Why Xavier Simoneau Is One of the Most Underrated Prospects in the NHL Draft (Again)

It’s almost as if everyone has forgotten about Xavier Simoneau. Last season, by some, he was considered one of the better prospects in the 2019 NHL Draft, including me who had him ranked at 43 and even toyed around with putting him in the first round at parts in the season. To see him go undrafted last season was very surprising to say the least. He was the highest ranked player on my board to go undrafted by quite some margin. This could be for a number of reasons including the fact that Simoneau didn’t have the same exposure that his peers received at international tournaments after being left off Canada’s roster for both the Hlinka-Gretzky and the U18 world championships. Or the fact that he is undersized at 5 foot 7.

Following his point per game season in the QMJHL last year, Simoneau took great strides to improve his game, as the captain of the Drummondville Voltigeurs. On a team missing many of its stars from the previous season such as Joe Veleno, Maxime Comtois, and Nicolas Beaudin, Simoneau managed to get 89 points, outscoring 2019 first rounders Samuel Poulin and Jakob Pelletier who are both older than him, or any other QMJHLer selected in the 2019 draft.

Even among other overagers Simoneau seems to be overlooked, being ranked as the 19th best overager by The Hockey Writers behind skaters like Evgeniy Oksentyuk and Alex Cotton and going completely unranked in NHL Central Scouting’s rankings after being ranked #204 by Central Scouting last season. Aside from legitimate injury concerns regarding concussions, there isn’t really any reason for Simoneau not to be ranked. His development has been consistent and sustainable and he has managed to improve upon some weaknesses he showed in his draft season, most notably his relatively slow first step.

His biggest weaknesses apart from his aforementioned injury concerns last year was his sluggish first stride caused by not including a full follow through in the ankle during his first few steps. The improvement in his first steps is evident this season and something I believe is worth a closer look, which would be best showcased by some video.

Video

As you can see in this clip, his stride was unnecessarily short and stopped before he could gain the maximum amount of power to obtain an explosive first step. His stride was also very wide, limiting his top seed. That brings us to this season.

His skating stride has since elongated to allow for a greater top speed by giving him a more efficient push off and granting his other leg more time to load properly and generate as much force as possible. His legs are still quite wide but it is good to note he demonstrates proper body positioning and a very strong lower body leaving the foundation for what could be killer speed.

 This was one of the biggest knocks on Simoneau last season and he has turned it into somewhat of a strength for himself, having a quicker first step and greater ability to accelerate away from defenders. Simoneau reached speeds of well over 35km/h this season, proving his change in stride is a real improvement to his game. With this being said however, his skating is by no means his only or even his greatest strength. That lies in his playmaking ability and Hockey IQ. 

Simoneau is always thinking ahead of his opponents; his ability to identify passing lanes and anticipate the movement of his teammates makes him super dangerous and accelerates the pace of play for Drummondville, automatically putting them at an advantage. This awareness of knowing exactly where his teammates are on the ice opens the ice for his team, and is often heavily utilized whenever they get sustained pressure in the offensive zone. 

What separates Simoneau from other good playmakers though is how well he analyzes movement cues from opposing defenders. The slightest movement from a defender whether it be from a glove leaving the defenders stick for a pokecheck or a goaltender slowly receding into butterfly position, Simoneau can read opposing defenses at high speeds, allowing himself to have as much information as possible before making his play. Another aspect of his game worth mentioning is Simoneau’s goalscoring. Although I wouldn’t consider Simoneau a goalscorer, his shot and offensive instincts around the net are dangerous enough that defenders have to respect him, thus opening even more lanes and space for others around him. Simoneau often looks for open teammates and considers the situation before he shoots but this is by no means a bad thing as he rarely if ever hesitates in his release of the shot.

One of the most striking things when watching Simoneau is how high his compete level is. He loves to unsettle the opposition by throwing his body around, I would even say to a fault oftentimes getting way out of position to do so. He’s constantly aggressive on the puck and always forechecks with very high intensity. He’s also very smart in the way he attacks these 1 on 1 board battles despite being undersized by closing off any gaps of movement for a defender before entering the battle. 

Lastly, Simoneau’s edgework and lower body strength has to be noted. He’s very comfortable on both his inside and outside edges and his wide skating stride actually helps him by giving him a greater center of gravity, thus increasing his balance making it close to impossible to knock him off the puck.

The Numbers

The numbers have always put a good light on Simoneau. Last season through Mitch Brown’s CHL data project, it was uncovered how good of a passer Simoneau is through the eyes of micro statistics. Simoneau was above the 98th percentile in the CHL for Shot Assists/60, Dangerous Shot Assists/60, One Timer Shot Assists/60 and expected primary assists per 60.

He’s no slouch this season either as his consistent development continues. As Jack Han quite rightly pointed out how much of a striking resemblance Simoneau’s development curve has to Brad Marchand’s, who is another undersized chippy forward with loads of offensive skill. Using Byron Bader’s hockey prospecting tool is a great way to compare the two forwards.

Lastly, thanks to advanced stat websites like Pick224.com we can now view some heat maps and really understand how Simoneau’s game has evolved over the past season.

As is evident from these 2 maps side by side, Simoneau has learned to play more outside and spread the offensive zone a little more at even strength. Although one would expect his even strength shooting percentage to go down doing this, which it did by 2.45%, he upped his shots per game from 2.07 to 2.64. This is very likely the result of having to take more of the offensive burden but he is tellingly still capable of doing so despite his limited size. 

As far as I see it, Xavier Simoneau is about as low risk, high reward pick as one could ask for in this draft. Considering where he is ranked, he is one of the few players with realistic star potential. He’s shown the ability to develop and grow his game over the last year, whether it be his skating or his already elite offensive instincts. He has his issues. All players do, and concussions are nothing to take lightly, but he has shown all the signs, this year and last that he has the ability to become a serious contributor at the NHL level. Somewhere in the later rounds, Xavier Simoneau should make a team very happy, assuming he finally gets picked.

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