With the National Hockey League lockout about to creep into the time blocked off for the Canadiens’ training camp, speculation about whether Louis Leblanc will crack the Habs’ lineup from the get-go will have to wait – at least for now.
The 21-year-old Kirkland native heads to Sherbrooke this month when the Hamilton Bulldogs open their training camp. He’s one of 21 prospects assigned this week to the Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate.
Leblanc, the Canadiens’ first-round draft pick in 2009 (18th overall), played 42 games for the Habs last season and 31 for the Bulldogs.
“I think I did pretty well,” Leblanc said of his stint with the Canadiens. “I was excited to get going with training camp and earn my spot from the start and play a full season.”
But he wasn’t dwelling on that delayed opportunity at the Habs’ training facility in Brossard on Tuesday, where he worked out with a group of Canadiens players. His focus is now on the AHL.
“I can’t worry about when the NHL is going to start,” Leblanc said. “I’m going to improve my game in Hamilton.”
And when the NHL season starts, Leblanc said he wants to be the best player there – the guy who gets called up to the “big team.”
Near the end of last season, former Canadiens head coach Randy Cunneyworth praised Leblanc’s work ethic, speed, fearless attitude and vision on the ice. He also suggested Leblanc needed to get bigger and stronger.
Leblanc took a step in that direction this summer, adding 10 pounds of muscle to his 6-foot frame. He now weighs 190 pounds.
Ted Donato, Leblanc’s former coach at Harvard – where he played in 2009-10 – says his work ethic is second to none.
“He was one of these guys – whether it was practice or a game – he was very focused and very competitive,” Donato said.
Some players used the last lockout, which wiped out the 2004-05 NHL season, to gain confidence and complete themselves as players, added Donato, a retired NHL player. He mentioned Patrice Bergeron, his former teammate with the Boston Bruins who played in the AHL during that lockout, as an example, saying he established his game again offensively.
Erik Cole is one of the veterans who has taken Leblanc under his wing. When Leblanc played his first game for the Canadiens in Anaheim last November, Cole paid for his parents to fly there.
It just shows what a good person Cole is, Leblanc said.
“Hopefully when I’m 10 years down the road in the NHL, I’ll do that for another kid coming up,” he added.
Leblanc has also tried to learn from Cole’s on-ice play. The Canadiens’ video coach made Leblanc a DVD of Cole’s goals from last year and they watched them together.
“We learn a lot from the guys here,” Leblanc said, adding Cole is strong on the puck and “so good getting the puck out of the zone.”
Leblanc said he expects the Bulldogs will have a good, young team with the arrival of players like Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi, Brendan Gallagher and Michael Bournival.
“A lot of excellent NHL players are going to be playing in that league, so I think it’s going to add a lot of excitement for the fans and the competition and the teams,” Leblanc said.
As a francophone, Leblanc doesn’t seem fazed by the pressure of playing in Montreal.
“I think I just embrace it,” he said. “It’s an honour to play for the Montreal Canadiens.”
Being from here adds even more excitement, added Leblanc, who sees it as motivation.
“I want to do well here,” he said. “So, I think it makes you work even harder in the gym, on the ice and off the ice.”