The 2017-18 season was full of opportunity for Brett Lernout. His previous two years were spent adjusting to the professional game with the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps, seeing his numbers improve slightly across the board in his second before the club moved to Laval. The injection of veteran players and one of the Montreal Canadiens’ top blue-line prospects for the Rocket’s inaugural season gave Lernout a chance to flourish on what was looking like a contending team.
Things didn’t go quite how they were supposed to. Despite Zach Redmond clearing waivers to join the AHL at the start of the year, he was quickly traded for forward Nicolas Deslauriers, removing the team’s top overall defenceman and forcing Lernout into a top defensive role once again.
Shea Weber’s injuries finally forced him out of the lineup in mid-December, and it was Lernout who got the call to fill the spot the resulting upward shuffle created. Over several recalls, the young defenceman played 18 games in the NHL to go along with the 56 he dressed for in Laval.
For the first time in his hockey career, he didn’t see improvements in a subsequent year at the same level of play. His goal and assist rates were the lowest of his three years in the AHL.
He was able to register his first NHL point: an assist on a short-handed goal from fellow call-up Nikita Scherbak toward the end of the season.
While it wasn’t an ideal situation for a rookie defender to be thrust into, Lernout didn’t post very encouraging underlying stats in his time with the big club. Among the 244 NHL defencemen with at least 250 minutes of five-on-five time, he ranked 204th in Corsi-for percentage at 46.5, which was the lowest mark of the 11 blue-liners who reached that criterion while donning a Habs jersey. The numbers only drop further when looking at shots-for (44.6) and scoring-chances-for percentage (45.2).
The panel was split right down the middle between those who had him in their top 25 and those who didn’t.
There was a large range for Lernout’s votes this time around, from 13 to 43. There were also two fairly distinct groups: one of six panellists (including the averaged EOTP community representation) having him in the top 21, and another one of six having him outside of the top 30.
Top 25 Under 25 History
Since debuting at #30 soon after he was drafted in the third round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, he had climbed exactly four positions per year up until this summer’s series. With several new players joining the organization, along with the regression in his performance, he falls seven spots from his place at #18 in 2017.
Lernout is a good skater, moving in any direction quite swiftly. This can aid his team’s transition game as he’s able to separate from forecheckers and transport the puck to begin the breakout. He’s agile enough to keep up with opposing forwards, and his long reach combines with that mobility to help him keep attackers to the outside.
Despite the poor overall numbers with the Canadiens, those skills helped him to keep his area of responsibility — the right side of the defensive zone — relatively clean.
His large frame comes in handy along the boards when he’s forced to battle with those forwards for the puck. He can be an imposing opponent at 6’4”, and he knows it, taking advantage of his size to land some big hits on players taking their chances along the wall.
In the offensive zone, he can unleash a slapshot from the blue line or launch a powerful wrist shot on target. It’s an ability that could eventually see him contribute at a fair rate in the professional game.
The main factor allowing Lernout to hold a spot within the official ranking is that he still has a good deal of potential thanks to all of these complementary abilities. He has the tools to become an effective player.
What threatens his status is that the potential to combine all of those traits and actually achieving that synthesis have been two different things in Lernout’s career.
He has the ability to match a forward’s speed, and yet he was often overtaken on an attacker’s path to the net after failing to read the intention.
The shots he holds in his arsenal aren’t used often enough, nor in a manner that bring success with any regularity. He did increase his shots-per-game rate last year, but still ranked behind three of his fellow blue-liners in Laval in that stat. The one goal he scored on the year wasn’t off a slaphot from the point or a wrister from near the faceoff dot, but on a breakaway as he left the penalty box.
Part of the reason is a failure to incorporate his mobility into his offensive game, opting to simply fire from wherever he happens to be standing rather than moving around in an attempt to open up lanes or move closer to the net.
Reading the play in his own end and becoming a less stationary shooter are things that may come with instruction and practice, but they don’t appear to be instinctive aspects of Lernout’s game.
The majority of players seemed doomed to remain at the development level they were when they entered the Canadiens’ AHL system out of Junior under the old coaching regime. Players like Jarred Tinordi, Morgan Ellis, Nathan Beaulieu, Dalton Thrower, and Simon Bourque advanced few steps within the organization. Now at 22 years of age, Lernout could be on the verge of joining that list.
With a new coaching team in place, there is hope that some of this type of player will begin to see the development required to go from promising teenagers to regular NHLers with some targeted work in the minor leagues.
Joël Bouchard has his work cut out for him to sculpt some of the older prospects into something resembling the potential they showed at the time of their draft, and Brett Lernout is a good piece of clay for one of his first projects.