On a sun-splashed, picturesque afternoon last July, Olivier Nadeau gathered with 30 people outside his family’s home in Lac-Etchemin, a four-season vacation destination town southeast of Quebec City, to watch the second day of the NHL draft.
Surrounded by heavily wooded rolling hills and a short walk from the town’s five-kilometer-long lake, Nadeau was glaring at the television when his selection by the Buffalo Sabers was announced with the first pick of the fourth round.
“It was a special moment,” the 6-foot-2 power forward recalled in a recent phone interview with The Buffalo News.
Nadeau, 19, hugged family, friends and teammates who could attend. A video conference call with Buffalo reporters was scheduled shortly thereafter.
Congratulatory text messages poured in, including one from Alex Tanguay, a retired NHL forward from the region who won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. In Lac-Etchemin, a municipality of approximately 4,000 where Nadeau said, “everyone knows everyone,” his accomplishment was celebrated by those who watched his career from near and far.
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Nadeau has given them another reason to celebrate this month. His four goals and 16 points in 16 playoff games led the Shawinigan Cataractes to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League title. They earned a spot in the storied Memorial Cup, where champions from Canada’s top three junior leagues compete for the right to call themselves the top team in the country.
“It’s just amazing,” he said. “We finished seventh in the league this year. We were underdogs for all the playoffs. I’m so proud of how we did it.”
The four-team round robin Memorial Cup, which also includes the host Saint John Sea Dogs, begins Monday, and wraps with the championship game June 29. Nadeau and the Cataractes play their first game Tuesday against the Edmonton Oil Kings, who won the Western Hockey League championship.
This is the kind of development opportunity the Sabers wanted for Nadeau when they selected him with the No. 97 pick. For much of the season, Nadeau played left wing on a line with NHL first-round draft choices Xavier Bourgault (Edmonton Oilers) and Mavrik Bourque (Dallas Stars). The trio combined for 63 points during the QMJHL playoffs.
Nadeau led Shawinigan in scoring during the regular season, totaling 35 goals and 78 points in 65 games. He improved his skating to help him outrace opponents to the puck and create offense off the rush. Nadeau described himself as a worker bee, willing to do “the hard work” to help his linemates score. He models his game after the Edmonton Oilers’ Zach Hyman, a 6-foot-1 skilled power forward with three 20-goal seasons and a skill set to play with superstars like Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews.
“We just complete each other so well,” Nadeau said of his line. “Bourgault is the scorer, a natural scorer. He’s so good. And Bourque is a two-way player and the best guy in the CHL right now. He can do everything on the ice. I’m the power forward on the line that gets the puck in the O-zone and gets it to them, get to the front of the net.
“I do the hard work, and we finish the play so well.”
The Sabers’ development staff visited Nadeau frequently throughout the season to monitor his progress in his third year with Shawinigan and provide useful advice. Nadeau was productive amid difficult circumstances in the pandemic-shortened 2020-21 season with 13 goals and 45 points in 34 games. But his game has reached another level since the draft.
Nadeau had at least one point in 23 of Shawinigan’s first 29 games of the regular season, including a four-goal, seven-point effort to cap a 20-point October. The consistency continued in the playoffs, when he had six points in their five games to start the championship run.
Following the second round, the Sabers signed Nadeau to a three-year, entry-level contract. The NHL’s development agreement with the Canadian Hockey League, which governs the country’s top three junior leagues, prevents Nadeau from playing for the Rochester Americans until he turns 20 years old, but the move ensures that he will join the Sabers organization as soon as next spring .
“I was very excited,” he said of the signing. “It was probably a sign of trust from them. I had a great season so far and playoffs. They thought that was a good moment to sign me and it just gave me a boost for the rest of the playoffs.”
The Sabers don’t have another player like Nadeau in their prospect pipeline. He frustrates defensemen on the forecheck, outmuscles opponents to get proper positioning in front of the net and has the vision to set up his linemates. Longtime Sabers scout Kevin Devine is based in Canada’s maritime provinces, yet Nadeau was the organization’s first draft choice from the QMJHL since 2014.
Now, Nadeau will share the spotlight with his talented teammates, other high-end prospects chosen by NHL teams and top players who will be selected at the draft next month in a tournament. And Nadeau already has a plan for how he’ll celebrate the Memorial Cup win.
“I’m just very excited to bring the Cup home this summer to celebrate with everyone,” he said. “Everyone supports me.”