February 25, 2014
Each NHL draft class features endless debate about which diminutive dervish — undersized, but overflowing with ways to troubleshoot through junior defences — projects to the next level.
Last season, after tying with a teammate for the Western League scoring title, the Portland Winterhawks' 5-foot-9 Nic Petan waited until in the middle of the second round to be selected the Winnipeg Jets. The Sherbrooke Phoenix's Daniel Audette, while not quite so highly touted, presents a similar case, albeit one based a half-continent away with a team that is in the Quebec League cellar instead of in Portland's customary lofty position. The former first overall pick has broken out as one of the QMJHL's top assist men. The son of former NHLer Donald Audette is 11th in the scoring race even though the second-year Phoenix franchise is in a building phase.
"This year I've really got better with the puck management — taking my time with the puck and looking for the best play instead of just throwing it off somewhere," says 5-foot-9, 176-pound Daniel Audette, whose father played 735 NHL games, primarily with the Buffalo Sabres. "I think my dad was more of a scorer and I'm more of a passer, when he had the puck he would try to take it to the net. I'm more the type of player who wants to make the other guys score."
Audette, who is ranked 59th among domestic skaters by NHL Central Scouting, is viewed as being in the second tier of the QMJHL's best bets for the 2014 draft. With 52 assists among his 70 points, he's fourth in the league in helpers. Phoenix coach Judes Vallée has also expanded Audette's defensive responsibilities over the run of the season.
Audette's determined to let his game drown out the questions about his size.
"My dad isn't the biggest guy so I knew pretty early that I wasn't going to be 6-4," he says. "I just know I have to compete harder in the corners and work on being stronger with my legs, having a low body position and being harder to push off of the puck."
The young centre's production is impressive in light of the Phoenix's on-ice straits. The QMJHL allowed Sherbrooke to play five overages, two above the limit, in 2012-13 to give it a fighting chance to ice a competitive team in a market where major junior hockey has foundered several times. This season, the Phoenix face a one-step-back, one-forward phase. They were in a playoff position before off-loading older talent before the trade deadline. Now it's looking like there is a possibility it will be picking No. 1 or No. 2 overall at the May 31 draft. Regardless, Audette says he's relished being with a team that started from scratch.
"It's hard, but we got used it, the whole team together. It's been fun, having a new organization.
"I try to be a quiet leader, do it on the ice."
1. What NHL player(s) do you really study closely since you believe his (or their) game is similar to yours?
"I really like Patrick Kane. He makes great plays with the puck. Takes his time. One of the best passers in the league, probably."
2. Aside from your father, who is one person you really thank for helping you get on this path?
"Paulin Bordeleau, my coach with taught me a lot about how to have fun with the game and not feel too much pressure. He's one of the best coaches I've ever had. He's been through a lot of hockey, coached a long time."
3.Who is the most difficult D-man you have ever faced?w
"[Florida Panthers prospect] Michael Matheson [now of the Boston College Eagles] in midget AAA. He was amazing. Amazing feet, he flew around so easily on the ice. Tough player."
4. What teammate has done the most to help you get settled in the league?
"[Defenceman] Dominic Talbot-Tassi [whom Sherbrooke moved to contending Blainville-Boisbriand at the deadline]. He started in the Q before I did, played a few games. We played together in the midget AAA, he helped me stay calm. He knew how I was as a player. We'd just talk a lot when I needed to get focused.."
5. Where is your favourite road rink in the QMJHL?
"Chicoutimi. It's an Olympic sized ice, so more room for me."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.