QUEBEC CITY – Matthew Highmore grew up a fan of the Halifax Mooseheads, but his allegiance shifted seconds after being drafted by the Saint John Sea Dogs on Saturday at the Colisee Pepsi.
“There’s no better team in my mind,’’ Highmore said shortly after donning his new Sea Dogs jersey and baseball cap at the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Entry Draft. “It’s an honour to be here. I’m really excited and I can’t wait. It means a lot, going to this team with their history, the future, their fans and everything.’’
A product of the Dartmouth major midget AAA program, Highmore was Saint John’s first pick and eighth overall. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound forward was among the thousands in attendance at the Colisee, which put on a show that would rival an NHL draft.
And for players like Highmore, the professional atmosphere made the day even more special. While some prospects often debate between pursuing major junior and the college ranks, there’s never been a question for Highmore.
“I used to go to the games in Halifax,’’ he said. “Since I was young, the only thing I’ve wanted to do is play junior hockey.’’
He’ll get that chance as a 16-year-old rookie in 2012-13, joining an honour role of fellow first picks by the Sea Dogs – Alex Grant (2005), Yann Sauve (2006), Simon Despres (2007), Kevin Gagne (2008), Pierre Durepos (2009), Ryan Tesink (2010) and Oliver Cooper (2011).
Highmore is recovering from recent shoulder surgery, but he’s confident he’ll be ready when training camp opens in August. Getting back to 100 per cent, he said, will involve working out five times a week and being on the ice two-to-three times a week.
“I feel confident I can be ready for next year,’’ Highmore said. “I got through the worst of it and I’m good to go now. Now that it’s fixed, I shouldn’t be prone to (injuries). It’s better than it was and tighter than it was and it should be good to go.’’
Highmore describes himself a “two-way player’’ who’s capable of fulfilling whatever role he’s assigned.
“I like his skating, he’s got a quick first step,’’ Sea Dogs Nova Scotia scout Sid Veysey said. “As far as the passing and playmaking, he’s kind of like Sidney Crosby in that aspect of the game, and that’s what we like about him.
“He has outstanding vision and playmaking skills, he’s a great passer and he competes hard and goes hard to the front of the net, and he works hard in the corners.
“He’s a good all-around player,’’ Veysey continued. “He plays well on the penalty kill and he’s good offensively and on the power play.’’
Highmore started making scouts take notice when he played as an under-ager in the midget ranks. He continued to raise eyebrows when he suited up for Team Nova Scotia at the Canada Games.
“He thinks quicker and you can see it in his game,’’ Veysey said. “He’s the type of player who I don’t think will score a lot of goals, but he’ll get a lot of assists. He does need to work on scoring goals, because he gets a lot of chances, but he doesn’t rack up a lot of goals. He’s has a lot of potential.’’
The Sea Dogs took care of the defensive end of the ice with their second first-rounder, nabbing blue-liner Olivier Leblanc with the 11th overall pick. Leblanc, a product of Quebec’s midget AAA ranks, played for St. Francois and lives just minutes from the Colisee.
“It’s a big organization and they win,’’ the 16-year-old Leblanc said of the Sea Dogs. “It’s fun to go to a team that wins. They will take care of me. ’’
Leblanc isn’t known as a rushing rearguard, but he has a reputation for playing an intelligent and consistent game.
Leblanc’s role model is Francois Beauchemin, who has nearly 500 games of NHL experience. Beauchemin played in the QMJHL for the Acadie-Bathurst Titan and the Moncton Wildcats.
“He’s a two-way defenceman who likes to hit,’’ Leblanc said of Beauchemin. “I like to hit. I’m not the biggest guy, but I like to (play physical). I’m intense and I work.’’
After acquiring Highmore and Leblanc, Saint John didn’t draft again until the fourth round, selecting Fredericton Canadiens midget AAA forwards Spencer Smallman and Noah Zilbert. The Sea Dogs didn’t have another pick until the seventh round, drafting St. John’s midget AAA forward Marcus Cuomo.
Saint John’s next selection came in the ninth round, where it selected Boston Junior Bruins goalie Drew Michals. The 10th round saw the Sea Dogs select forward Justin Dickinson, who played this past season for the midget AAA Valley (N.S.) Wildcats.
Saint John had two picks in the 12th, selecting Louis J. Robichaud high school forward Mathieu Newcomb and Moncton midget AAA defenceman Shane MacDonald.
The Sea Dogs used their 13th-round pick on Hotchkiss Prep School blue-liner Wiley Sherman. Saint John’s last pick came in the 14th and final round, Chateauguay (Que.) midget AAA forward Jeremy Brown.
Meanwhile, the Sea Dogs acquired 19-year-old defenceman David Weckworth and an eighth-round draft pick in 2013 from the Gatineau Olympiques for a fifth-rounder in 2013.
Saint John Sea Dogs
2012 QMJHL Entry Draft
1. Matthew Highmore F Dartmouth, N.S., midget AAA
1. Olivier Leblanc D St. Francois, Que., midget AAA
4. Spencer Smallman F Fredericton midget AAA
4. Noah Zilbert F Fredericton midget AAA
7. Marcus Cuomo F St. John’s midget AAA
9. Drew Michals G Boston Junior Bruins
10. Justin Dickinson F Valley, N.S., midget AAA
12. Mathieu Newcomb F Louis J. Robichaud High School
12. Shane MacDonald D Moncton midget AAA
13. Wiley Sherman D Hotchkiss Prep School
14. Jeremy Brown F Chateauguay, Que., midget AAA