Name: Brett Leason
Team: Prince Albert Raiders (WHL)
Position: Right Wing
Stats: 55 games played, 36 goals, 53 assists, 89 points, 28 PIMs, +55 plus/minus rating
NHL Central Scouting ranking: 25th (North American Skaters)
Comparable NHL player: Ryan Clowe
Let’s get something out of the way. If the Dallas Stars pick Brett Leason at No. 18, it will confirm every criticism directed Dallas’ way when it comes to their draft history. A massive reach? Check. Taking the player who is big and burly over the smaller and more skilled? Check. Trying to fill a need over clear-cut BPA? Check. Fails to fill the other needs for an impact playmaker, which Dallas has yet to draft? Check. Also, Brett Leason is already 20 years old. “What?!” Okay, wait a second. Wait a second. Let me walk you away from that draft cliff for just a second.
First off, development is not a binary process. Think back to your handwriting lessons. Maybe the emphasis on your motor coordination made writing in cursive more difficult. Maybe the visual recognition of letters made writing in manuscript easier. At some point, your brain and body clicked to make way for effective communication. Maybe it happened early on. Maybe it happened later on. But it happened. You’re here. And who really cares except for educators who have to make tough decisions on writing just because cursive was easier with a delicate quill, and made for less ink spatter back in 15th century Italy?
Maybe that’s all there is to Leason. Maybe that’s why Leason went from an 18-point rookie in the WHL to a 15-goal scorer in his second year — and to a guy who nearly doubled his career point totals in one season. He went from 51 total points in his first two years to 89 this season (not counting the 25 points he scored in 22 playoff games). The Prince Albert Raiders only lost 10 games out of 68 thanks to Leason putting the team on his 6-foot-4, 200-pound back. Maybe things just clicked for Leason a little later than usual. And now he can communicate his talents more effectively than he used to.
Is the hype legit though?
Well, dig further into the numbers, and what’s even more impressive is that Leason surpassed his WHL career point totals just 31 games into the season. Leason was an even-strength beast, with more estimated primary points per game than Cody Glass. You might remember Glass as the prospect Vegas wouldn’t give up for Erik Karlsson. Leason either scored a goal, or was involved in goal-scoring for 43 percent of his team’s offense. In addition, being an over-ager is not an early career death rattle. A number of solid players have been passed over in previous draft years: Jason Demers, Tanner Pearson, Ondrej Palat, and Mike Hoffman, for example.
The thing that stands out about Leason is the exact same thing that prevented him from being a legit prospect in the first place: his skating.
It’s not that Leason is a gifted skater because he’s not. Even in this clip, you can see him needing those extra strides to reach top speed (a top speed that’s average, all things considered). It’s that he has a small man’s motor. He hustles like he’s 5-foot-10. What’s more impressive is that Leason injured his right hand at the World Junior Championship. He still played heavy minutes at even-strength, on the power play, and on the penalty kill. He scored three goals, and tallied two assists through five games. Even with a screw stuck in his hand.
Unlike the other overage smooth-skating power forward of the draft, Raphael Lavoie, Leason doesn’t like taking plays head-on. Rather than take the obvious route (which is to play through defenders), he takes actual angles, navigating around players and making quick reads to possess the puck for his opportunities.
This play is what explains why Leason is not your average over-ager. It would be one thing if Leason were scoring points from a distance, or bullying his way into prime areas. But there’s a smoothness to his game that betrays his bulky exterior. It’s also a megaphone on how critical skating can be for bigger players. Try to “battle” every play and it won’t matter how strong you are. Either you will end up exhausted, predictable, or both. Playing hard without talent will yield the same results as playing soft with talent — ineffectiveness. Leason understands this, relying less on brute force, and more on agility.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t think his shot is anything special. I know that sounds silly to say for a player with 30+ goals. But here’s what I mean. No single component of his shot is special. He doesn’t have a bone-rattling one-timer. He’s not what you’d call a sniper, and despite his size, the power he generates on each shot appears somewhat weak. He prefers going five-hole, and picking different corners. He’s a five-tools shooter, blending a sharp release, sneaky movement, and confident positioning into a grade-A opportunity. Not all goals have to look pretty. But you have to have pretty mechanics to score goals consistently, and Leason has done exactly that.
My issue with Leason is both data-driven, and on-ice driven. Yes, maybe Leason is another Hoffman, or Pearson. Or maybe he’s the Adam Brooks who comes around every year. It should be noted that Brooks put up better numbers than Leason when you adjust for age, and is now a 23-year-old winger playing for the Toronto Marlies. It was great to see Dallas sign Tye Felhaber, but how many fans would use Felhaber for the No. 18 pick? Over-agers are good bets in the later rounds. But in the first round? The rationale for picking Leason is that it’s prudent to bet on the idea that Leason is a late bloomer at the junior level. But how is that anymore prudent than betting on someone with superior talents who is blooming at the right time?
My other concern with Leason is that I could see his strengths working against him. One of the things prospects can’t control as they move up to the NHL level is space. There’s simply less of it. Either literally (as with European prospects), or figuratively (structured systems, tighter checking, better gaps, etc). Good prospects adjust by creating their own space. Leason has a solid profile for someone who can make space for himself, but I could see how less time to position himself for a shot would reduce his effectiveness. Like a good Mario Kart driver, dynamic shooters tend to transfer their weapons over. If someone takes away your wrist shot (red shell), there’s always your backhand (triple banana). If someone takes away your slap shot (lightning), there’s always your snap shot (star). And if someone takes away all four, there’s always your one-timer (blue shell). Leason has a good red shot — I mean, wrist shot, but that’s about it.
Leason is a good passer, mechanically speaking. He makes quick decisions, but he’s not creative, and prefers to shoot, even in situations where a pass would open up more lanes. Leason would make for a great pick in the second round, or even a late first rounder. At No. 18? No. But this is a player who’s worked hard to improve his game, and does it all with an unrelenting finesse you rarely see with players his size.