There are a lot of things the experts say about the lauded World Junior Championship. An oft-repeated comment is that for draft eligible players you can not hurt your draft status, only improve it. Another is that it's really a tournament for 19 year olds, and to expect a dynamic output from a younger player is a little foolish, as the more mature players will be the impact players on each respective team. In my opinion a the World Juniors is a great place to see drafted prospects against the best players of their age group. Excelling in the tournament doesn't necessarily translate into instant NHL success, but it's certainly an indicator of what a player can do against elite competition.
So with that in mind, what did we learn from December 26th to January 5th about the hotly anticipated home-boy draft pick of the Canadiens; Louis Leblanc? Unfortunately, I don't think we've learned as much about him as we could have. Louis Leblanc started the tournament on the top scoring line with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz, however while both his linemates were on the first wave of Canada's powerplay, Leblanc saw limited time on the second wave, partly due to coach Dave Cameron's over-reliance on the top unit, and partly because Leblanc wasn't always on the second wave, sometimes he was left off entirely.
After Jaden Schwartz broke his ankle, the lines were shuffled and Leblanc was moved out of a top six spot, despite regularly controlling the play and looking like the best player on his line most shifts (when not on the Schenn line, as Schenn was fantastic all tournament). TSN's Bob McKenzie frequently commented that Leblanc brought energy to every line he was put on, and perhaps that's why he was continually shuffled through the lineup after Schwartz went down. But after the way the tournament ended, I can't help but think that for most of the tournament Leblanc was a wasted asset.
Now I'm not saying Louis Leblanc would have single-handedly won the game against the Russians if he was played with the top players on the team, what I'm saying is that Canadiens fans were done a disservice in not seeing Leblanc in the role that he was drafted to perform, and that his play in the tournament easily earned him bigger minutes. Watching the games, and looking at the stat sheet, it was very easy to see that Leblanc outperformed "big" names such as Zack Kassian, Brett Connolly, Cody Eakin, Quinton Howden, Curtis Hamilton, and Marcus Foligno. In fact the only forwards on Team Canada that had a better tournament than Leblanc were Brayden Schenn, who was excellent, and Ryan Johansen, who put up 2 more assists than Leblanc, was a +4 to Leblanc's +6, and benefited from being on the first wave of the powerplay for the entirety of the tournament.
While we likely didn't see the most impressive offensive output Leblanc could muster with ideal ice-time, unless you've been diligently going to Montreal Juniors games, we learned some interesting things about our boy Louis. When Leblanc was first drafted I remember reading a bunch of scouting reports, and the basics were that he had a great will to win, needed to work on his skating, was physically not very strong, and his offensive potential may not be that great because he was playing in the USHL instead of the CHL, and many compared his playing style to that of Mike Richards..
I think after watching him score at a point per game pace with limited ice-time and with offensively challenged linemates, we can write off that third scouting report. Is Leblanc going to be an offensive dynamo, point per game player in the NHL? Probably not, but he's no slouch. He has a nose for the net, and the amount of pucks he throws on net to either score or generate rebounds reminds me a lot of Brian Gionta, so that's very promising.
His skating seems to have improved since he was drafted, which is good. He's not the fastest skater out there, but he's not Latendresse slow, and he gets up to speed quickly. One thing that wasn't mentioned in scouting reports about his skating however is his agility. Leblanc possesses a unique escapability along the boards that I've only seen consistently accomplished in the NHL by a few players, one of them is named Sidney Crosby. His quick directional changes make him very difficult to check, and defenders often get caught lagging behind him, allowing Leblanc to send a pass to a teammate or take a chance on his own. His board play as a 19 year old is something the Canadiens could currently use, and after a year in the AHL or two, that same tenacious board play is going to make Leblanc a big asset in the Canadiens lineup.
I also believe that it's his board play that drew the initial comparisons to Mike Richards, as he is also very hard to remove from the puck. However in his overall game, I don't see a Mike Richards in Louis Leblanc. He doesn't have the same physical presence as Richards, and certainly doesn't have the same mean streak from what I can see. Physically Leblanc is much stronger now than he was when drafted, and perhaps the year at Harvard with fewer games and more time in the gym has paid off, as he was ranked first overall in physical fitness among Team Canada hopefuls after the evaluation camp. He still needs to get stronger, but it's obvious that he's been working on it.
What I found the most impressive about Leblanc in the World Juniors however, was his willingness to take on any job given to him. When he was on the top line he performed very well, and when he was put on a checking line he performed just as well. When he was put on the energy line he went out and did his job with a smile on his face. He has versatility, a natural center who can play right wing when asked, as he played right wing this whole tournament. He can play the powerplay, and he can kill penalties. This is the kind of versatility that turns a late first round pick into a very likely impact NHLer. With Eller and Leblanc in the system, 4 years from now or so the Canadiens are going to have a gluttony of very good centers.