Blockbuster trades and the prominence of two NCAA-leaning prospects marked a big weekend for the QMJHL, which held its draft virtually this year.
Headlining the picks were the Gatineau Olympiques, who came into the 2020 draft with three top-five selections, then added the eighth overall pick in another trade. Gatineau had the first two picks in the draft and took defenseman Tristan Luneau No. 1.
Luneau held a lot of intrigue, not only because he plays a great puckmoving game a la Drew Doughty, but also because he had already made a future commitment to the University of Wisconsin Badgers. But the Olympiques convinced Luneau to stay in his home province for the next step of his career and now the top talent is officially headed to Gatineau.
"I really liked my talk with the organization," Luneau said. "And the way things turned out - four picks in the first round and they already have pretty good young players - I'm really excited to be a part of it."
Luneau was a star for the midget Trois-Rivieres Estacades this year, leading the team's blueline in scoring with 30 points in 37 games. He also wore the captain's 'C,' despite the fact he was a 2004 birth year on a team where the majority of players were born in 2003. He also played for Team Canada at the Youth Olympic Games in Switzerland, helping the team win bronze.
Despite the usual fanfare of the QMJHL draft being axed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Luneau still had a special guest on his big day, as former Gatineau great and Stanley Cup winner Max Talbot delivered his jersey to him.
With the second pick, Gatineau selected talented left winger Antonin Verreault, who also played for Canada at the Youth Olympic Games. Another top name, defenseman Michael Mastrodomenico, slid to the ninth pick amidst concerns he would go the NCAA route, but Shawinigan decided the risk was worth the potential reward. Mastrodomenico got a jersey and a visit from another Cup winner, Pascal Dupuis - himself a Cataractes alumnus.
But on top of the picks, there were also some significant trades. With the 2019-20 season cancelled, the Moncton Wildcats unloaded one of their top players by dealing left winger Jakob Pelletier to Val-d'Or for a parcel of draft picks. Pelletier was taken 26th overall in the 2019 NHL draft by the Calgary Flames and, coincidentally, I recently spoke to Calgary assistant coach and director of player development Ray Edwards about the young prospect. Foreurs fans can look forward to some great playmaking skill from Pelletier.
"At the junior level, it's elite," Edwards said. "He has the confidence and patience to see the next play. He can see past the first defender, he knows the layers he needs to get the puck through and he has the confidence to make those plays. The other aspect that is incredible with Jakob is that if he makes a mistake it doesn't bother him. He has confidence in his abilities and if he doesn't make a play, he's not afraid to try again - which is a tough thing to master."
Pelletier, like many youngsters, needs to get stronger in order to become a better skater and more equipped to handle playing against bigger dudes at the next level (he is currently listed as 5-foot-9 and 167 pounds).
Val-d'Or made another splash on the weekend by acquiring Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Maxim Cajkovic from Saint John. The right winger is an import who played for Slovakia at the world juniors this year.
Two other names of note on the trade front were St. Louis Blues goalie prospect Colten Ellis, who goes from Rimouski to Charlottetown, and rookie scoring leader Zachary L'Heureux, who goes from Moncton to Halifax. L'Heureux is a top prospect for the 2021 NHL draft and this move completes a deal that sent Benoit-Olivier Groulx (ANA) and Jared McIsaac (DET) the other way earlier this season.
In the QMJHL American Draft, goaltender Charlie Zolin went first overall to Acadie-Bathurst. This is the third all-American draft the league has conducted, though it has yet to produce the intended result of getting more U.S. players into the league.