Joe Yerdon was in the broadcast booth, providing analysis and colour commentary for Saturday afternoon's game between the Harvard Crimson and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) Engineers. Montreal Canadiens' prospect Louis Leblanc scored with 2.3 seconds left to give his Harvard team a 3-3 tie with RPI.
Yerdon is the owner of the excellent website, Gross Misconduct Hockey, and he has kindly agreed to provide All Habs' readers with an exclusive report on Leblanc.
posted by Joe Yerdon
Gross Misconduct Hockey
I was excited to get a good look at what Habs 2009 first round choice Louis Leblanc may have to offer the Canadiens in the future when his Harvard Crimson came to Troy to take on Maple Leafs prospect Jerry D'Amigo's RPI Engineers.
Given the amount of discussion that surrounded Leblanc after his selection about whether he might stick around in Cambridge for a year or two at most, I had it planted in my mind that he could be one of those players that blows you away in how he carries himself on the ice and dominates play. After all, this season I've gotten to see a lot of D'Amigo and from Blackhawks 2009 second round pick Brandon Pirri and they've both been impressive in helping the Engineers climb out of the doldrums of the ECAC.
Harvard was coming into the game on a hot streak themselves, carried by Louis Leblanc's goal scoring (four goals in his previous three games). When you get a look at Leblanc on the ice, his stature isn't imposing (6'0" 178 pounds) and he is a very smooth skater.
His game play, however left me feeling a bit flat. You can attribute that feeling of being let down to me getting a bit over-hyped to finally watching him play but I didn't see a player out there in Leblanc who was a gamebreaker. Now, yes, if you look at his box score from the game he had a goal and an assist and the points do a lot to help build his profile, but there's always more to the game than that.
One thing I'm critical of with Leblanc (as I am with Pirri) is that he shied away from all physical contact in the game. He wouldn't dig into the corners to fight for pucks and any sort of physical pressure by the opposition seemed to fluster him. In open ice and space available to him, he's able to make great plays and passes. Case in point: Leblanc had one breakaway attempt on RPI goaltender Allen York and was stoned as Leblanc deked and tried to go low on the 6'4" Blue Jackets 2007 4th round selection.
His assist to Lightning prospect Alex Killorn was built from spinning away from an RPI defender and hitting Killorn in the slot who buried a rifle of a shot up high on York for the goal. Leblanc's goal was a big one, coming with just two seconds left in the third to tie the game, but it was the sort of goal that any other player on the ice could score as it was a loose puck in the crease that was stuffed home after York couldn't find it to cover it.
What do I like about Leblanc: His play-making ability is there. He makes nice passes, he's a very quick skater and a smooth one at that. He frees up space for his linemates and helps them all generate offensive chances. I didn't see enough of his shot to make any judgments on that. From talking to the Harvard radio guys at WHRB (@WHRBSports on Twitter if you want to keep up with them) Leblanc has been just what they've been expecting and hoping for now that the goal scoring has picked up and the team is winning games. He's an elusive skater as well so getting caught with his head down isn't going to happen, his vision is very good out there. If I were to pick out a current player in the NHL I could see him most turning out to be like should he hit his expectations, Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars hits the target.
What I don't like: The seeming disdain for getting hit or bodied up anywhere on the ice, especially in the corners. I understand that digging in corners isn't generally the thing you expect a play-making scoring center to do, but Leblanc does not seem to be a big fan of it at all and at his size it's somewhat understandable. If Leblanc had been made part of Team Canada for the World Junior Championships perhaps we would've seen better skills out of him there or... He would've been exposed very badly and folks in Montréal would be clamoring to trade him as soon as possible. I do think it was the right move to leave him off the team though based on my extremely small sample size of one game.
One other thing about Leblanc that may develop in time is that when Harvard was shorthanded, Leblanc was off the ice. I know that developing skill in defensive situations can take time, but it'd better for him to be able to jump to the NHL right away if he was useful in those situations. From what I've been told, he has seen some time on the PK but that's mostly been due to injuries to other players.
What To Hope For: What folks in Montreal have to hope for is for the team to be as patient with Leblanc, if not moreso, than they've been with P.K. Subban. Leblanc likely needs to add some weight and muscle and he he'll need more time to be able to handle himself at the NHL level for sure. If he decides to jump to the pros after this year or next year I think it would be a huge mistake for his development. Right now, Leblanc would get chewed up in the AHL by the hungrier and grumpier vets that are all over that league and while Leblanc is a slippery enough skater to avoid problems, running from physical play at all time would mean he'd be wasting his time in the pros.
Remember though, he's 18 years-old and facets of his game are yet to round into form. I think he'll turn out to be a good playmaker in the future, but Habs fans should not be banking on Louis Leblanc being the Savior of Quebec in the next year or two. Let him spend his time at Harvard getting a good head on his shoulders both on and off the ice and hope that the siren's song of the NHL doesn't lure him away before he's ready. The only thing Montréal fans will have to worry about in the meantime are the comparisons to Jerry D'Amigo that are sure to follow him around as long as they're both property of the Habs and Leafs.
(photo credit: Gil Talbot)