Produced by the Western Hockey League in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multi-part series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2019 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
When National Hockey League’s Central Scouting Service released their ‘Players to Watch’ List in October 2018, Prince Albert Raiders forward Brett Leason wasn’t even on the radar.
Sure, 10 points (2G-8A) through five games would be good for any player, but those in charge of the list chose to overlook the Calgary, Alta. product. A full season later, Leason isn’t just on the radar, he is the radar; the bar by which second-year draft-eligible players will be judged for this year and going forward.
A late-blooming prospect, Leason’s meteoric rise up the WHL’s scoring charts and NHL Central Scouting charts has caught scouts by surprise, leading to a growing spotlight on the former member of the Calgary Midget AAA Flames.
“It’s been a big change,” Leason said in a media scrum at the 2019 Sherwin-Williams CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game in January. “I haven’t really expected it coming into this season. Again, lots of recognition; I’m enjoying that, all the different events I’m able to attend.”
In addition to the Top Prospects game, Leason has been given the opportunity to shine at the 2018 CIBC Canada-Russia Series with Team WHL as well as the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship with Hockey Canada.
“It’s always been a goal to play in World Juniors,” said Leason of the experience. “Coming into this year, I never would’ve expected that to happen or be a reality.”
A third-round selection of the Tri-City Americans in the 2014 WHL Bantam Draft, Leason’s reputation as a goal scorer was developed in minor hockey, but took time to adjust at the WHL level. At 19 years young, he’s making up for lost time and propelling the Raiders to an all-time great season.
With the Calgary Bantam AAA Flames in 2014, Leason tallied 23 goals as part of a 73-point (23G-50A) campaign in 33 games. Next season with the NWCAA Minor Midget AAA Stampeders, Leason had 83 points (43G-40A) in 30 games. Even a four-point (2G-2A) performance at the 2015 Canada Winter Games could be construed as a job well done in a short tournament where Leason earned a silver medal with his provincial teammates after winning the Alberta Cup with Calgary North in 2014.
“All the way through minor hockey he was skilled, scored a lot of goals, and those things don’t just go away overnight,” Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said. “It was just a matter of giving him the opportunity and letting him play the way he wanted to play.”
With the Americans, Leason posted a promising rookie campaign, tallying 18 points (8G-10A) in 68 games, but was down the depth chart on a talented Americans roster. Through the first 12 games of the 2017-18 WHL Regular Season with the Americans, he managed just a single goal; it was time for a change for both sides. On October 25, 2017, he was dealt to the Raiders for a third-round selection in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. The rest, as they say, is history.
Leason’s strong play didn’t magically begin on September 21, 2018 in the Raiders’ season-opening game. Through his first 54 games with the Raiders in late 2017 into 2018, he had 32 points (15G-17A), including a six-game goal-scoring streak and eight-game point streak down the stretch to help his new team work their way into a playoff spot. Habscheid, who has been in more than a few hockey games himself as a player, was able to dissect what the 6-foot-4, 199-pound forward needed in order to shine.
“Confidence is a big thing,” said the former Saskatoon Blade forward who broke out for campaigns of 34 and 64 goals in his WHL career before playing more than 300 games in the NHL. “When he came, he never had the numbers so he naturally a young guy questions or wonders if it’s still there. He just worked at his game and then kept trying to play fast and kept trying to play quicker.
“He gets some success and that compounds itself.”
With a wealth of talent on the Raiders’ roster this season, Leason has blown past them all offensively, though he still works to downplay his success, staying humble as his draft profile rises. It was hard to stay out of the spotlight though as Leason led the Raiders to a historic first-place finish in the regular season with 89 points (36G-53A) before leading his team in scoring throughout their run to claim the WHL Championship with 25 points (10G-15A) in 22 games.
“This year, I feel a lot faster and stronger in my stride to be able to separate from guys,” added the forward, who inherited athletic genes from his football-playing father, a standout in the Canadian university ranks. “I do have higher expectations of myself than I have the last few years.”
Always one who is willing to learn, Habscheid said Leason’s shining status, ranked 25th among North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting’s Final Rankings, was an important lesson for everyone in hockey to learn from.
“Did I see this coming? No. No one did. I’m not even sure Brett did,” noted Habscheid. “It goes to show, in your teenage years, which junior hockey is, kids develop at different rates. Just because they’re not the highlight-reel player at 17, doesn’t mean they’re not going to be the highlight-reel player when they’re 19, 20, 21, or 22.
“For all the players that didn’t get drafted at 17, Brett Leason’s a prime example of there’s still hope.”