Brett Lernout was somewhat of a hot button issue during last year's top-25 series. Many felt that he should have been a part of the final list, but he fell just outside at number 26. The 2014 third-round pick just completed his first season of professional hockey in the AHL, and it was enough to get him in this time around.
His offensive totals weren't quite sparkling, putting up two goals and 10 helpers through 69 games in St. John's. However, he brought a steady defensive presence to an IceCaps defensive corps that was constantly losing bodies to the Canadiens, due to injury troubles in Montreal.
Those same injury issues eventually earned him his first ever NHL game with the Canadiens. He did not record any points, and while he wasn't spectacular, he didn't look too out of place either. He may have even gotten himself a few more games in the Tricolore, but in that lone game he unfortunately suffered a knee injury that would end his season before he got the chance.
It stands to reason that Lernout will be back with the IceCaps this year for his second season of pro hockey. Given the turnover that has happened on the farm, it seems likely that his role with the club may be expanding. Of course, if Montreal's season is anything like 2015-16, he may get another couple of games in the Tricolore.
Lernout was far from a consensus this year, with our panel quite divided on where exactly he should land. Still, only myself and three other panelists felt that he was on the outside looking in.
One of the higher votes at 19 came from the community, but the vast majority of our team also felt that he should be in the top-25 this year.
Top 25 Under 25 History
As mentioned, Lernout was a major discussion point through much of last year's rankings, seeing as many felt he should have made it in. He came very close, finishing at number 25, but most of us simply felt that we hadn't seen enough from him to put him in there just yet.
He finished extremely close to that 25 spot last year, so close in fact that we had to post a follow-up article to clarify how he fell short during the selection process. In any case, he has arrived now.
Lernout is a very big and strong defender. He uses his frame to keep opposing forwards to the outside of the defensive zone, and has virtually no issues keeping the front of the net clear for his goaltenders. He boasts very good positioning, and you rarely catch him running around in his own zone.
While players who carry that 'big, physical defenseman' moniker tend to have below-average skating, Lernout is actually not bad at all. He lacks the top-end abilities of your elite puck-moving defenders, but he also doesn't figure to be the type of player who gets consistently turnstiled by opposing forwards.
He loves to let go wrist shots from the point. Whereas most would prefer to see a good slapshot, Lernout prefers to let go the quick and deceptive wrister through traffic.
And many observers also love the mean streak that he brings to the table, which he manages to do without taking too many bad penalties. He's very physically punishing for his opponents, and in essence the perfect fit for that 'tough to play against' style that Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin love to tout.
While his defensive game comes rather highly touted, he has very limited offensive upside. He makes a good first pass, so he can start the play in the other direction, but you really cannot expect him to jump in and add any danger to that attack.
In the offensive zone, he seems very tentative to let loose his slapshot, which is actually quite good. I'm inclined to call it a confidence issue, because he does have the type of shot that can put fear in the eyes of opposing defenders. An ability to get that shot off more consistently would likely provide him with more offensive potential.
I did mention that he has pretty good skating, but if he hopes to transition to the NHL eventually, it will be something he needs to always be working on. The difference in speed between the AHL and NHL is anything but negligible, so he will need to be a little quicker on his feet to win a permanent NHL spot.
He will definitely be starting this year in the AHL with the IceCaps. Montreal has plenty of defensive depth right now, so there is absolutely no need to rush him into a role with the Canadiens that he isn't ready for. I would say he's probably in for at least one year in Laval, after the IceCaps move there, before we start talking about the possibility of the NHL.
The new fighting rules in the AHL are something that I feel will benefit Lernout greatly. They don't cut fighting out entirely, but they should reduce it, and as a result he can spend more time developing other aspects of his game. That is important, because we know he can fight, and most would be more interested to see him develop as a skater.
In terms of projecting him at the NHL level, I'd be hesitant to say that he'll be anything more than a bottom-pair shutdown defenceman. He doesn't have the puck skills or skating to be considered a top-two NHLer, but he could be a very serviceable player in a more defensive-minded role.
Lernout has some interesting tools that make him a prospect to watch, but we'll have to see if he can put everything together in order to eventually earn a spot with the Montreal Canadiens.