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What should the Canadiens do with Louis Leblanc?

At 23 years old and facing his first real contract negotiations as a restricted free agent, what is the plan with Louis Leblanc?

Francois Lacasse

When he was drafted 18th overall in 2009, the hype machine had already been going for awhile. Louis Leblanc was the next great French hope even before he heard his name called by Trevor Timmins at the Bell Centre, amid chants of that same name by the local crowd.

In retrospect it's a pick that's been seen as the Canadiens bowing to public pressure to take "The French kid", especially considering Leblanc has failed to establish himself in the pro ranks, while Chris Kreider, taken right after him, looks like a solid second liner, and recently made himself very visible by injuring Carey Price in the Eastern Conference finals.

The fact is though, the Leblanc pick wasn't a reach. Bob McKenzie's consensus list had Leblanc ranked as the 17th best player available in the draft, while ISS was even more optimistic, putting Leblanc at 12th. Kreider was 19th and 24th, respectively.

Drafted as a natural center, Leblanc showed the versatility to be able to play right wing as well, which is how the Canadiens envisioned him eventually making the NHL, so when he hit the pro ranks, that's how he was deployed.

After a couple of mildly disappointing seasons post draft, where Leblanc led his Harvard club and the Montreal Juniors in scoring (per game for the Juniors), Louis had a promising first pro season, playing more often in the NHL than the AHL.

For the Bulldogs, he put up 11 goals and 11 assists in 31 games, including a solid 3.61 shots per game. In the NHL he put up 5 goals and 5 assists in 42 games, and a shot rate of 1.38 per game, also not bad for an 20 year old rookie. Leblanc holding his own at the NHL level so early raised expectations, which were dashed fairly quickly the following year.

The decline

Starting the season on a tough minutes line for Hamilton in 2012-13 with Mike Blunden and Darryl Boyce, Leblanc put up 2 goals in his first three games, along with 12 shots. Unfortunately though, he didn't last the entire third game, suffering a high ankle sprain that kept him out for a month, and hampered him the rest of the season, putting up just 8 goals and 8 assists the following 59 games, putting up just 2.53 shots per game, a full shot less than his rookie AHL season.

There were rumours throughout the year of a rift between Leblanc and Bulldogs head coach Sylvain Lefebvre, which led to a lot of criticism for the young forward.

Coming into last season, Leblanc had a very solid training camp, but was still sent down to Hamilton. After what seemed like four games of sulking, Leblanc finally started to break out with 5 goals and 3 assists in 4 games, but from there on it was another tough season.

Stuck on a line with a veteran goon in Nick Tarnasky for most of the season, Leblanc again struggled to establish himself, and received very little powerplay time. His 13 goals and 15 assists in 70 games were an improvement on the previous season, but still pedestrian, as he was overtaken on the depth chart at right wing by Christian Thomas and Sven Andrighetto.

In fact, Leblanc's shot rate per game decreased for a second straight season, dropping down to just 2.23 per game. While Leblanc admits that he's been disappointed in his production, he points to improved play away from the puck as an area where his game has grown, but even with that being true, something is very clearly wrong.

What to do

Louis Leblanc is a restricted free agent coming off of an entry level deal, who hasn't established himself in the NHL, and hasn't emerged as an AHL scorer. That kind of player doesn't make a lot of money, and he isn't eligible for arbitration. He essentially has no leverage.

There is a loud, obnoxious group of fans that believe that Leblanc has to be traded or let walk, but why? What exactly is the point of letting a former first round pick walk at 23 when the cost of keeping him is essentially just a roster spot? There is essentially zero reasoning for letting Leblanc go until he's actively costing the Canadiens something, or until he has enough value to bring back good return in a trade.

In fact, with the way the Bulldogs' depth chart is shaking out, it may be best to put Leblanc back into his natural position of center. Martin St. Pierre, the Bulldogs' top center last season, is a free agent, and Gabriel Dumont is more of a checker than a scorer, even though he gets tons of powerplay time and marquee linemates in Hamilton. If the Bulldogs are intent in running Andrighetto and Thomas on the right, Leblanc could shift into the top center slot, with wingers like Andrighetto on the right, and Charles Hudon on the left.

It's a unique opportunity to push Leblanc forward, and to rekindle what was once thought to be a solid player. Is Leblanc going to be a second line center in the NHL like he was projected to be when he was drafted? No. Is he going to score 30 goals in the NHL? No. That doesn't mean he doesn't have value going forward.

What we do know about Leblanc is that in half a season at 20, and in eight games at 22, he wasn't a liability in the NHL. That isn't something you just walk away from when you can keep it for free, even if there have been bumps along the development road.

It's worth noting that Leblanc is now waiver eligible, so it's possible he could get claimed if he doesn't make the Habs, but that's no reason to let him go for nothing.