Some players bloom later than others. Sometimes it’s simply because those players weren’t given the opportunities before, and seized an occasion to change their status inside a team and in the hockey world. Other times, it’s hard work and dedication that transforms a player’s abilities and effectiveness on the ice.
It can also be a combination of both, as is the case for Brett Leason, who has been a great surprise in the 2019 class.
The 6’5’’ forward’s first draft year was the 2016-17 season. He recorded just 18 points as a depth forward for the Tri-City Americans and was passed over. In 2017-18, he once again had a slow start with the Americans — one point in 12 games — before moving on to the Prince Albert Raiders where his production increased, but not enough to be drafted.
Birthplace: Calgary, AB, Canada
Position: Right wing
Weight: 198 lbs.
Team: Prince Albert Raiders
As players age in the Junior hockey system, they gain more and more advantage over their peers. They mature physically and start to dominate their younger counterparts along the boards and in front of the net. They also earn valuable experience and bigger roles.
Production is a factor of opportunity. So an increase in numbers doesn’t necessarily mean a big change in player ability, which is why Leason remained somewhat off of the radars for his second year of eligibility. His 0.5 point-per-game average wasn’t enough to spark the attention of NHL organizations even considering his towering size.
What Leason had to do in his last chance at a selection was come into the season with a bang; force teams to look past the over-age factor, and make it so he couldn’t be ignored a third time.
And he did just that.
Leason went on a tear to start the 2018-19 season. In his first 31 games he scored 64 points. His first-half performance earned him an invite to the World Junior Championship, where he played at times on both special teams and was one of the most effective players for a Team Canada that didn’t gel as well as anticipated.
The Prince Albert forward injured his hand blocking a shot in a pre-event game against U-Sports opponents, but still recorded five points in five games in the tournament.
He slowed down in the second half of the WHL season, scoring at only a point-per-game pace, the injury likely playing a part in the downswing of his season. But right now, Leason’s production is picking back up at just the right time as he helps carry the Raiders further in the playoffs.
What will have Leason drafted highly in the 2019 class, besides the massive increase in production that defies the usual player growth curve we observe from CHL players, is a change to his tools, specifically his skating.
Most 6’5’’ forwards have some difficulties getting around on the ice. It was also the case previously for Leason, who lacked power in his strides. But his off-season work paid off. He is now very noticeably faster and quicker. Projecting him to the NHL, he should have no trouble keeping up with most players in the top league, especially considering the advantage that his large wingspan gives him in puck races.
In the clip above, you can see Leason stride up the ice and score. Not only did his work in the gym make him powerful, the forward’s skating form, while not perfect, remains pretty sound. He bends his knees more than most players his size and keeps his back straight to maximize his pushes. His feet hit the ice quickly and he beats the line of defence easily to get to dangle the goalie.
On top of now being a good skater, Leason is a skilled stick-handler, able to protect the puck using his large frame and hands to place it completely out of reach of defenders with his great range as he moves around defenders.
Leason is not a sniper from the periphery, but when he gets around the net, he can pick his spot and press down on his stick to elevate the puck hard above the goalie’s shoulder. His handling also helps him reposition the puck quickly in slot traffic to get shots off.
There is a good mix of physicality and skill in the forward’s game. He doesn’t really brute-force his way to scoring areas, but competes hard for the puck to get second- and third-chance scoring opportunities. He consistently neutralizes opposing sticks and uses his body well to seal possession from opponents.
With those same abilities, Leason is also a very useful element for a team defensively. At the World Juniors he had both an offensive and checking role, and showed himself to be a reliable forward for the coaching staff, sent on the ice in the last few minutes of games and playing well on the penalty kill.
With a man down, he was blocking shots and chasing opponents out of the zone, applying a lot of pressure while they tried to regroup. Forechecking is another dimension of his play in which his improved skating made a huge difference.
Rankings (not all rankings are final)
Elite Prospects: #34
Future Considerations: #38
Hockey Prospect: #28
ISS Hockey: #24
NHL Central Scouting: #25 (NA skaters)
NHL teams want to capitalize on draft inefficiencies. Blooming draft over-agers might not be as big an area of hidden value as undersized players were a few years ago, but those late-developing players are still a market that is interesting to tap, even if they can be hard to gauge. How much of their success can be attributed to physical maturity, and how much can they still improve in the coming years?
It’s easy to assume that a third-year eligible like Leason wouldn’t have as much potential for growth in his game compared to the many talented first-year eligibles, but look a bit further and you see a player who could be making just his first steps on his path to the NHL.
By working on his skating, Leason has given himself the key to developing his game and is only now discovering what is possible for him on the ice. There is no reason why he couldn’t continue to improve as he joins the professional side of the game next year, and that makes him a very interesting target in this 2019 selection.
He is closer to the NHL than most of his peers, excluding of course the very top prospects in the draft. With a great training camp, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to see him make his debut with the club that chooses him. He has the size, the mobility, and the two-way game to be useful in a depth role, and the ceiling for potentially more.
If he doesn’t join the NHL, he will still be a very intriguing project for an AHL coach and the development staff to work with, helping him continue to unlock other facets of his game, like the ability to use his size even more to his advantage in the physical world of the professional game.
Considering his skill and already notable improvements, Leason should be selected in the first round of the 2019 draft. If he falls, he surely won’t escape the first few teams returning to the podium to make their second selection. This pprojection is quite incredible considering his unknown status just a year ago.
Leason is a great example of what hard work can do for a player willing to put in the time.