Welcome back to our 2021 draft coverage, where we profile players that could be available when the Hurricanes make their selection in the first round. Last week, we profiled Oskar Olausson and Matthew Coronato, two goal scorers that skate well and have high upside. Next up is Halifax Mooseheads center Zachary L’Heureux, one of the more controversial prospects that is projected to go in the first round of this year’s draft. If you’re just joining our draft coverage, I’ll be breaking it down into three sections. The first section will go over the player’s paper stats and his measurables, the second will be a scouting report on the player from actual game footage and the third section will be a summary of the player’s skills and whether or not they would be a fit.
The 2021 season was a difficult one for the QMJHL. They faced numerous delays and pauses in their season, and as a result, players weren’t able to get into as much of a rhythm as they could have. After all, it’s tough to play on when your league faces a COVID outbreak every other week. In this weird season, L’Heureux played in 33 games and had 39 points while also establishing himself as one of the league’s most controversial players. L’Heureux plays on the edge and doesn’t shy away from physical contact despite the fact that he’s 5-foot-11. His physicality has gotten him suspended multiple times throughout his young career, which can be a concern for any NHL team, regardless of the player’s talent level. You can’t help your team in the press box, after all. L’Heureux’s suspensions over the past season include:
- Four game suspension for fighting after the original altercation
- Two games for unsportsmanlike conduct
- Three games for high sticking (4th infraction)
- Four games for unsportsmanlike conduct and taking off helmet during a fight
Missing out on 13 games in your draft year due to suspensions is a good way to tank your stock and a legitimate concern for NHL general managers. Based on talent alone, L’Heureux could be a top-20 pick in this year’s draft. Craig Button ranks L’Heureux as the eighth-best prospect in the draft, and The Puck Authority ranks him 11th. The talent is clearly there, and yet L’Heureux doesn’t seem to learn from his suspensions. There’s a lot of talent, and scouts from Eliteprospects are high on his problem solving and decision making, but those suspensions have to be limited.
From games against Cape Breton in the QMJHL, various shifts, and highlights.
Let’s dive into the positives in L’Heureux’s game first. What stands out immediately is his play on the forecheck. Not only does L’Heureux attack the puck in the offensive zone, but he seeks those plays at the blue line where defensemen might make a lazy pass. All of a sudden, the pass has been intercepted and L’Heureux has started a breakaway or odd man rush. His skating is close to being elite, as both his top speed and acceleration stand out as areas of strength.
L’Heureux is what I’d describe as a shifty skater, a player that can dance through defenses and do so without getting touched. A lot of it has to do with the quick burst of speed that he has as soon as he starts skating. It can surprise defenses and open up some space on the ice where there wasn’t any previously. He also has slick hands and can dangle the puck through most defenders at this level, leading to some spectacular plays.
L’Heureux’s vision is spectacular, and I can see why some scouts had him ranked as a top 20 prospect based on that alone. He can find teammates, open patches of ice, or even an opportunity to attack the puck given how well he sees the ice. I noticed that L’Heureux had an ability to notice where defenders had blind spots in their vision and exploit those weaknesses. On occasion he’d hold the puck long enough for the defender to lose sight of another forward, which is when L’Heureux would make his move. His passing is a strength, and while I wouldn’t label him as a playmaker, I do think that he’ll have more success as a passer at the NHL level given his current skill set. What I noticed is that L’Heureux doesn’t keep the puck on his stick for very long. He’s constantly assessing the play looking for either a pass or a shot, and he won’t hesitate to pull the trigger on either option. It keeps the defense moving and allows for more offense to occur, given the right teammates, of course.
Now for the negative side of L’Heureux’s game. What stands out immediately is his discipline. It’s as if he doesn’t care about his opposition at times, because I saw multiple boarding penalties where he had more than two or three seconds to react to the play. I understand wanting to fight every once in a while in juniors, but when you start to get suspended for it, that’s when it becomes a problem. L’Heureux has had some nasty hits in the past that have been a problem for his team, and that sort of thing cannot continue if he hopes to become an NHL player.
Discipline aside, there were a few areas in need of improvement. L’Heureux’s shot release could be a touch quicker. I feel that it gives goalies an extra split second to get square to the puck and can be the difference between a save or a goal. L’Heureux’s defensive positioning is fine, and he’s even used on Halifax’s penalty kill, but I have an issue with how he defends. My father calls it “Matador Defense,” where you step aside, flail your stick and the player goes right past you. L’Heureux is often guilty of that in the defensive zone, especially when the puck first crosses the blue line. He’ll take a lazy swat at the puck with his stick and then get caught out of position because of it. Given how physical L’Heureux likes to play, I’d like to see him defend with his physicality a little more.
L’Heureux’s physicality is a blessing and a curse for him because, on one hand, he’ll be great on the forecheck and knock players off of the puck. On the other hand, it gets him into suspension trouble and can do more harm than good on occasion. L’Heureux will likely have to toe the line for the rest of his career and avoid frequent talks with NHL Player Safety. If he can manage to do that, then I believe the risk is worth the reward. L’Heureux has high end skill and is one of the top forwards in this draft class. While I don’t feel comfortable putting him in the top 15, I have no doubt in my mind that he’s a top-20 prospect in this class based on skill alone. It’s the discipline that could cause him to fall further than he should on draft day.
I see a lot of similarities between L’Heureux and Hurricanes prospect Jamieson Rees. L’Heureux is faster and has a higher ceiling offensively, but both players have that edge to their game and will be a constant nuisance for opposing teams. If you’re a long time Canes fan, think of what Chad LaRose could have been if he was a 50-point caliber player at the NHL level. L’Heureux is a pest and can frustrate the hell out of teams as an instigator, if they’re not careful. He’s the type of player that you’d hate if he wasn’t on your team, but the kind that you’d love if he was.
So, is L’Heureux a fit for the Hurricanes? My gut says no. The skill is enticing and might be enough for the Hurricanes to pull the trigger, but I worry about his discipline. Given how Rod Brind’Amour runs his team, I’m not sure if L’Heureux will be given enough of a leash to truly make an impact on a nightly basis. I also have a suspicion that a team such as Boston could pick L’Heureux to be Brad Marchand 2.0. If L’Heureux is available when the Hurricanes pick, however, I wouldn’t mind if the team bet on his potential. You can help a player like L’Heureux work on his discipline and thank 25 other teams for passing on a 60-point forward in a few years. I would also be okay if the Canes decided that the risk was too high for their first round pick. If I’m Don Waddell and L’Heureux’s name is still on the board on day two, I’m making some phone calls to see if I can trade up.