Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lou to the Q?

It must be tough to be the Great Francophone Hope. I remember the 2009 NHL draft in Montreal, with the Centennial-bashing Canadiens hosting the event. The Habs were choosing 18th overall, and had been crying out for a big, skilled centre for years; not to mention a francophone hero. The fans had been missing both, ever since Vincent Damphousse and Patrick Roy shipped out of town in the '90s. As the home team's turn came closer, the rumbling in the crowd began. "Loo-ee! Loo-ee! Loo-ee!" When St.Louis, with the 17th pick, chose defenceman David Rundblad, the rumbling swelled into a full-fledged chant. "LOOOO-EEE!!! LOOOOO-EEEEE!!!!" It didn't matter that ninety-five percent of the fans in the Bell Centre had never seen Louis Leblanc play, and most of the other five percent hadn't witnessed him on the ice since his Midget AAA days. It was enough that a hometown boy was ranked to go in the first round, and he was available when the Canadiens stepped up to pick. When Trevor Timmins actually called Leblanc's name, the crowd erupted in delirium. At that moment, dreams of Leblanc becoming the next great French Canadian Canadien began to take on a more solid form. Someday, people said, he might be the saviour of the Montreal Canadiens.

Maybe someday he will. Before that happens, though, he has a real chance to become the saviour of the Montreal Juniors. Attendance isn't good for Junior games. The team ranked tenth out of eighteen last year, with an average crowd of 2773 fans in the league's biggest market. That's a drop of 11% from the 2008-09 season, the team's first in Montreal after moving from St.John's. Just to put that figure in perspective, the second-biggest market in the Q, Quebec City, fills the Colisee with 12-thousand fans a game, up 3% from last year. Of course, a big reason for that difference is that the Juniors share a city with the Canadiens and in Montreal it's Habs or nothing for many fans. Perhaps the Remparts wouldn't be drawing as well if the Nordiques were still at the Colisee, but Quebec has always been a great supporter of junior and amateur hockey. Montreal has not. If the Juniors played in a rink the size of the one in Quebec, they'd be very lonely. There have been six different incarnations of QMJHL teams in the Montreal area in the last forty years and all of them have failed. In other words, if Juniors are going to live, something's got to give.

In this case, the something is the 19-year-old Leblanc. The Juniors gave up a lot to obtain the kid's Q rights from Chicoutimi, sending their first-round pick and prospect Guillaume Asselin away in exchange for the mere hope Leblanc would give up Harvard to play junior hockey. Now Leblanc has decided to take his chances with the Canadiens, affixing his Jean Hancock to a three-year entry-level deal, and the Juniors can almost smell that seed of hope starting to bloom into reality.

Leblanc will attend the Canadiens rookie camp and training camp, and he'll get every chance to prove what he can do. He won't make the big team, so it'll be either junior or the Bulldogs for him, depending on his camp. Based on his limited experience, with just 90 games played in the last two years, and his relatively immature physique, junior might be the best place for him. The Juniors must be crossing their fingers, toes and eyes in the hope that Leblanc has a good camp, but not a great one because, really, they need him more than the 'Dogs do.

Leblanc would be a huge boost for the Juniors. He's got the cachet of being a homeboy, a Habs' first-round pick and a potential star. Fans who have hopes for him being the next big Habs centre will come out to see him. Those who are curious about the kid, or find out what all the hype's about will come too. That 2773 average attendance will almost certainly go up, and the Juniors need that to happen. In a province full of Canadiens fans, Leblanc's presence will have a similar affect in other teams' arenas when the Juniors come to visit. The thing is, Leblanc's impact won't last long. The fans that will come to see him are Canadiens fans, not junior hockey fans. When Leblanc moves on, so will most of them. Leblanc will be a temporary saviour, but he'll give the Juniors a chance to build a bigger fan base. A lot can happen in a year.

The impact on Leblanc himself will be much more far-reaching. He's a very interesting guy. He's smart enough to get into Harvard and study there long enough to establish his eligibility. Now he's free to come back to the university and finish his degree whenever he wants to do so. He's also smart enough to know the Habs and the Juniors want him to focus on hockey, and he made them pay for him to leave Harvard. He's put the Canadiens on the clock by signing his entry-level contract now, rather than after he completes his junior eligibility. He's also ensured himself a year of pro earnings before a lot of guys get it. Leblanc wins if he goes to Harvard to work on his degree and plays for the Crimson, he wins if he's able to walk into the junior ranks and dominate as a 19-year-old, and he wins if he gets a year of pro experience in Hamilton. If hockey doesn't work out for him, he still wins because he can return to Harvard and finish his studies. Any team he plays for will also be a winner, especially in the case of the Juniors.

The only possible loser in the Leblanc case is the Montreal Canadiens. Developing a young first-rounder is a very delicate thing, and developing the future hometown face of the franchise in front of the adoring legions is even more delicate. See, nobody really knows if Leblanc's skills will translate to the higher levels of the game. He was a good Midget player, but so are a lot of players. He had a good US high school season two years ago, and a very respectable freshman year of college. Still, though, he played only thirty-one games last year; hardly enough to judge him. As long as Leblanc was at Harvard, the dream lived. If he's front and centre in Montreal, fans will know pretty soon how he looks against competition that wants to show him up or hurt him because of the hype around him. If he does poorly, the Canadiens get skewered for picking a kid based on his last name rather than his actual skill. If he does well, the expectations around him will become unreasonable. Either situation is a tough one for a young player to handle. That's the first hurdle Leblanc has to jump on the way to becoming the player the Habs need him to be.

Assuming he does become that player, the Habs will have to deal with his pending free agency at the relatively early age of 26. Leblanc isn't a superstar, and his development time will likely cover the length of his entry-level contract. That means by paying him to leave Harvard, they've deprived themselves of one of his cheaper years of service.

In the end, the team certainly weighed the decision carefully as did Leblanc himself. Last year, with so few games played, Leblanc essentially took a year off hockey compared to other guys his age. The Canadiens are giving him this year to catch up and prove he can handle a long season and playoffs while improving his skills. If he does, and if he handles the pressure of being the Great Francophone Hope, this year will be worth it for the big team.

The Juniors aren't too worried either way. They're stocking the lineup with older players in the hope of making a run at a title, and Leblanc will help stir up public interest. If he does well, great. If he's merely okay, well, his name will still sell, and that's what counts for them. For the Juniors, survival is the Great Francophone Hope, and Leblanc is the key. He'd better get used to the title now because he's got a lot of Montreal Canadiens fans who bestowed it on him the minute Trevor Timmins called his name.


DB said...

Leblanc will only be a UFA at 26 if he plays more than 9 NHL/AHL games next year. If he spends the season in the Q it does not count as a year of his contract.

My guess is Leblanc signed now because he thinks it's best for his development and he gets a nice sized signing bonus. I'm also hoping that this signing means he's like Cammalleri - a player who craves being under the spotlight.

On a completely different note, maybe you could get BGL on your radio show. After all he is now the Deputy Leader of a national political party (this sounds like a really bad reality TV show). You could ask him when he hurt his back, when it was diagnosed and what he and the Habs knew when he signed with them.

Morenz7 said...

I'm confused JT. You say he wins if he goes back to H to play for the Crimson. But by signing a pro contract, has he not just negated his eligibility?

J.T. said...

@Morenz7: Don't be confused. I just meant any choice he made would have been good for him, even choosing to stay at Harvard. Obviously, he can't do that now, but if he had, he'd still be a winner.

Morenz7 said...

Agreed. Btw I like the analysis—it makes the decision more comprehensible. I saw some criticism of Leblanc for this move, based on the pressure it places on him, which supposedly increases the likelihood of him flaming out. Nothing that explained the upside for Louis.

Anonymous said...

This kid is going to be under a microscope and we will know by xmas if he was half as good as Timmins thought.

The Q is not a premier junior league and top prospects usually rip it up. If he's not scoring at a 1.5 ppg pace he's a bust. As a 19 year old with a year of NCAA he should be too good for that league but obviously wont be physically ready for the A for a year.