Friday, September 6, 2013

Last Chance Leblanc?

If the language of hockey players is built on cliche, then, by design, their interchangeable comments reveal very little about the true hopes and insecurities of young men who make their time-limited livings with their bodies. "They're a great bunch of guys," and "Never get too high, never get too low" don't exactly tell you when a player doesn't like a dressing room clique or when he's afraid he'll never be quite the same after an injury. If there's any insight at all to be had from a hockey player's stock answers, you get it when a guy announces, often unprompted, "I'm still young."

There's a lot of meaning in that little phrase. It tells you the player is fully aware of how little time he's got to make it as a pro and earn the financial security that makes his years of hard work worthwhile. It also reveals the fear that lurks underneath every injury and every season of stalled development, further narrowing his small window of opportunity. It's a protest against the precious time he sees working against him.

Back in January, with the NHL lockout just over and teams scrambling to hold hurry-up training camps, it was something of a surprise when the Habs didn't invite Louis Leblanc to Montreal. Granted, there wasn't a lot of time to get a team together and Leblanc wasn't having a great season in Hamilton, but the kid had had a decent rookie year in Montreal in 2011-12, even while being bounced between the Canadiens and Bulldogs for a good part of the year. Nobody could blame him for expecting an invitation to camp. It was around the time he was told he'd be staying with the Bulldogs, and then was questioned about the move, that Leblanc felt the need to declare "I'm still young."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The 2009 first-round pick spent just one season at Harvard before signing his entry-level deal with the Canadiens and heading to junior for a year. Leblanc had a fine season with the Montreal Juniors and impressed with Team Canada at the WJC, despite playing a good part of the year with a shoulder injury requiring post-season surgery. The kid was moving up in the world. His luck continued in the fall of 2011 when he got his first call-up from Hamilton and made his NHL debut on November 30. In 42 NHL games, he scored five goals, five assists and was a +3, with about 11 minutes of ice time per night. It was supposed to be all uphill from there.

Then things started to go wrong. First, the Canadiens acquired forwards Colby Armstrong and Brandon Prust in the offseason, which immediately made the competition for a spot on the forward lines tougher. Still, he would have had a chance to attend camp and compete for a spot if the unfortunate lockout hadn't derailed him. Without the delayed opening of the season, things might have been very different for Leblanc. Instead, he started his season in Hamilton and in just the third game of the year, he suffered a high ankle sprain.

This is a devastating injury for a hockey player. It happens when the syndesmotic ligaments, which connect the fibula and tibia in the lower leg, are damaged or torn by the outward rotation of the ankle. It's common in hockey players because it usually comes from getting hit. The result of this is leg pain and an inability to support weight or maintain normal range of motion...not a good thing for someone who skates for a living. Often, treatment includes immobilization for several weeks, which can lead to a protracted period of stiffness in the leg, foot and ankle even after the athlete returns to play. Recent studies say the average length of time it takes for a person to come back after such an injury is 55 days. Hockey players, specifically, have an average of 45 days of recovery before returning to the ice, but time off in individual cases studied has been up to 137 days. Research has proven that 60% of players who suffer from this kind of injury still experience chronic ankle pain, instability and limitations when tested (by hopping) six months after the injury happens.

In Leblanc's case, he sustained his sprain on October 20. He was was back on the ice less than 30 days later and played on November 21. Upon his return, he was a different player. In the 21 games between his first game back and the discovery that he hadn't been invited to the Habs camp, he scored one goal and just three points. This was not the same player both Canadiens and Bulldogs fans had seen the year before. Studies suggest he was quite likely suffering from the ankle sprain for a long time after his return to the game.

So, he didn't get invited to camp, but 'Dogs teammates Brendan Gallagher and Gabriel Dumont were asked. Gallagher and first-round pick Alex Galchenyuk made the big team and Dumont positioned himself as a priority call-up. Leblanc continued to struggle and ended up with only 18 points in 62 games in Hamilton. By the end of the year, Gallagher and Galchenyuk had cemented their roster spots in Montreal. Even Dumont appeared to have passed Leblanc on the depth chart after posting 31 points in 55 games for a wretched  'Dogs team and getting rewarded with 10 regular season and 3 playoff games in Montreal.

All of this means Leblanc has a whole lot to prove this year. GM Marc Bergevin has said he's still in the Habs plans and the chance to re-establish his value is his to grab. Leblanc himself says he fell into the trap of dwelling on his bad luck last year, but that's behind him now. He says he's increased the intensity of his summer workouts with an eye to improving his lower body strength and becoming a better skater.

If Leblanc can remain injury-free, there's no reason why he can't once again demonstrate the tools that had scouts calling him a "skilled, versatile forward with upside." He's always been known as a smart guy who works hard and is a quiet leader. Bergevin says he wants players with good character, and he wants to build the Canadiens through the draft. Both of those preferences are good reasons to give Leblanc every chance to get back to the NHL. Having patience with a former first-rounder who's also a homegrown player can't hurt a team developing from within.

The trick for Leblanc will be remaining positive, even if, as is likely (barring injuries), he finds himself once again starting the year in Hamilton. That will be tough for a guy who seemed to be on the way up, only to find his career stalling and his window shrinking. Another demotion will inevitably be worrisome for him, nearly five years past his draft date and rapidly approaching his best-before. Pro hockey is a cruel game and the truth in most cases is, if a guy can't show he's full-time NHL material by the time he's 23 or 24, he probably never will. Leblanc will be 23 in January, and he's going to have to work his butt off to make up the ground he lost last year.

He can certainly do it, though. With the right attitude and lots of determination, he can get back to where he wants to be, and he can benefit the team that drafted him. After all, he's still young.


Steve said...

I dont understand why Montreal does not have a pro figure skater on staff for players like LeBlanc and even AG. Best Wishes for LeBlanc to bounce back up to the big club.

Hansolo said...

Welcome back, JT! I missed your erudite and insightful posts. As usual, you're on the mark with LL. I think he'll put that intelligence and work ethic to good use and will bounce back so well that the big club won't be able to ignore him.

LL, here's hoping you're recovered and ready to prove all the naysayers wrong!

Anonymous said...

For the record, Montreal does have elite technical skating coaches. Both Paul Lawson and his son Lucas (who coincidentally, is the video coach with the Hamilton Bulldogs) work with both the Habs and their prospects. I am familiar with their work because my son has benefited from their instruction. They know their stuff for sure!!

Brian said...

Another guy who should have just gotten a Harvard degree. Where is Angelo Esposito these days?

Steve said...

@Coach K, if Leblanc has benefited from this duo, I cant imagine how bad he was before. I have no way of knowing if a figure skater is a better coach than a hockey skater. However, I take a lot of interest when the stars on ice hockey players say how much the show improved their skating.

Northern_Sooner said...

Brilliant analysis JT... IMHO, you and Arpon Basu are the best hockey writers in town.

I am pulling for LL but fear the truth in your next-to-last graf... ¨pro hockey is a cruel game¨