Remember the last time a highly drafted Canadiens prospect worth his salt played his junior hockey in Montreal?
It has, surprisingly never happened!
How unprecedented will it be to have Louis Leblanc play for the Montreal Junior after signing with the Canadiens yesterday?
It would be a first.
Talking first rounders specifically, the Canadiens have never had a junior aged drafted player since 1969 play junior in Montreal after being selected by the club.
Of ten Quebec league (QMJHL) prospects selected by the Habs since the mid 1970`s, five (Eric Chouinard, Jose Charbonneau, Alain Heroux, Danny Geoffrion, and Normand Dupont) were returned to play in the Q, but not in the city of Montreal.
Between 1969 and 1973, NHL teams drafted 20 years olds, and from those five drafts, the Habs, in the first round, took Q players such as Rejean Houle and Marc Tardif in 1969, and Guy Lafleur in 1971. While Houle and Tardif played for the OHL Montreal Junior Canadiens, both turned pro the following season, splitting games the Habs and the Montreal Voyageurs the next season. Lafleur's story needs no recounting.
From 1974 on, it's a different story.
Pierre Mondou, back in the 1974-75 season, was traded from the Sorel Blackhawks (Eperviers) to the Montreal Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, and responded with 40 goals and 47 assists in his final 40 games that year. He was drafted the following summer. Mondou played two full AHL seasons before making the grade with the Canadiens in 1977-78.
Mario Tremblay, the season prior, with the same club, registered 100 points in 47 games, but never returned to junior after being drafted by the Habs. As an 18 year old with Nova Scotia in the AHL, early in 1974-75, Tremblay registered 18 points in 15 games and got the call.
That's the sum of it all, since 1969. Should Louis Leblanc play with the Montreal Junior in 2010-11, it would set a precedent.
A Class Act
I like Louis Leblanc a whole lot. I Iike the description of his game as Mike Richards type, I like that the kid has brains that got him into Harvard and I like that the young man seems to take every step of his career very seriously. But the best thing I like about him is that he is earnest.
That was the overwhelming notion that I got from him, being a foot or two away from him moments after he was drafted at the Bell Centre in June 2009. Showing all kinds of composure where most kids his age and in his situation would be shellshocked, Leblanc nonetheless took on the fifty microphones pointed at him with poise and skill.
What I noticed were his pensive eyes, his patient answers, and in them, a steadfast conviction to doing whatever it takes to develop himself best as a hockey player.
He also appeared to be in no rush to leave the scrum of reporters, remaining put as the last four or five of us hung around to get more queries in. Eager and intense, he is also quite likable.
Admittedly, for those not standing where I happened to be, it isn't much to go on, on the whole. Character is but one necessary trait sought in players Leblanc's age, and attributes are not lacking, on and off the ice.
I get the feeling that when cornered, Leblanc will do just fine.
But with yesterday's signing comes the bigger questions from recent seasons, concerning how the Canadiens choose to develop their young talent. Carey Price and Guillaume Latendresse come to mind, with many cynics still of the opinion the Habs botched both.
With Leblanc, born but a few districts from the Bell, the scrutiny in him will be tenfold.
Already, his decision is being questioned.
From what I have read on the boy, the kid makes informed decisions, and not fleeting ones. Earlier his summer, when questions of his imminent hockey options were darting at him on an almost daily basis, his responses were that his decisions would not be based on the opinions of those who would most profit from him at this point, but from which he could most profit from development wise himself.
Like a smart kid, when his junior rights were traded from Chicoutimi to Montreal, he stepped back, analysed and assessed. In the coming weeks and months, we are sure to know more details leading to his choice.
How I see it, is kids don't go to Harvard to become hockey players. The truth is, while the Harvard school is reputed to have a very good hockey program, where lies the challenge for a 19 year old who is already the club's best player?
The basic question for Leblanc, may have been along those lines.
In Leblanc's case, he may have headed there initially, mainly to mature and grow as a young adult, which is a wise decision. In another view, it may have been best for him to go off to the university and remove himself for one year from the limelight that he will eventually confront, which in Montreal's case, will also confront him, not that that isn't already occurring.
If he is to survive in the Montreal jungle, where is the school for that?
Scrunity, Leblanc seems willing to accept and welcome it at this point. Had he proceded to shy away from it, such might have been a bigger concern. That he is indeed ready to meet the challenges of his destiny is hardly a bad thing. It shows that the confidence is there for the next step.
He did grow up a Habs fan, with brains, after all!
Where is Leblanc bound?
Leblanc, is at least a good two full seasons from becoming a member of the Canadiens. Much of what happens between now and then will determine his career. By signing with Montreal yesterday, he has put the choices in their hands, and they will now make decisions with, and for him, for the immediate future.
It is not a foregone conclusion that he will go directly to the Montreal juniors.
Leblanc will attend the Canadiens camp this fall, where the kids are pitted against the pros. He will be given long hard looks, and there could be the judgement that if he holds up well enough, he could be destined for Hamilton straight away.
If such a course is taken, do not be surprised, as that was the route chosen by the Habs for winger Max Pacioretty, after one season of excellent collegiate hockey.
Pacioretty made the AHL grade, and was good, soon graduating to the NHL. The fact that Pacioretty was called up and then returned to the Bulldogs, might speak more for the Canadiens thiness at the time, NHL roster wise, that it does for his progression to the bigs. Misteps, like it or not, are often part of a bigger process.
The AHL question for Leblanc may also include the unfolding of two other prospect scenarios. One involves Russian prospect Alexander Avstin, signed by the Habs and certainly destined for Hamilton, as he has no junior affiliation in the CHA.
The other is 2008 second round pick Danny Kristo, a former teammate of Leblanc's with the USHL Omaha Lancers. If Leblanc is judged to be Hamilton bound come the end of camp, don't be surprised to see Kristo signed, joining him in Hamilton.
Barring such a leap, most figure Louis Leblanc is pencilled in for one season, playing in the Habs backyard, as a member of the QMJHL Montreal Juniors.
There is experience to be gained there as well.
The Question of the Q
For Leblanc, he will be placed where he is tested most. And if the next test of his standing is in fact the QMJHL, it would be highly questioned.
Many opinions suggest that the junior Q is a step below the University level hockey Leblanc became accustomed to this past season, and that playing there may cause him to regress as a player.
But such an opinion denies the multiple peripheral questions that such a decision brings about.
Leblanc's junior hockey scenario could involve the following challenges to his progression as a player.
- Constant media coverage and pressure, on a game by game basis, including very high expectations for him to be dominant, from the always watchful Montreal media. Expectations also include him showing he has what it takes to become a player on thr 2011 WJC team.
- Scrutiny and criticism, the moment a wart is exposed.
- Treatment from fellow players and competitors, knowing they are being watched and measured up against a Habs first rounder.
- A longer schedule with more games played.
The effect of these challenges are surely being welcomed by Leblanc, who is undoubtably smart enough to understand what he is stepping into and against. These three facets of the game inside the game, are not things he would have been subjected to with another season at Harvard.
I recall years ago, reading several quotes in the late 1980's from Patrick Roy, Stephane Richer and Claude Lemieux. All three prospects were drafted in later rounds by Canadiens GM Serge Savard and all attested to a special treatment given them, by stature, when each returned to play hockey in Quebec junior.
Note that none of the three were first round picks, and that the Montreal media then was a fraction of what it is now, internet coverage subtracted from the era.
What is meant by special treatment, is that opponents sought to make life difficult for these wannabe Habs every step of the way. Players brought about their most furious and ferocious gamesmanship against Canadiens draft picks in the Q, subjecting them to a treatment much more fierce than given to a common opponent. Roy, Richer and Lemieux were put to a test, trashtalked to infinity, obstrcuted like no other, and subjected to the downside of preferrencial treatment every step of the way. The Q players worked every length of rulebook lenience in order to make them crack, as it measured themselves in scouts potentially, for their own assessment.
In the Q, Leblanc would be subjected to an intensified version of the same. He'd be dealing with this in spades, and again, it is something he would never have received at Harvard. He would essentially be playing games with a target on his head.
Chris Chelios, no dummy when it came to learning NHL steps, once said, that being a member of the Canadiens was akin to attending the Harvard of hockey.
Chelios, an American of course, never blazed through the magnifying idiocy that can be the QHJML at its worst.
The Next Step is What's Most Important
All told, because of an injury hampered season season at Harvard, opinions on Louis Leblanc's progression as a player are open to wide spanning claim and speculation. Those who have witnessed him most closely of late are the Canadiens organization themselves, who have evidentally come to a decision.
That decision by the Canadiens, cannot be judged as one done in order to save face, considering that they have recently admitted, for all intents, that 2006 first pick David Fischer has been a bust.
All opinions considered, the good news is that Leblanc is ready and willing to take on greater challenges and take his crucial next step.
The status quo for Leblanc, which would have involved a further pursuing his education, has become a non-factor.
By all sounds, it's doubtful he become brainless tomorrow.
Whether Leblanc and the Canadiens have made the right decision will come forth with time, but as I see it right now, the club and the player, in signing a deal, are willing to lay things on the table, put to a test, in order to best know where everything sits.
Again, little is learned from the status quo.
Glad Louis Leblanc is as curious as we all are.