It was a year of growth for defenceman Brett Lernout in St. John’s. His rookie season showed small glimpses of what he could on the ice, but this year he showed major progress in his play.
Lernout’s rookie season was like many others, a learning experience, as the transition from Junior hockey to the professional level isn’t always easy. The speed of the game, the physicality and skill is all at a much higher level, and young players have to adjust quickly or risk falling behind. Lernout had little time to worry in his rookie season, as he played 69 games with the IceCaps, and one with the Canadiens before suffering a season ending knee injury in his debut. With two goals and 10 assists, he produced at slow pace during his first season, but keep in mind that outside of Mark Barberio not much offence was driven through the blue line. In 2016-17, he posted three goals and 13 assists, a slight boost from his previous year, but when factoring in his increased workload it’s understandable.
Standing at 6’4’’, Lernout is an imposing figure on the ice who loves to play an aggressive, physical brand of hockey. He combined that attribute with an increased offensive style, all the while taking on more responsibilities during his sophomore season.
First and foremost, his game is based on making life miserable for opponents in his zone. He loves to take the body, and does well in the dirty areas of the ice during puck battles. A big change from his first season is that Lernout uses his long reach more often, keeping himself in position and allowing opportunities for better breakouts once the puck is retrieved. While he still delivers major hits, Lernout worked a lot this year on better timing, and it paid off big time in terms of his defensive positioning. He was leaned on by Sylvain Lefebvre in key defensive minutes, including plenty of time on the penalty kill.
Perhaps the biggest stride Lernout has made this season was his offensive play, specifically his puck-moving ability. While he put up good numbers in the WHL, he was never expected to be a major point producer at the professional level. This season saw him using his large stride to carry the puck more often, and it helped make him a more useful player overall. He isn’t as quick as a Nathan Beaulieu but with his wingspan he protects the puck well, and can carry into the offensive zone with ease.
Lernout possesses a quick slap shot that he utilizes well from the point to create chances. He tends to shoot low, allowing the forwards in front of the net to create deflections on net. When he does get it on net, it’s an accurate shot with decent speed behind it. He’s not going to be a major force in terms of points production, but he could be a solid secondary contributor in the future.
The hardest challenge for Lernout will be staying afloat with the new influx of talent coming to Laval. Both Simon Bourque and Noah Juulsen present better offensive skills, and Juulsen is likely better defensively. Next season Lernout will be called upon to lead the Rocket defence, as he’ll be one of the few veterans (barring any contract extensions) in that unit. Depending on the preseason, and how the NHL sorts itself out, Lernout could find himself as the top pairing defender in Laval. Even with a solid defensive game, the Rocket would need him to increase his point totals to potentially replace the type of defenceman the AHL team has had with Zach Redmond, should Redmond be caught in waiver limbo like Barberio before him.
If he continues to improve like he did this year, it’s reasonable to expect that he could be pushing for an NHL spot at the end of his entry level contract. For that to happen though he’ll have to prove he can handle big minutes in the AHL, something he’s just started to do in the latter half of the most recent season.
Lernout has a mean streak, loves to play physically, and can generate offence in a secondary role. It’s unlikely he’ll top out above a bottom pairing defender, but we all know the old adage by now, “You can never have too many defencemen”.