Russians dominate top draft-eligibles in QMJHL

Moncton's Ivan Barbashev. (QMJHL)

The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League experienced a draft resurgence over the past few years—including six picks in the first round this past summer—but there really isn’t a fantastic crop of 2014 prospects.

The prevalence of talented Russians in the QMJHL has been an interesting phenomenon in recent years, yielding the likes of Mikhail Grigorenko (Quebec, Buffalo Sabres), Valentin Zykov (Baie-Comeau, Los Angeles Kings), Anton Zlobin (Shawinigan, Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nikita Kucherov (Rouyn-Noranda, Tampa Bay Lightning).

That trend continues in this year’s top-five draft eligible players in the QMJHL.

Ivan Barbashev

Left Wing, Moncton Wildcats

The No. 1 pick of the 2012 CHL Import Draft, the Moscow native plays fast and hard. At a solid 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Barbashev is off to a great start this season after being just under a point-per-game producer during his first campaign in major junior hockey last year.

Coming over to North America and playing a rambunctious, physical style shows his desire to play in the NHL—an encouraging sign for scouts looking for a spark in the latter half of the draft's first round.

He's easily the offensive focal point on a struggling Moncton team and has performed well for his country at both the under-17 and under-18 levels (where he outscored current Dallas Star Valeri Nichushkin).

He was pegged as a bit reckless after a dangerous hit from behind last season on Halifax's Austyn Hardie, but that appears to be an isolated event for an energetic kid who plays on the edge.

Alexis Pepin

Centre/Left Wing, Charlottetown Islanders

Simply put, Pepin's biggest talent is dishing out  pain. At 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, the Montrealer is ferocious on the forecheck and has the kind of size-to-intensity ratio NHL scouts look for in a prospect of his size.

Much like Toronto first-rounder Frederik Gauthier, questions remain about whether Pepin is creative enough to be productive at the next level, but if you like the belligerence of a bull, he's the man for you.

His skating at full speed is solid, but his burst is another question mark, and a reason scouts are concerned about whether he can be a top-six forward, but there are few in this draft with as high a compete level. And who doesn't like size?

He was productive for Quebec at the under-17s, but disappeared at the Ivan Hlinka tournament this summer.

Daniel Audette

Centre/Left Wing, Sherbrooke Phoenix

The son of  former NHLer Donald was the first pick of the fledgling Sherbrooke Phoenix and still put up decent numbers for a rookie last season—10 goals, 29 points, good for fourth in team scoring—and this year  is off to a hot start with 15 points his first 12 games.

He is small at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, which will likely keep him out of the first round, but is intelligent and uses his low centre of gravity to excellent effect. Audette plays with heart and passion and is what some call "a gamer"—willing to do whatever it takes to win. He had three points at the Ivan Hlinka this summer and participated in two under-17 tournaments for Quebec.

He will benefit from the new NHL, where smaller players more easily survive, and scouts are always attracted to professional bloodlines. He's an ideal project pick in the early second round.

Nikolaj Ehlers

Left Wing, Halifax Mooseheads

Playing with and learning from last year's No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Drouin won't hurt the young Danish sniper. While expecting him to step in and dominate like Drouin is unfair, the 5-foot-11. 163-pounder is electric with the puck on his stick and has gotten off to a great start in North America.

Ehlers played his youth hockey in Switzerland and because of his size he will likely be a mid-to-late second-rounder in 2014.

His hands, vision and foot speed are all excellent and while he won't replace Nathan MacKinnon, he and Drouin will certainly help keep the Mooseheads worth the price of admission. He is not a household name yet, but he's producing at nearly a point-per-game pace already, and if he continues that pace he will be well known soon.

Denmark is not in the elite group of the world juniors, so Ehlers should light up Div. I like a Christmas tree.

Nikita Lyamkin

Defenceman, Chicoutimi Sagueneens

The Sagueneens were over the moon when their Import pick chose to make the voyage to Quebec's east coast, and he has already proven himself a steady addition to the blue line.

At 6-foot-3 and 180 pounds, he is a smart, physical defender who keeps it simple with the puck and simply wins battles in his own end. A tournament all-star at last year's under-17s, the Russian projects as a rock-solid shutdown defender who can put up big minutes.

He'll likely never be a big point producer, but he is a good skater and teams can never have too many quality defencemen. Look for him to go late in the second or early in the third round.

Honourable mentions

- Alex Bureau, Cape Breton Screaming Eagles - Athletic goaltender with NHL bloodlines, plays in an organization known for developing quality puck stoppers (Marc-Andre Fleury, Ondrej Pavelec, etc.)

- Storm Phaneuf, Shawinigan Cataractes - A large, poised netminder who learned under a high quality veteran last season. Off to a rough start, but is as good as any goalie prospect in the draft.

- Ryan Falkenham, Halifax Mooseheads - Not overly dynamic offensively, but is projected to be a superb shutdown forward with high leadership intangibles