (Shawn Davidson/QMJHL)

As a rookie in 2017, on a league-worst Moncton Wildcats team, McKenna scored 16 goals and 26 points while nearly playing the entire season. Those totals were fourth on the team; after a busy trade deadline, he was the team’s highest scorer. The Wildcats liked what they saw in the 5-foot-10 winger and felt he could become a key piece of their young team, but scouts were less forgiving and despite being eligible, McKenna was passed over.

The following year, McKenna had a breakout season as a sophomore, scoring 36 goals and 77 points. Moncton took a step ahead as well, making the playoffs and advancing to the second round, largely on the shoulders of McKenna. In their 12 postseason games, he scored 11 points, albeit only a single goal. His performance landed him 162nd on the CSB coming into the 2018 draft, and scouts loved his pro-level shot. Yet once again, he was passed over.

McKenna didn’t let it get to him, though, and 2018-19 has seen the undersized winger take another step forward in his development. His 45 goals were second in the QMJHL and his 97 points was among the top-ten. Despite the success, his overage status – plus his size and strength – have once again left him a long-shot in the 2019 NHL Draft. McKenna could be a perfect pick late in the draft, though, as he has the potential to become a mid-line sniper.

Does your pick make the list? Who do you hope your team drafts come draft day? Let us know in the comments, and stay tuned to The Hockey Writers for more NHL draft coverage.

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