Over the past five decades, the QMJHL has played a central role in some of the most memorable moments from the NHL Entry Draft. From top prospects to longshots to feel good stories, the league has seen a little bit of everything as it continually builds upon its status as one of the premier development circuits in the world.
In the Beginning…
In the spring of 1971, the fledgling league was wrapping up its second season of operation. The QMJHL continued working towards establishing its identity, a feat that would at times prove to be a struggle. However, the performance of a swift, skilled winger from Thurso, Quebec would play an instrumental role in the league achieving the notoriety it sought.
While Guy Lafleur was tearing up the league as a member of the Quebec Remparts with back-to-back 100-goal campaigns, one question remained; how would the player fare against teams from the country’s more established junior leagues?
One tumultuous series against the OHA St. Catharines Black Hawks followed by a national championship challenge from the WHL Edmonton Oil Kings would leave the Remparts holding the Memorial Cup and any doubts about Lafleur’s skills disproven. This feeling was punctuated a few weeks after the 1971 season concluded, when Lafleur was selected first overall by the Montreal Canadiens, setting a Hall of Fame career in motion and making Le Demon Blond the first of ten players from the “Q” to earn the title of top selection in the NHL Draft.
A Hall of Fame Era
Not only would Lafleur become the first number one selection, he would make history as the initial first round selection in league history. Since then, 129 players have followed in Lafleur’s path, hearing their names called out during the earliest stages of the event. Many have gone on to have careers fitting of such a lofty position.
In 1977, the New York Islanders were emerging as a force in the NHL. While still rounding out the roster of what would become a dynasty, they also struck gold in that year’s draft, using the 15th selection to take a slight goal scoring machine from the Laval National named Mike Bossy. A decade later, Bossy was wrapping up a Hall-of-Fame career that featured over 500 goals, four Stanley Cups and one of the greatest development stories in QMJHL history.
From 1979 to 1981, the league saw a trio of Hall of Famers pass through the “Q” and into the NHL.
In 1979, a rangy, offensive-minded blueliner from the Verdun Eperviers was selected eighth overall by the Boston Bruins. For Raymond Bourque, it was the starting point of a 22-year NHL career that would see him leave the game a Stanley Cup Championship in 2001 and arguably the greatest defenseman of his generation.
In 1980, the Chicago Blackhawks eagerly took an offensive dynamo with the third overall pick in Denis Savard. After lighting up the “Q” with the Montreal Junior, Savard would spend the next decade and a half doing the same in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993 and witnessing his #18 raised to the rafters at Chicago’s United Center in 1998.
Finally, in 1981, Dale Hawerchuk would step off the ice as a Memorial Cup Champion with the Cornwall Royals and walk onto the stage as the second first-overall selection in QMJHL history as a pick of the Winnipeg Jets. He would retire in 1997 with 518 regular season goals, 1409 points and a revered place in the game’s history.
1983 would see a future teammate of both Bossy and Hawerchuk, Pat Lafontaine, convert a 234-point season with the Verdun Juniors into becoming the third overall pick of the New York Islanders in that year’s draft. That phenomenal season would lead to a 1000-point NHL career, a Hall of Fame berth in 2003 and the first of several success stories for American-born players in the QMJHL.
Another player who saw his career trajectory move from the “Q” to the “H.O.F” is also the winningest goaltender in NHL history. Martin Brodeur was plying his trade with the St-Hyacinthe Laser at the time the New Jersey Devils chose him with the 20th pick in the 1990 Draft. He would repay the franchise with three Stanley Cups, 688 regular season victories and 124 shutouts, the latter two being NHL records by a wide margin.
Oh… and then there’s this guy who used to wear #66…
If Guy Lafleur was the most important first overall selection to come out of the QMJHL, Mario Lemieux may have been the most captivating.
Lemieux’s junior career began as a first overall selection – that of the Laval Titan in the 1981 QMJHL Draft – and skyrocketed from there. The crowning achievement came in 1983-84, when he would break what was thought to be Lafleur’s unbreakable record for goals in a single season when he found the back of the net a jaw-dropping 133 times, part of a 282-point campaign. The Pittsburgh Penguins would be the proud recipient of the prized prospect when they took him first overall in 1984. On the ice, Lemieux was every bit as magnificent as his nickname would suggest, scoring 690 times in the regular season, leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups and claiming six league scoring titles and three MVP awards. He would also keep the franchise alive in Pittsburgh as a member of the organization’s ownership group, which would lead to his link with another QMJHL alumni that would be taken first overall in the NHL Draft.
In 2005, the NHL was pulling itself out of the negative spiral of a season-cancelling lockout. That year’s draft would usher in a new and exciting era for the game, one that largely revolved around the first overall pick.
Making his way from Rimouski to Pittsburgh, fresh of a berth in the Memorial Cup Final, Sidney Crosby immediately began laying the foundation of a career that has seen him attain the lofty status of generational talent. Ironically, it all started while “Sid the Kid” was being billeted in the home of the Penguins captain, the aforementioned Lemieux.
With over 1200 regular season points, 12 NHL awards, a trio of Stanley Cups and the reputation as one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors on his resume, Crosby’s incredible journey as one of the greatest to ever play the game continues to grow from those early days with the Oceanic.
Diamonds in the Rough
With 1723 regular season points, Lemieux would become the highest scoring player to be selected in the 1984 Draft. The second highest scorer would finish with 1394 points. Like Lemieux, he was a Montreal boy who honed his craft in the “Q”. Unlike Lemieux, 170 other names would be called out before he would be taken off the board.
Luc Robitaille was coming off a solid rookie season with the Hull Olympiques when his name was called in the ninth round of that year’s draft by the Los Angeles Kings. From that point on, Lucky Luke would begin to forge a legacy.
First, it would be 339 points in final two seasons of junior, a time period capped off with a President Cup triumph in 1986. Then, it was off and running in the big show. Eight straight 40-goal seasons to begin his NHL career. Sixteen 20-goal campaigns overall. A Stanley Cup Championship in 2002 with the Detroit Red Wings. Finally, something approaching god-like status in the history of the Los Angeles Kings, the club he continues to serve in an executive role.
Not bad for 171st overall.
Of course, Robitaille is one of many QMJHL players to have heard his name called late, only to be mentioned among the first rank of athletes to grace the NHL stage. Some of these late-round gems include; Paul MacLean (7th Round | St. Louis – 1978), Donald Audette (9th Round | Buffalo – 1989) Michael Ryder (8th Round | Montreal – 1998), Max Talbot (8th Round | Pittsburgh – 2002) and Jason Demers (7th Round | San Jose – 2008).
Onward and Upward
The success of the QMJHL over the past 20-plus years cannot be understated. Along with nine Memorial Cup triumphs since 1996, numerous elite level talents have used the league as a springboard to professional stardom during that same timeframe.
Since that time, in addition to Crosby, the league has supplied four first-overall selections to the NHL Draft. In 1998, the Tampa Bay Lightning made Rimouski Oceanic forward Vincent Lecavalier the top pick. Lecavalier would, in turn, make the Lightning Stanley Cup Champions in 2004 while posting 12 consecutive 20-goal campaigns.
Marc-Andre Fleury would make history by becoming just the second goaltender in the modern history of the NHL Draft to be chosen first overall when the Pittsburgh Penguins made their move for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles netminder in 2003. Three Stanley Cups and 442 regular season victories (and counting) later has made Fleury not only one of the most beloved personalities in the game today, but seemingly on a collision course with the Hall of Fame when his playing days are over.
More recently, a pair of Halifax Mooseheads have claimed top spot on draft weekend. In 2013, fresh off a Memorial Cup MVP performance, another prospect from Crosby’s hometown of Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, Nathan MacKinnon, would become the first player chosen when he joined the Colorado Avalanche. Despite some ups and downs early on, MacKinnon and the Avs appear headed in the right direction while the man who wears #29 leads the charge offensively with back-to-back 90-point campaigns over the past two years.
The most recent QMJHL alum to take the coveted top spot is still putting the initial touches on his NHL career. Nico Hischier arrived in Halifax in the fall of 2016 as a highly regarded prospect. He left town the following spring as the top ranked prospect. The hockey world took notice, particularly the New Jersey Devils, who would use the 2017 number one pick on the Swiss-born phenom, making him the first player from that nation – as well as the first European-born QMJHL prospect – taken at the top spot.
On top of those elite talents, each year sees the “Q” add to its developmental legacy with the selection of numerous renowned talents. Recent players to go on to successful NHL careers from the QMJHL via the draft include Corey Crawford (2nd Round | Chicago Blackhawks – 2003), Marc-Edouard Vlasic (2nd Round | San Jose – 2005), Claude Giroux (1st Round | Philadelphia Flyers – 2006), Brad Marchand (3rd Round | Boston Bruins – 2006), Jakub Voracek (1st Round | Columbus Blue Jackets – 2007), Jonathan Huberdeau (1st Round | Florida Panthers – 2011), Sean Couturier (1st Round | Philadelphia Flyers – 2011), Jonathan Drouin (1st Round | Tampa Bay Lightning – 2013), Nikolaj Ehlers (1st Round | Winnipeg Jets – 2014), Timo Meier (1st Round | San Jose Sharks – 2015) and Thomas Chabot (1st Round | Ottawa Senators – 2015).
With a veritable “who’s-who” of hockey royalty making their way from the QMJHL to the stages of previous NHL Entry Drafts, it is with eager anticipation that teams, players and fans alike prepare to stand witness to the next class of future stars in Vancouver this weekend.