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Catching The Torch: Xavier Simoneau’s underrated, projectable game

A deeper look into one of the Habs’ most intriguing picks from the 2021 NHL Entry Draft — his strengths, his weaknesses and his NHL projectability.

Montreal Canadiens Headshots

Welcome to Catching The Torch, where we keep an eye on the Montreal Canadiens’ North American prospects and how their development is faring week by week. After filling out a tiered prospect pyramid last week and providing a broad scope of the Habs’ pool of North American prospects, I wanted to use the next couple of weeks as an opportunity to get into the specifics of the Habs’ draft picks and their projectability.

Starting off, I wanted to highlight one of the most severely overlooked prospects in the system, Xavier Simoneau. The 5’7”, 180-pound centre started his Junior career with the Drummondville Voltigeurs in 2018-19, immediately making himself known as one of the hardest forwards to face on a regular basis.

Despite that, and a tremendous offensive output that reached 57 points in 55 games in his draft year (2018-19) and then 89 points in 61 games the next season, Simoneau had to wait until the sixth round and 191st selection in his third year of eligibility to hear his name called at the stand.

Since then the prospect has been traded to the Charlottetown Islanders, and has reached another peak this year despite the move. His seven goals and 21 assists in 15 games form the third-highest point total in the QMJHL, and he leads the entire league in assists. His passing game was no secret, even back in his draft year:

If his ability to change teams and become both the leading point-producer and the heart and soul of his new organization doesn’t suffice to convince you of the potential Simoneau holds, I translated some of his teammates’ and opponents’ answers to the question “Who is the most underrated player in the QMJHL?” asked to them back in February, 2020:

  • Samuel Poulin, Penguins first-round pick: “I’d say Xavier Simoneau — he’s a small player, but he’s just so determined.”
  • Jérémie Poirier, Flames defence prospect: “Simoneau — really difficult to play against, works really hard.”
  • Dawson Mercer, Devils first-round pick: “Very good player, skilled but also understands the game.”
  • Christopher Merisier-Ortiz, undrafted defender: “Maybe because of his size, I feel like he passes under the radar, and I think he’s a really good player.”
  • Anthony Morrone, Simoneau’s goaltender with the Voltigeurs: “A really great guy. He has the greatest heart I’ve ever seen in my life. He never gives up. You see it when he’s throwing himself head-first at shots in the defensive zone. His shot is different than anyone else’s. Really an exceptional player, I’m tired of seeing him underestimated.”

That last comment says a lot about the type of player Simoneau is to his teammates, but what interests me the most is Mercer’s comment on Simoneau’s understanding of the game. It takes one to know one. The 2020 first-round pick’s smarts are on high display this year as he has made the New Jersey Devils’ roster and is dominating play on both sides of the ice. If he’s saying this about Simoneau unprompted, it’s an excellent sign.

Strengths

First, let’s take a look at the aspects of Simoneau’s game that make him such an effective player in the QMJHL.

Effort level: A+

Simoneau is genuinely one of the hardest-working prospects I’ve had the chance to scout. Rarely have I seen a player show the amount of intensity on and off the puck that he brings to the table night-in, night-out. Sometimes, in an important matchup against a rival or in a tournament final, you can see a prospect hit that second or third gear due to increased motivation, but Simoneau’s on his fifth gear all game, every game.

The reason his effort level is so advanced is that he has no choice. The alternative is losing most puck battles when your opponents stand a foot above you. An exceptionally stubby frame and strong legs make him hard to push off the puck, and he combines that with a never-stop mindset to dart around the ice and keep his centre of mass low, adding even more difficulty to opponents’ disruption attempts.

His constant movement and intensity causes a lot of trouble for opponents trying to escape his grasp and break out of the offensive zone, as he’ll pursue them with an active, smart stick and dislodge pucks, prolonging offensive-zone sequences on his own at times. This is his standout tool, and the attribute which should earn him a ticket to the NHL one day.

Passing: B+

Simoneau’s 21 assists in 15 games so far this year are self-explanatory, but what interests me the most is how he connects plays, rather than how many of them result in goals. As was presented in the data sheet from earlier, even when the prospect was barely above a point per game in his draft year, the amount of expected primary assists he generated (calculated using the location of the pass receptions Simoneau generates and the ensuing shot’s likelihood of hitting the net) led his entire draft class.

Now in the fifth year of his QMJHL career, Simoneau continues to impress with his ability to locate the ideal passing option and adjust the type of pass he employs in order to maximize his chances of hitting his opponent’s stick in a dangerous position. In this clip he retrieves a puck along the boards while shifting his weight, and opts for a hook-pass to connect with his opponent for a primary assist:

He is just as comfortable connecting with teammates on his backhand, which adds a layer of playmaking to his game that can often be the difference between an AHLer and an NHLer. He has twice the bandwidth to connect plays as a result of his comfort on his backhand, as he can’t easily be forced into a weak stick position by an opposing box-out or neutral-zone funnel play. Any way he carries the puck, he can dish it.

Goal-scoring: B

Although Simoneau is primarily a hybrid between a playmaker and a grinder, his goal-scoring ability is far from inadequate. Most of his goals occur around the net, as he crashes and bangs the puck past the goaltender on numerous occasions, but he’s also able to release from the faceoff circles and get a good amount of velocity on his shots.

The centre has often been employed on the left half-wall in Charlottetown’s system, allowing him to walk in and shoot the puck while preventing him from releasing one-timers. Both of those tools are well-refined in Simoneau’s case, but none overpowers the other; he is just as comfortable on either side of the power-play formation, as well as in the bumper or net-front spots.

On the rush is where Simoneau’s goal-scoring abilities shine the brightest. The prospect’s ability to anticipate open space and cut to the middle off the boards make him an outstanding carrier on zone entries, as is shown in the clip above. What’s especially promising is the progress in his goal-scoring since his draft year: the centre’s goal-per-game rate started at 0.28 in 2017-18, then jumped to 0.33 in 2018-19, and seems to have stabilized around 0.45 since then.

Problem-solving : B+

Hockey I.Q. is a term that’s thrown around a lot, without necessarily being an easy concept to define. Often, with on-ice intelligence, you know it when you see it, but I’ve distilled my definition of the concept to its crudest form: the ability to solve problems at high speeds. At its essence, that is what hockey I.Q. is, and Simoneau exemplifies it.

His ability to locate the best option and find the easiest way to execute it within milliseconds with very little margin of error means that he needs no time at all to make plays. If he doesn’t need time to make plays, then the quality or speed of the competition the centre will face won’t change much to prevent him from being able to slip passes to his teammates, open up lanes, and cut to the middle.

In other words, he is already comfortable with the very thing about NHL hockey that is usually so difficult to handle for up-and-coming prospects: solving problems within restricted time and space.

Skating: B+

Simoneau’s skating is quick and relentless. While his posture and edgework remain imperfect, the centre is more than capable of winning short- and long-distance races all over the ice. He also shows comfort in carrying the puck at high speeds, weaving through sticks to reach the middle of the ice almost effortlessly. He utilizes crossovers a bit less than he should, but his straight-line speed and quick directional changes more than make up for it.

A key element of his skating proficiency is his ability to retrieve a puck or receive a pass mid-stride, accelerating or pivoting before his stick touches the disc in order to set up his next move much more fluidly. His skating is an essential element of his game as an undersized forward, and his utilization of his low centre of mass to protect pucks down low is promising for his ability to carry his skating strengths into the pro level.

Weaknesses

To be honest, this part of the article is difficult to break down in Simoneau’s case, as the prospect doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses in his play. The elements I will mention below, for the most part, are holes in Simoneau’s game that he’s developed adaptive tools to circumvent. I’ll define what that means using specific explanations below.

Size: 5’7”, 180 pounds

To mention the obvious, Simoneau’s size is definitely an aspect that limits him in certain measures. Cutting to the net off the rush and stifling opponents physically and making space for himself in front of the net become much more difficult as a result of his shorter stature, but the prospect has developed a game that allows him to make the most out of his puck touches and limits the time in which he is eligible to be body-checked.

His main adaptive tool in this instance is his ability to find a teammate’s stick from anywhere on the ice, from any body position, and to do it quickly. Another one, which was mentioned at the start as Simoneau’s standout attribute, is the prospect’s effort level and never-stop mindset.

To be able to match up against defenders much larger and stronger than he is, he has fine-tuned the art of outworking his opponents and using stick- and body-positioning in board battles. He uses leverage rather than strength to win his one-on-one duels, stick-checking one side of the opponent then quickly placing his body on the other, or tying up the defender’s stick and getting under his arms to gain positional advantage on the puck.

Creativity: C

In Simoneau’s case, one drawback to his offensive potential is the inherent lack of high-end creativity in his game. He doesn’t tend to think outside the box and try something outlandish, opting rather for the simple, effective plays.

Being able to master both the simple and the complex is the hallmark of any great NHL offensive facilitator, and this could very well hold him back from reaching an NHL top six. Diversifying his skills and adding more and more creative plays to his arsenal could be the key learning opportunity separating Simoneau from a long, fruitful NHL career.

His adaptability should allow him to find a niche and become a support-role player regardless, but the prospect could separate himself even further from the pack with no-look misdirecting passes and a more complete arsenal of shots and dekes to choose from.

His stickhandling is just about average, with a locked top arm which can occasionally prevent him from carrying the puck in his hip pocket, a position which allows a player to deke, pass, or shoot in the same movement. Freeing up movement in his top arm more often would make him much more capable as a puck-carrier, but he still manages to fool opponents by using shoulder and leg fakes.

NHL Projectability

It’s hard to look at the level of play Simoneau has been displaying and not feel like someone dropped the ball in the previous two drafts by not selecting him earlier. He has at least one key standout tool in his effort level, which is well above NHL average, and boasts high-end reactiveness and adaptability, two elements that are essential in order to make it to the professional ranks.

His showing at the Canadiens’ training camp solidified the idea that his game won’t stray from its roots against professional opponents, and he’s shown a great amount of pride in being a Hab (turn on captions below for Simoneau’s translated comments on his training camp).

As he is right now, Simoneau’s creativity limits his offensive ceiling, but he should be more than capable of keeping up with the NHL’s requirements of pace, processing speed, and intensity despite his shorter stature. On top of that, the centre’s small-area playmaking should carry well into the NHL, especially with great pass selections and versatility to go along with his comfort on the backhand.

Overall, a middle-six role for Simoneau down the road seems outlandish from the outside (rarely does a two-year-over-age sixth-round pick make his way onto an NHL roster, let alone its middle six), but when digging further into his game, it’s hard to see anything less than that. It’ll be interesting to follow along and see how far his career will take him.


Follow me on Twitter @HadiK_Scouting for more on the Habs’ prospects, and to follow along with the rest of my scouting work!