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Hopes were sky high for Louis Leblanc on June 26, 2009 as he had just began living his dream with the hometown team. Fast forward four years, and Louis is among the first cut from that same team.
Leblanc was a first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Not only is Louis from nearby Pointe-Claire, Quebec, but the 2009 draft also happened to take place in the Bell Centre, in downtown Montreal. The arena erupted when it was announced that the Canadiens would be taking a French-Canadian with the 18th overall pick.
Already committed to Harvard, Leblanc was excited to begin the path that would see him wearing the Canadiens sweater for many years to come. One year later, and with some encouragement from Canadiens management no doubt, Leblanc would leave one of the world’s most prestigious schools, and head to Montreal to suit up for the Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Louis would average over a point per game with the Juniors, but his team would fall in the second round of the playoffs. After one year in NCAA and a season in the Q, it was time for Louis to go pro.
Leblanc had a strong rookie season with the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2011-12, and would earn his first call to the NHL. A struggling Canadiens squad was eager to give their former first round pick a chance to play in the big leagues.
Leblanc would play 42 games with the Habs that year, scoring 5 goals and adding 5 assists. His play in the AHL was exceptional for a rookie, scoring 22 points in 31 games. Leblanc had earned a chance to fight for a roster spot with the Canadiens in the 2012-13 season. Unfortunately, that chance would never materialize.
A lockout robbed the entire NHL of a pre-season, training camp, and half of an NHL schedule. Leblanc would begin the year with the Bulldogs again, and would have ample opportunity to show his talents while the NHL and NHLPA tried to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.
However, Louis would be injured just three games into the Bulldogs season, and his nightmare campaign continued all season. Louis was injured with a high ankle sprain but would be back in action before long, and appeared in 62 games with the Bulldogs. He just did not appear on the scoresheet nearly as much as expected, scoring ten goals and eight assists, as well as having a plus minus of minus 18.
Leblanc came into camp with the Canadiens last week looking to erase the painful season, but last night he was among the first people released from camp, and now he awaits another AHL chance to prove himself.
With new management in place, and the Canadiens bringing in several promising prospects over the past two years, are the Canadiens signaling that they are through with Louis?
I don’t think the Canadiens are quite ready to give up on him, but it is becoming obvious that they are sending him a strong message here. His value is so low at this point, trading him is not an option anyway. When you look at the rest of the players cut yesterday, almost all of them, with the exception of goalie Robert Mayer, are entering their first pro season. Leblanc is entering his third, and is the only one with NHL experience.
Leblanc is a gritty, versatile player that can play any forward position and is not afraid to bring his work boots to the rink. He can still be a valuable piece of the Montreal Canadiens organization going forward, but it has become clear he will not fulfill the extremely high expectations that were put on his shoulders on draft day.
However, just because he is not going to be a superstar, does not mean he can’t be a contributor, or that his career is over. When you look at the players selected around Leblanc in the draft, he is not performing at a level far below his peers.
Sure, Tavares and Duchene are superstars already, but there were selected first and third overall, so there should be no comparison anyway. Of the players selected in the second half of the first round, the most established players are Nick Leddy of the Chicago Blackhawks and Marcus Johansson of the Washington Capitals.
Even they have their faults, as Leddy was heavily sheltered by Hawks coaching staff throughout the playoffs, and the Capitals just rolled the dice on Mikhail Grabovski for a year, because they are not confident in Johansson being their second line center.
Ryan Ellis, taken 11th that year, has played parts of two seasons with the Nashville Predators, but hasn’t brought the same offensive flair that made him famous in Junior. David Rundblad was selected 17th, has been traded twice, and struggled at the NHL level last season. Chris Kreider was picked 19th by the Rangers and scored three points in 23 NHL games last season.
Some players selected inside the top ten have not proven to be anything more than Leblanc at this point. Magnus Paajarvi played plenty of games with the Edmonton Oilers, but did not become the type of scorer they believed he would be, and they recently traded him to the St. Louis Blues. Scott Glennie, selected eighth overall by the Dallas Stars, had a similarly difficult season to Leblanc’s a year ago, and is yet to show he is anywhere close to becoming an NHL regular.
I was quite surprised when I saw Leblanc among the players cut already from camp, and immediately thought that the Canadiens must be trying to wash their hands of him. However, at just 22 years of age, it is a little premature to think Leblanc is done as a hockey player.
He is an intelligent, hard working player who, along with most of his draft class, is yet to break out at the NHL level. He may never live up to the Guy Lafleur type expectations that were thrown at him in the Bell Centre four years ago, but Louis Leblanc could very well have a long NHL career ahead of him yet.
It is now up to him to show what he can do with the pressure on, and prove that he is ready to be in the NHL.