What’s behind Zach L’Heureux’s scoring surge?
The 19-year-old has torched the QMJHL since returning from injury.
Snubbed from Canada’s 2022 World Junior Championship (WJC) selection camp, kept out of the 2022 QMJHL playoffs with a persistent hip injury, and sidelined until late November this season while recovering, Zachary L’Heureux’s development has taken hit after hit since being drafted 27th overall at the 2021 NHL Entry Draft.
But the past two months have been different.
Determined to make his mark in the Nashville Predators organization, L’Heureux has been an unstoppable force for Halifax this season. In 18 games, he's scored 15 goals and 29 points, including 20 primary points scored at even strength. The Mooseheads’ assistant captain needs just seven more goals to match last year’s 46-game total, and he’s sixth among all U20 QMJHL skaters with 1.61 points per game. L’Heureux has recorded a primary point on 62.5% of even-strength goals he’s been on the ice for and has scored a staggering 4.16 primary points per 60 minutes.
So what’s behind L’Heureux’s offensive resurgence? Yes, his shooting percentage is a bit inflated at 19.48%, and yes, the Mooseheads have scored more goals (213) than any other QMJHL team. But his success isn’t just the result of puck luck or the team around him.
In transition, Zach L’Heureux (#66, green) has been more successful at both ends of the ice this year. He’s playing with more pace and attacking defenders instead of waiting for teammates to create plays for him. In 2021-22, L’Heureux topped out at a 61.4% zone-exit success rate and a 57.14% zone-entry success rate; this season (through four games tracked) those figures are up to 73.68% and 72.00%. Those improvements result from dedicated backchecking as shown above and better puck protection in the offensive zone.
L’Heureux is attempting to carry the puck into the offensive zone (as opposed to dumping it in) at about the same rate as last season (78.02% to 80.00%), but he’s maintaining possession so much more—three-fourths of the time. As you can see in the clip above, he’s reversing play quicker from the neutral zone, and L’Heureux’s pulling in defenders better with his stickhandling skills before setting up his teammates in open ice.
In the 2021-22 season, L’Heureux recorded 23.52 shot attempts per 60 minutes. That’s down a bit so far this season—17.79 shot attempts per 60 minutes, but he’s powering his way to high-danger areas more before pulling the trigger as shown above. 57.90% of his shots have been from high-danger areas compared to 47.45% last year, and he’s still taken almost one-third of Halifax’s shots when he’s been on the ice.
On top of that, L’Heureux’s been more dynamic supporting the puck this season. Notice how mobile he is in the clip above, giving each of his teammates an excellent passing option while the puck rotates around the zone. Just as importantly, he knows when to peel off and find uncontested next to the net from where he buries a quick goal.
Zach L’Heureux is also winning more position battles in front of the net for Halifax in 2022-23. Despite his 5’11’ frame, L’Heureux doesn’t cede ground on top of the crease often, and he can do much more than just deflect point shots. The goal we see above has been characteristic of much of L’Heureux’s season: he navigates his way around three defenders at the net front and still finds room to stickhandle the goalie out of position before scoring.
Despite these offensive improvements, L’Heureux still doesn’t have elite foot speed as shown above. In one-on-one battles, he has to rely more on changing the pace and/or pulling up to wait for playmaking options.
But he can still succeed with average speed at higher levels. This season, L’Heureux is learning to drop his shoulder more in these one-on-one situations and use his protective frame to wedge his way into high-danger areas and keep the puck out of opponents’ reach.
In his third year in the QMJHL, the expectations are that L’Heureux should be one of the league’s best scorers. But this is also a necessary year—after so much time missed to injury—to build good pro-level habits that will help him make a good impression in Milwaukee next year much like Luke Evangelista is doing this year. There’s still plenty of season to play, but Zach L’Heureux is by far exceeding expectations.
All statistics are courtesy of theqmjhl.ca, eliteprospects.com, or manually tracked.