Never mind all this talk about Andrei Markov possibly returning this week, the Montreal Canadiens are on the cusp of a milestone that is arguably just as encouraging for people who follow the team closely.
Yes, that’s right, an actual player who was actually drafted by the Habs since 2007 is about to actually play an actual NHL game.
We speak, of course, of Louis Leblanc, the pride of Kirkland, Que.
The 20-year-old former Harvard University Crimson player should make his NHL debut in Anaheim on Wednesday, unless head coach Jacques Martin decides he’d rather have D-man Fred St-Denis up front (doubtful).
Leblanc, you’ll recall, is a first-round pick from 2009 (18th overall) who can play either centre or wing. He’s the second-leading scorer on a pretty dreadful Hamilton Bulldogs team with four goals and six assists in 14 games, and has scored twice on the power play, which is more than any current member of the Canadiens has been able to say for a good wee while.
Should he play this week, and he should, Leblanc will take the ice in his fifth league in four years (USHL, ECAC, QMJHL, AHL, NHL).
Leblanc acquitted himself well with Canada’s world junior team last January, and may well have gotten a long look at training camp had he not suffered a bad shoulder injury while playing for the now-defunct Montreal Juniors last spring.
There will be excitement in Montreal about Leblanc’s debut and not just because he’s another French-speaking player in a room that is down to just four francophones.
The real news, as referenced above, is that he is a rare commodity: a recent Canadiens draft pick who is playing with the team.
Since the 2007 draft, which yielded Max Pacioretty (whose suspension has enabled Leblanc’s call-up), P.K. Subban, Yannick Weber and Ryan McDonough (now of the Rangers), the Habs have had precisely zero of their own draft picks play even a single NHL game.
True, the Habs have a veteran group and are usually a playoff team, but they’ve drafted 25 players since picking Minnesota high-school player Scott Kishel 192nd in 2007 (Kishel is in his fourth year at Minnesota-Duluth). Only four of those guys (Leblanc, Gabriel Dumont, Joonas Nattinen and Alex Avtsin) have even played a game in the AHL.
Over the same period, teams like Ottawa (with six), Toronto (two), Winnipeg (four), Vancouver (two), Calgary (four) and Edmonton (seven), have graduated draftees into the big club’s lineup for at least a short look.
One of the main problems the Canadiens have is that the distance between their established players and their up-and-comers in terms of skill, experience and NHL development, seems much greater than with a lot of other teams. Though players like Pacioretty, Subban and Lars Eller, a former St. Louis Blues top draft pick in 2007, are establishing themselves in the league at 22, this is an era where a lot of high-ceiling players become NHL regulars before their 21st birthday. The Habs simply don’t have young, mercurial top-end offensive talent in the pipeline in the way that, say, Ottawa does.
They haven’t had a teenager in the regular season lineup in yonks, and while some of that is due to the organizational philosophy (and ill-fated experiments like Guillaume Latendresse in 2006), some of it is from expensive trades (ie: a first- and a second-round pick for Alex Tanguay) and misfires on the draft board.
There are bright prospects on the horizon (Brendan Gallagher, Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, and possibly Danny Kristo and Olivier Archambault), but those players are still two or three years away from being meaningful contributors – although perhaps next season Gallagher will be the exception that proves the rule.
Maybe Leblanc can be the missing link between the Habs’ present and future, he has three games to show he’s better than Aaron Palushaj, another 2007 draftee who is this year’s bubble forward.