As highly touted prospects Timothy Liljegren and Gabriel Vilardi began sliding down the draft board on Friday night, Coyotes’ fans might have started wondering whether a third trade of the day was in the cards for their team, one that would put them in a position to take either of the once-top-five ranked players.
General manager John Chayka stayed put however, content to stay at No. 23 after a busy day that included the capture of three franchise-changing players. But, when the 28-year-old GM took the stage, he uttered the name of a player who has spent his junior hockey career defying expectations and climbing draft boards, not dropping down them.
Three years ago, Pierre-Oliver Joseph was no sure bet to be drafted in the QMJHL. With his 6-foot, 150-pound frame, Joseph struggled to adjust in his first year at the Midget AAA level in Quebec.
With Antoine Girouard’s Bantam AAA squad the year prior (2013-14), the left-handed defenseman scored an impressive 17 points in 29 games. With just a year separating him and the QMJHL draft, Joseph seemed primed to be a high pick in the CHL’s Quebec league.
But, playing at an older age level, Joseph stumbled in 2014-15, collecting just 11 points in 42 games while suffering a -12 plus/minus. His major junior draft stocked stumbled as well.
Joseph was forced to wait until the 5th round that spring before finally being taken by the Charlottetown Islanders, a gimmicky franchise originally known as the Montreal Rocket (named after Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard) that struggled financially before relocating to Prince Edward Island. On the ice, the Islanders had never finished a regular season atop their division in its 16-year history, and had only ever won two QMJHL playoff series.
However, when Chambly, Quebec native Joseph showed up to his first major juniors training camp, his potential began to show.
In a January 2016 article on the team’s website, Charlottetown’s head coach Jim Hulton said he could tell right away that Joseph had everything it took to be a “modern defenseman” and was impressed with his skill on the puck.
Though Joseph didn’t make the team out of camp, it didn’t take long for him to get their attention with his much-improved play back in his Midget AAA league. In 19 games for Antoine-Girouard at the beginning of 2015-16, Joseph quickly reached the 10-point mark (1 goal, 9 assists), and reversed his dismal plus/minus from the year before to a healthy plus 7.
When the Islanders suffered several injuries along their blue line midway through the season, Joseph found himself back in Charlottetown for his first stint in the CHL. He hasn’t looked back since.
In two seasons with Charlottetown, Joseph played 110 games, tallied 47 points, secured a plus 16, and became an assistant captain despite being one of the youngest members of the team (Joseph was one of the few 17-year-olds selected in the first round of Friday’s draft). During his tenure, the team won three playoff rounds and set a franchise-best playoff run this spring by reaching the QMJHL semi-finals.
The once mid-round QMJHL draft pick was soon being considered a mid-round pick in the NHL draft, a stunning turnaround for the blueliner who grew two inches and gained nearly 15 pounds during his junior hockey days (on draft night, he was listed as 6-foot-2, 163-pounds).
Most player evaluation agencies tabbed Joseph to go in either the second or third round, naming him the third best prospect from the QMJHL. Scouts questioned his offensive game but identified him as a strong-skating lockdown defenseman.
As Friday night’s first round of the draft lingered, it looked as though the pre-draft pundits would be right, and Joseph would experience the same fate his older brother Mathieu faced in the 2015 Draft (the right wing wasn’t selected until the Lightning snagged him in the fourth round that year). Offensively-skilled defenders like Erik Brännström, Juuso Valimaki, and Urho Vaakanainen were the ones catching clubs’ eyes instead, dwindling Joseph’s chances of being one of the first 31 picks.
But, when the Coyotes were put on the clock, Chayka saw enough in the tall, lengthy youngster to pull the trigger.
Considering his age and frame, it’s unlikely Joseph will follow the same path as Jakob Chychrun, the Coyotes’ first-round pick defenseman last year who ended up playing the entire season at the NHL level.
But then again, it was questionable as to whether Joseph was going to make it in the QMJHL, or even be considered a potential NHL draft pick at all when he first showed up in Charlottetown.
Time will tell, but on the day Arizona secured key cogs in their plan to win now, they might have also picked a key member of teams to come by taking a chance on the big kid from Quebec, the kid who knows how to exceed expectations.