Ryan Leonard is Great at Hockey and USA Dominates.
On the last day of Team USA’s group stage play at the U18 World Juniors tournament, they won 10-0. Because of course, they did. Team USA has dominated all tournament, and seem poised to bring home gold.
On this day, it was Ryan Leonard who shone brightest. He finished with a hattrick and added two assists along the way to collect 5 points on the day. It was 5 more points to add to an already extremely special season.
So let’s talk about Ryan Leonard. A premiere power forward prospect in this draft. Likely the third best in this class, which is a distinction he only has because of Fantilli and Leo Carlsson. In a normal year, it’d be hard to find a power-forward prospect like Leonard.
His linemate, Will Smith, generally gets a lot of the headlines. And some of that is for good reason. Smith is one of the most gifted manipulators and offensive visionaries I’ve ever seen. He’s a special talent.
Smith has 122 points in 57 games. He has shattered records held by Jack Hughes and Auston Matthews. Their third-line mate–Gabe Perreault–is the only player in NTDP history to score more than Will Smith. Think about the players who have come from the NTDP. None of them have put up more points than Will Smith.
Because of that production, Ryan Leonard is often lost in the shuffle. You would think he’s some throw-in. Some tag-along. Some nobody forecheckers stick with the two stars of the line to “let them cook.”
Ryan Leonard is anything but that. For one thing, his own level of point production is historic.
He has 89 points in 54 games.
Logan Cooley–someone who nearly won a Hobey Baker as a freshman–had 75 points in 51 games during his draft year with the program.
Cutter Gauthier, the Flyers’ current top prospect, had 65 points in 54 games.
Leonard is having a special season and his production has outshone many of the stars that came through the NTDP. Team environment matters and can certainly help to determine your point total. Part of the dominance of the Leonard-Smith-Perreault line is how in sync they all are. Their chemistry is something to behold.
But another, more important part of it is that they’re all insanely talented at the sport of ice hockey.
Ryan Leonard is the kind of power forward whose muscle doesn’t come at the expense of skill, and he has brains to compliment his brawn.
Sometimes, “hockey IQ” is easy to see. Like in the case of Will Smith’s on-puck manipulations, just watch him for five seconds and you’ll see that he thinks the game at an extremely high level. Other times, it’s a bit more subtle but no less pronounced.
Look at how Leonard timed his net drive to not only fit between multiple defenders but also to arrive at the moment the pass would find him. If he’s early, then he’ll have his stick lifted and be neutralized. If he’s later, then Perreault is throwing the puck into the wilderness.
Because Leonard’s timing is sublime, it’s neither early nor late. And because he has the finish to match, the puck finds the back of the net.
This is hardly a one-off, either. Here’s another immaculately timed foray to the net front. This time, the timing is different. He stays off to the side, hanging below the circle while the puck is cycled up high in the offensive zone. Leonard is able to read when the shot will come, shimmy past his check with some sneaky good footwork and sneak himself into position to tip that puck as soon as the shot comes.
That’s how the netfront is played at the NHL level nowadays. It isn’t always–or even often–about parking yourself in front of a goalie and taking a beating. It’s about lulling defenders to sleep, then striking in sync with a shooter. Taking away a goalie’s eyes–and tipping pucks–when they don’t even expect to have to navigate a screen.
And this kid isn’t some netfront merchant either. He makes plays everywhere. One of the most underrated parts of his game is his ability to make outlet passes that spring players through the neutral zone. He has a better stretch pass than most Flyers’ defensemen! (I’m pretty sure I mean this literally!)
There’s a stretch pass that leads to his own goal after he joins the rush. And it was only one of two such passes he made just yesterday.
He even has the hands to maneuver around traffic and send a dime to a teammate on the rush. He’s not as good at these things as Will Smith (besides Bedard and Michkov, nobody has the hands of Will Smith)
But he’s got hands. And he’s got a powerful skating stride that can send him to many such rush opportunities.
And did I mention this kid can really finish?!
Pass reception in tight, and he toe drags around the goalie to find the top corner? My God.
This kid has all the makings of a future menace. A Brad Marchand type.
Wait, am I saying he’s gonna be a rat? Nah, not really. He loves to hit people, but he’s shown zero propensity for face-licking.
He’s going to do what Marchand does as a player. He’s going to be a wrecking ball that protects pucks, murders dudes in the corner, and makes plays to the high-danger areas.
There are plenty of players like that who are doing serious damage in the NHL. Matthew Tkachuk. Brady Tkachuk. Mikko Rantanen. Timo Meier.
I’m not entirely sold on Leonard’s fit with the Flyers. A truly dynamic, elite playmaker seems imperative for this team to function. But if he isn’t a Flyer, he’s going to make some teams very happy.
He’s special. These NTDP kids are special.
Mandatory Credit: The Athletic