For years, the Montreal Canadiens were in desperate need of defensive prospects. Brett Lernout is one of the few who was there before the prospect pool was restocked, and remained afterwards. While Xavier Ouellet, Karl Alzner and Maxim Lamarche were the veterans based on age in Laval this year, at 23 years old, Lernout was one of the more senior presences on the Rocket blue line. In 279 games, Lernout has had ample time to prove he has NHL-level talent, especially with the influx of younger defenders joining the team in the coming year.
Lernout actually set a career-high in goals with the Rocket this year with four on the year. It may not be an overly-high number, but his game is not offensive, instead it’s closer to the mold of a modern defensive defencemen. With a long stride, Lernout was more than capable of moving the puck and skating with the play, but opted more often than not to be the last line of defence and his nine total points on the year reflect that. Yet, his fellow defence-first players like Lamarche and Alzner matched or surpassed his point totals. In half of the games, Alzner had just three less points, while Lamarche had more total points and in one less game played.
A stable presence in Joel Bouchard’s top four, it’s clear Lernout had the trust of his coaches and was used in all situations. Leaned on in most defensive situations, as well as a key part of the penalty kill, Lernout had no issue raking up minutes. When he chose to utilize it, Lernout’s shot was an effective weapon — a booming shot that had a habit of finding corners that were just out of the goalie’s reach.
However, in his fourth professional season, one would hope that Lernout took a slightly bigger step forward at this point in his career. The right side of the Canadiens’ defence is one of their strongest areas, making it an uphill climb for Lernout to earn a spot. In front of him are Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Christian Folin, Noah Juulsen, Josh Brook, and Cale Fleury. That’s quite an impressive group. And that doesn’t include Jordie Benn potentially being re-signed. In short, if Lernout is going to come back next year, it’s more than likely it will be his last chance in the Canadiens’ organization.
Luckily for Lernout, one of the trio of Juulsen, Brook or Fleury will likely claim an NHL role next season, giving him a chance to possibly return to his usual role for the Rocket. With Bouchard at the helm, it is entirely possible that the 23-year-old defender can still grow as a player. Something Bouchard has a track record of doing during his career. His strengths being skating and a long defensive wingspan, can help him as his development continues. Especially as the game transitions more and more to a speed-based game.
If his way to the NHL lies in being a defensive pillar, he’ll need to hone those skills and apply them on a more regular basis. He can skate with ease, getting from zone to zone quickly. But, on his defensive reads, he needs to trust his skating to match attacking forwards, and utilize better reads in his own end. He can be physical and still get into the play thanks to his skating and reach, but again, it comes down to reading the play properly so he isn’t leaving teammates out to dry. Under Bouchard’s tutelage the Rocket defensive system improved tenfold, with Lernout also benefiting.
So the question now is, will Marc Bergevin bring the 2014 draft pick on for one more season? Or is it time to move on from Brett Lernout?
With Bouchard behind the bench, it is likely worth seeing what sort of growth Lernout can have in a second full year with a new coach. However, after four years and a stagnant development curve, it is entirely possible that Lernout has hit his peak, and this is what he is. As it stands, he would be lucky to break into the NHL as a bottom-pairing defencemen, but there is still time to correct his course. If he is brought back, it’s up to Lernout to earn a lineup spot. He’ll have plenty of competition, but that seems to have brought out the best in many other players this year. There’s no reason he can’t be next to battle through a challenge from coaches and management.