Brett Leason has always stood out on the hockey rink. At a mammoth six-foot-four and 200 pounds and still a teenager, he’s hard to overlook based purely on physical stature.
But over the last year it’s his skills and what he’s doing with that size on the ice that’s attracting more attention.
As a member of Canada’s National Junior Team at the IIHF World Junior Championship, Leason is undoubtedly enjoying a genesis in his junior hockey career.
It was just over 14 months ago when the Tri-City Americans dealt the strapping forward to the Prince Albert Raiders for a third-round pick in the WHL Bantam Draft.
As an 18-year-old at the time, Leason was mired on the Americans’ depth chart behind a seasoned group of veteran forwards, making opportunity and ice time difficult to garner.
His expendability became a blessing and the trade a jumping off point to restart his aspirations in the game.
“It’s been a breakout year for me,” says Leason, now 19, and an important part of Team Canada’s desire for consecutive gold medals at the World Juniors. “In Tri-City, I was buried behind older, experienced guys. When I got to P.A., I got a fresh start and was able to build up from that.”
To call this season a “breakout year” might be understating it just a little, and the numbers back that up.
In his first 135 WHL games with the Americans and Raiders, the Calgary product scored just 24 times. In 31 games this season, he’s totaled 28 goals and 64 points, including points in each of his first 30 games.
“This jump from last year to this year has been really significant,” says Hockey Canada head scout Brad McEwen. “The way he plays with the purpose he has. There haven’t been any lulls from the start of the season. He’s been as consistent a CHL player as any.”
After being passed over in the NHL draft the past two summers and knowing he was on the outside looking in at the World Juniors, Leason realized it was time to change a few things in his off-season routine.
He worked hard last summer to improve things like overall strength and puck control, but the biggest area of focus was foot speed and quickness “to get the extra step on my speed,” he says.
“I’ve known (Brett) from his Bantam days right through,” says McEwen. “He’s improved his skating. He’s gotten himself to be quicker and he’s learned to use his size more productively.”
Leason has made the most of his opportunities; his hot start earned him a spot on the Team WHL roster for the CIBC Canada-Russia Series in November, and he was one of the best players on the ice in the two games.
That earned him an invitation to Canada’s National Junior Team Sport Chek Selection Camp in early December, and his performance there further proved he belonged on Team Canada.
“We’re always looking at the start of the year to track players,” says McEwen “And if there’s individuals that you start to follow from the start of the year and you think there’s some things about his game that would be good for us then you pursue that avenue.”
“For me, (the Russian series) was one of the tipping points. His game kept growing.”
Leason’s ascending development this season can also be traced to his WHL team. The Raiders are the No. 1-ranked team in the CHL with an impressive 33-3-0-1 record, which certainly attributes to players like him building confidence and setting no ceiling for success.
“He’s on a really good team,” says McEwen. “And when he’s had success early like they’ve had, his confidence went through the roof. It’s just kept building and building.”
In reality, nobody should be really surprised about Leason’s rise in the game. He was always a standout through his minor hockey days in and around Calgary. But the moniker of ‘late bloomer’ does seem to apply here.
“That’s a legitimate comment for sure,” McEwen says. “It takes time to get everything going the same way sometimes. When you look at his younger years, he was able to produce offence and now that things have grown together you see he’s getting into spots to use his skill set and size. As bigger kid, it took a little longer for him to fill into his body at the Major Junior level.”
His experience looks similar to that of Tanner Pearson, another undrafted player who came out of nowhere to make Team Canada in 2012, won bronze and ended up as a first-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings the following summer.
Leason would be happy to follow that path when his final draft comes around this summer (in Vancouver, ironically), even if he’s not looking that far into the future.
“I want to have the best year I can to help set myself up for the future,” he says. “You can’t think about [the draft] too much. It’s something I want to prove, but I just go out and play every day to prove that.”
And undoubtedly a solid performance at the World Juniors would certainly help continue to increase his value among NHL scouts.
“This is a big step in my hockey career,” he admits. “Coming into last year, I would have never expected to be here.”
Originally published at http://hockeycanada.ca/news/index?lang=en-ca&id=281920