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Canadiens 2017 Top 25 Under 25: #18 Brett Lernout

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The 6’4” defender has done nothing but improve since draft day, but is time running out?

Montreal Canadiens v Florida Panthers Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Singled out by Marc Bergevin as an intriguing defensive prospect following the exodus of blue-line talent leading up to July 1, it may come as a surprise that Brett Lernout is ranked at #18.

At face value, there’s certainly a lot to like about him. He has trended upward dramatically in the last three seasons; from a second-pairing WHL defender to a top-pairing role in the AHL. He has the size teams crave, and he’s a gifted skater with a booming shot.

Image credit: EliteProspects

Sylvain Lefebvre described Lernout as the St. John’s IceCaps’ most improved player last year, which is certainly a lofty claim considering the progression Jacob de la Rose, Charles Hudon, and Nikita Scherbak made in 2016-17.

There is sound reasoning in Lefebvre’s claim. After all, the defenceman’s point totals modestly improved, and his shots on goal per game increased from 0.84 to 1.28. As the calendar flipped, he found himself facing top competition, and pulled off a 52.1 goals-for percentage and was a +3.49 GF% relative to his teammates. At first glance, perhaps he was driving results.

Voting

There was a large range for Lernout, from the second-best defenceman under 25 and within the top 15, to the ninth-best defenceman and among the final 10 places. Twenty-three panellists placed him within the top 25, with most votes in the high teens to early 20s.

The EOTP vote representing the hundreds of community ballots is one of the highest he received, with only three panellists ranking him higher than that 15th place.

Top 25 Under 25 History

2014: #30 2015: #26 2016: #22

Lernout made his T25U25 debut in 2014 at 30th before landing at 26th in the highly controversial 2015 rankings. Last season, he jumped into the top 25 for first time, at #22, with a solid first professional season, and advanced his standard four positions again in 2017.

Strengths

As the NHL shifts to smaller, quicker players, there’s still plenty of appeal for tall, physical defenders — especially when they skate like Lernout. Six-foot-four in stature, with quick four-way mobility and separation speed in open ice, his feet can certainly keep up with the way the NHL moving.

In form, he uses his skating ability to maintain a tight gap. He’s more than willing to throw the body along the boards, and can dish a bone-crushing open-ice check on occasion. He collapses to the net, tracks the puck adequately, and has a knack for making last-second desperation defensive plays. However I’d hesitate to describe him as a defensive stalwart, which I’ll explain in a bit.

Just like without the puck, offensively Lernout has the tools to be better than his current level. He has a powerful slapshot and a quick wrister that snagged him most of his goals in the WHL. He isn’t creative in the offensive zone, but keeps the puck in the right hands well enough.

At this point, his best asset is likely his ability to transition the puck, and that would have been categorized as a weakness as recently as one year ago. With his head always up and a slick first pass, he led IceCaps blue-liners in successful defensive-zone exits via pass and total number of controlled exits. He skates himself into the odd mistake while under pressure, but otherwise has the poise and skill to evade attackers and make the odd nice play.

Weaknesses

The problem with Lernout has been, and remains, consistent execution. Despite possessing the tools to maintain a tight gap on defence,he doesn’t do this with enough regularity. He found himself on the negative side of the highlight reel a few too many times with gap control that ranges from too aggressive to too passive.

This is reflected in the numbers from a tracked sample of games, as he sported the second-worst defensive-zone entry prevention rate among IceCaps blue-liners. Given his tools, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be better at this integral element.

Offensively, there’s a notable disconnect between the shooting and the scoring. Lernout is flatfooted along the boards, and won’t hesitate to fire a shot from there. However, this is a terrible angle to shoot from, limiting his shots on goal. There’s been notable improvement in using his quick lateral movement to locate open lanes, but still work to be done.

Execution on the macro level remains a problem, too. While he was on the ice for the most Corsi-for events in the games tracked, he was also on the ice for the most against — by far. All in all, Lernout posted a 39.8 Corsi-for percentage, with a team-worst -7.52 relative CF%. (Note: While this is from a decent sample of 20 games, most were tracked in the first half of the season).

While he finished the season with a positive goal differential, as his competition grew tougher, his goals-for percentage dropped from 60% to a shade over 40%, although it’s plausible there’s a team-related explanation as the driving force here.

It’s quite interesting to break Lernout’s GF% down by teammates. For defenders, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he was effective with Mark Barberio and Joel Hanley: two excellent AHL defenders in their own right. However, he was caved in with Philip Samuelsson, Ryan Johnston, and Tom Parisi. The most troublesome is at 30% GF% with Julien Brouillette, Lernout’s most common defensive partner, especially through the second half (which raises some questions about the deployment decisions by the coaching staff).

While faltering with the less skilled defenders shouldn’t be a surprise, the opposite was true with regard to forwards. As the chart above shows, the fourth-liners (David Broll, Jeremy Gregoire, Yannick Veilleux, and Mark MacMillan) and Lernout were generally better together than apart, while being on the ice with high-skill players tended to drag all parties down.

This could be a product of quality of competition, as fourth-liners generally face other fourth-liners and Lernout’s presence perhaps had a positive effect. When playing with the top line, he was likely matched up against the other team’s top line, and might not have been able to keep up. This does coincide with how I saw his season, particularly in the second half.

However, this likely fails to describe the whole trend, as it probably also involves a fair amount of luck, time of ice distribution (Lernout was on the ice for more goal events with the top line than the bottom), coaching, and even just coincidence.

Projection

While the GF% analysis is fascinating, and surely a great descriptor, its predictive value (and repeatability in the AHL) hasn’t been extensively studied. Given Lernout’s age, it’s possible that he could develop into an impact player.

On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge the work that has been done on developing defencemen in the AHL. Money Puck found that defencemen tend to peak around 24 years old. Lernout turns 22 just before this season starts.

Tyler Dellow of The Athletic found that just 19 of 195 defencemen who played in the AHL between 2005 and 2012 became top-four NHL defenders, and scored at the lowest rate of them all. The popular belief that defenders take a long time to develop simply isn’t true.

So, given this, it’s unfair to expect Lernout to develop into anything more than a bottom-pairing defender, and that’s if he can crack an NHL roster. If that is in his future, he has the tools to bring crisp passing, the occasional goal, and a decent amount of physicality.

Brett Lernout has progressed a ton. However, the puck skills are limited, and he’s not a defensive stalwart. He has the tools, but the progression must continue on the upward trend he has experienced since being selected in 2014.