Mathieu Cataford enters his rookie season in the QMJHL with high expectations. Taken sixth overall by the Mooseheads in the 2021 QMJHL Entry Draft, the sixteen-year-old winger looks to bring the same kind of scoring power that he showed in AAA (he led his team in scoring for two seasons before last year’s pandemic cancelled year). The 5’11 (180cm), 183-pound (83-kg) winger hails from Saint-Constant, Quebec and is likely to become just the second NHL-drafted player from the small city on the southern bank of the St Lawrence--just across the river from Montreal—when he becomes eligible in 2023 (Michel Periard was drafted 188th overall by Ottawa in 1998).
Cataford plays with intensity at both ends of the ice, showing a high-level work rate on every shift and making the most of his ice time thus far in his rookie season for Halifax. Through his first six QMJHL games, he has two goals and two assists with nine shots on goal and is currently ninth in early-season rookie scoring.
In his own end, he maintains quality defensive position and will engage puck carriers along the boards while also keeping an eye toward creating turnovers with his stick, his positioning or his body when necessary. He can often be seen gathering pucks near the half-boards and drawing defenders in towards him, only to make a quality, safe pass to the neutral zone to launch a breakout. Over time, as his defensive play continues to develop, he should become a reliable defensive forward who will kill penalties and be able to play against opponent top lines.
In transition, Cataford is more of a passer than a puck carrier, but he can maneuver through the neutral zone with the puck. He has good speed with the puck on his stick, and although he is not a dangler, he is a capable stickhandler in traffic. However, as mentioned, he looks to be more of a pass-and-go player while in transition.
Cataford can also be effective in the offensive zone, both on the forecheck and on the attack. He goes into corners on the forecheck with the determination to win puck battles and disrupt any breakout attempts, and he is often successful when doing so. On one shift in particular, with the puck in the far corner, Cataford came over the boards on a line change and made a beeline into the corner, put his shoulder into the defenseman trying to shield the puck, and held him off the puck long enough for a teammate to gain possession. The play was indicative of Cataford’s willingness to do the hard work to help his team gain an advantage in the offensive zone.
On offense, Cataford will go to the net, hunting rebounds or making himself available for a pass and scoring attempt. He shows good on-ice awareness, rarely chasing the play but instead anticipating and positioning himself as appropriate. When he has the puck, he tends to make safer, simple passes to better options without trying to do too much or making higher-risk attempts. Perhaps his tendency to make smaller plays without holding the puck belies a bit of inexperience and lack of confidence to make individual plays, but in general it looks much more like a player trying to keep the puck active and improving puck position at every chance.
At this point in his development, Cataford looks one-dimensional with his shot. He has a good wrist shot, but has not yet displayed an ability to beat goaltenders from distance with it. He would also do well to improve on a one-timer that he does not often use at this time. What he does well, however, is go to the net with the same kind of purpose that he shows in forechecking and defensive-zone play: high work ethic, willingness to get to the hard spots on the ice, and a good awareness of where to be to try to take advantage of the play around him.
What Cataford has yet to prove in his first six games in Major Junior hockey is whether or not he will become an offensive leader at that level. Early indications are that he will, but there is a good amount of work yet to be done. One thing that he has shown so far, however, is that he will put in the effort to make himself, and his team, better. It is an admirable trait that should serve him well as he progresses towards his 2023 draft year and his hockey future.