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Louis Leblanc has been a popular discussion point this offseason. The former first round pick spent more time than expected with the Habs last year and while he struggled at times, he also showed signs of being a productive player. The main questions then become, where should he start the 2012-13 campaign and does he have the offensive potential to make it as a top-six forward?
Heading into 2011-12, the belief seemed to be that Leblanc would spend the majority of the season with Hamilton and play a handful of games in Montreal when injuries came about. Like the season as a whole, 'Plan A' didn't last too long as injuries and struggles forced the Habs to bring him up fairly quickly. In fact, he wound up playing more games with the Canadiens than he did with the Bulldogs. Interestingly enough, he had an equal number of goals and assists both with Montreal and Hamilton.
Not surprisingly, there are lots of different opinions as to where he should play next year (assuming there is an NHL season) and as to his future role with Montreal. Below is a sampling of the thoughts from the discussion on the HW Forums.
JoeLassister: "I don't believe that Leblanc has the offensive firepower to crack a regular good top 6. I see him as a bonafide 3rd liner who can easily take shifts on the top 2 lines or fill in during an injury."
JCPetit: "I like him a lot. He has good hockey sense and is very focused on the ice. He has average speed and agility on skates, his shot is also average, but I believe that he will do better than most because of his intensity and intelligence."
The Chicoutimi Cucumber: "I have trouble seeing how a guy who got well under a point per game in the AHL is likely to make it as a top-6 NHLer. He does seem a very bright, cool-headed and solid youngster, however, and certainly is legitimate NHL material in some capacity. He seems like a future glue guy and team leader."
RedSoloCup: "...It's tough to project his potential but he didn't look out of place when he played more minutes down the stretch, good speed, decent hands, and not afraid to take/give a hit. Still needs to get stronger and some confidence and should spend the year playing big minutes in Hamilton."
DON: "I think Leblanc will come into camp and easily outshine Armstrong for 3rd line winger role. I expect both his skating and strength to be improved and he actually will have a training camp this year."
Machine of Loving Grace: "He seems to be a very cerebral player who will get better with experience but he also needs to gain some weight over the summer. However, there doesn't seem to be room for him right now unless Ryan White plays a 13th forward role."
Commandant: "Even if he misses the top 6 potential his defensive game will make him at minimum a third liner. I just think he can be more than that."
Personally, I don't see him having top-6 potential in the NHL. That isn't to say that he won't play in that role, I think he very well will spend a lot of time on a second line, much like Travis Moen does in situations where having more of a two-way player is required. To me, his ideal role is as a third liner playing against opponents' top units while providing a bit of offence from that line. Having above average lower lines has been a common element of recent Stanley Cup winners and Leblanc certainly would qualify as above average in that role should he continue to develop as anticipated.
If the Habs think he can be a full-time top-6 player, they need to send him back to Hamilton and keep him there for most of the season. Scorers aren't going to hone their craft playing checking minutes in the NHL, even if the level of competition is greater than it is in the AHL. If you look at a pair of Montreal's more recent success stories, Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, both played in offensive roles with the Bulldogs (it took Pacioretty a while to finally be put in that role but it eventually happened) and steadily improved their play in the offensive end. To be honest, even if management doesn't view him as a future fixture on a scoring line, he certainly could still benefit from playing a top line role with Hamilton while having full special teams responsibilities.
Of course, as always is the case when it comes to prospects, projections to current or former NHL'ers can't be too far away. Several names were suggested as possible comparables to what Leblanc could become, P.J. Axelsson, Benoit Brunet, Sergei Brylin, Kris Draper, and David Perron.
If I had to guess a comparable player in the NHL that Leblanc could follow the development path of, I too would go to St. Louis but not for David Perron. Instead, Alex Steen would be my comparable. Steen was also a first round pick and had several of the same characteristics/projections that we saw when Leblanc was picked; both were hard working, played a two-way game, and had projected roles as high end two-way forwards. For the most part, Steen has played on the second or third line over his career and put up numbers that most would classify as above average for a third liner or mediocre to average for a second line player. Over the past few years, the former Leaf selection has become a core piece for the Blues as a player that plays big minutes and is used in every situation, something I think we all hope and expect Leblanc to do over time. Louis Leblanc probably won't be a top player in the NHL but certainly part of a successful long-term core and there's nothing bad about that.
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