Prospect Grades: Ryan Leonard
Ryan Leonard is too strong for his own good. What do I mean by that? He plays with plenty of grit and brings a ton of power into his game, he’s prone to having his real skill level slept on.
In the modern game, size and strength don’t come at the expense of skill nearly as much as they used to. You’re witnessing that in these Stanley Cup Finals. Jack Eichel, Matthew Tkachuk, Mark Stone, and Aleksander Barkov are all big players and the most skilled players on the ice.
Leonard is the perfect example of this evolution. By height, he’s actually a fair bit smaller than any of these players except Tkachuk. But his lower body strength is immense. Like Jack Eichel, he’s so advanced as an athlete that it actually defies logic at times.
He’s a power forward. He loves to play hard and get in battles on the walls. He’ll tell you himself that he takes every single battle personally. But don’t think that grit comes at the expense of his soft skill.
It’s because of that balance of tools that Leonard is one of the highest-graded prospects in my system.
7.5-8.5: Above NHL average and potentially projectable to be elite.
Ryan Leonard is a fast player. He would describe himself as fast. One of the fastest on his team, but definitely not the fastest on his team. That may make you want to take an elite projection off the table, but remember that Leonard’s teammate is Oliver Moore. He received a 10 in this grade, and I very nearly gave him an 11.
So not being the fastest player on his team leaves space for a very high grade, and Leonard is worth one here.
Leonard’s calling card is his unbelievable lower-body strength. The amount of power he can generate through his core and legs shows up in his skating. When he wants to pull away from back checkers, they aren’t left with a great chance of catching him.
And when he’s barreling toward defenders, he stands a terrific chance of turning them wide and even losing them entirely.
There’s no guarantee that he becomes an elite speedster in the NHL. Rather than a naturally gifted stride and an intuitive mastery of mechanics, Leonard realizes to stay ahead of everyone in terms of his lower body strength.
He explodes off of his first few strides. Hell, he explodes off of his edges. His ability to explode from a standstill creates a chance of his own forecheck.
As with most things Leonard does, you might miss the sheer projectability of his explosive athleticism because his line was too busy doing some wild Harlem Globetrotters impression on ice.
When he starts speeding down the ice, I wish even the most dedicated back checkers luck catching him. Here, he gets behind the D, and the entire team–after a long shift–has truly no interest in applying backside pressure.
That would never happen in the NHL. He will never find the time to put together a give-and-go passing play with Perreault in front of the goalie while standing still.
But it would have never happened at the U-18 level if Leonard wasn’t such an explosive skater. Explosive is the keyword here. He is relying on lower body strength.
There is some risk to that. You never know when he’ll max out. But my guess? There’s still plenty more to get out of his frame.
6.5-7.25: Above NHL average, but unlikely to project to elite.
Leonard isn’t just an explosive skater, though. He’s also a smooth skater with strong edgework, though his agility would never be mistaken as similar to Michkov or Benson. His edge work is very functional. His turn radius is short, see the earlier clip of his work off the forecheck.
His explosive amplifies his edge work, too. When he wants to explode off of his edge, he really explodes. Here, even Sandiin-Pellikka doesn’t have the feet to stay in front of him.
Slower or less nimble turns would have ended this sequence far earlier than it did, but Leonard is nimble enough to let his hardness on pucks shine.
This may be one of the weaker elements of Leonard’s profile, and yet I’m still fairly bullish on its projectability. That is what sets Leonard apart. He’s sort of a less pronounced version of Fantilli this way. There is no weakness here. There are only varying levels of strength.
It’s been glamorized to have a standout ability with some crippling flaw recently. But that’s a misunderstanding of what makes the elite players what they are.
There often is no crippling flaw with them. It’s all just varying degrees of excellence.
8.75-9.5: More likely than not that this trait reaches an elite projection
There are obvious examples of having excellent hands. The ability to deke someone out of their skates and dangle right around them is obviously a good measure of hands. But if I were solely to grade Leonard’s deking ability? I wouldn’t be as bullish on his hands as I am.
His overall control of the puck is excellent.
Someone with a less refined handle would have run that puck right into the goalie’s pads, but not Leonard. He picks up a puck with speed and in close to the goalie. He can find a way to toe drag to the other side of the net and hit a wrist shot top-shelf from in tight.
That’s some high-level mitts.
This looks more like an example of vision at first glance, and it obviously speaks strongly to his vision. But seeing this option is infinitely less impressive than the hands required to actually hit this pass.
Many hockey players–including many NHL players–would try to make that first touch of the puck far earlier in the sequence. They’d try to take control of the puck, turn while it’s rested on their forehand, then make the pass. They’d either get pinned to the wall or totally pummeled before they can make a play. Either way, that play is staying on the wall.
Plays don’t just “stay on the wall” with Ryan Leonard on the ice.
Instead, Leonard turns and establishes body positioning first. He lets the puck slide to him while he’s identifying his target. Then he one-touches a pass that ends up threading the needle to Will Smith for an easy goal.
Coaches and pundits talk about “winning battles” on the wall a lot. Leonard can certainly do that. But that isn’t what makes him so good. Lots of players can win a battle, then rim a puck around so their teammates can engage in another battle.
The Flyers are goddamn experts at winning a battle and slapping the puck away like it has cooties so they can just go win another battle in a few seconds.
Leonard has the hands to win a battle, then make a play to the middle of the ice and create a dangerous offense.
In asking for help finding clips, I asked @Flyers_Clips on Twitter if he could find the clip where Leonard dangled 2 players at the World Juniors and then got the assist.
The response I got was: “No. I don’t even remember that specific play. He does that every shift.”
Perhaps a slight exaggeration. But surely it makes the point, no?
7.5-8.5: Above NHL average, and potentially projectable to be elite.
Part of the ability to make plays from the boards to the middle is simply a vision.
The vision that everyone thinks about is something like what Will Smith does. Dangle a defender out of their skates. Attract some extra defenders to help, then find the open teammate. Leonard can do that. He isn’t as exceptional as Smith at doing it, because nobody really is.
But Leonard sees the ice superbly all the same. And his passes are delivered with touch. If he has to flip it over sticks, he can do that and still make it easy to receive.
Still, this isn’t the kind of situation where Leonard usually expresses his vision. It’s supplementary. It’s there. I’d love to be the development coach who works with this kid. He flashes so much ability that he’s essentially a blank canvas.
Still, Leonard knows what he is.
Accordingly, Leonard’s vision is often expressed differently. When there’s a fight for a puck along the wall, he doesn’t tunnel vision. He always knows his outlets and his options. That touch pass to Smith was the golden example.
Leonard’s outlet passing ability is one of the reasons Smith can fly the zone as frequently as he does.
That’s Leonard practically getting a secondary assist on his own goal after a fantastic stretch pass to Perreault.
That Leonard hasn’t as routinely flashed the ability to absorb pressure and make plays to teammates is the one thing keeping him from a higher grade. It’s a matter of repetition. Down to the fact that he accepted more of an off-puck role given the puck skills of his linemates.
8.75-9.5 I consider it more likely than not that this trait reaches an elite projection.
You hear a lot about how Ryan Leonard hits. You hear about how physical he is. But perhaps you should hear just how PHYSICAL he is.
There are the indirect benefits of his strength. The explosive stride and the ability to balance himself in other precarious positions (more on that later!)
Then there are the more direct effects.
His hits are thunderous. Truly thunderous. Ryan Leonard is a prospect who thinks the point of hockey is to make a highlight play and engage in wanton violence within the same shift.
7.5-8.5: Above NHL average and potentially projectable to be elite
With most prospects, there’s a separation between their strength and balance. Skaters with strong edgework are much more balanced than they are strong. With Leonard? He doesn’t have the edges to create a true discrepancy. He’s balanced because he’s strong.
He seeks out contact at all times, including when he’s carrying the puck. When he gets a step on a defender, he seeks to wall them off like a power forward.
Even when that nearly backfires, he still has the capacity to catch himself in a way that…frankly…makes no sense.
Frankly, it doesn’t usually make it that far. Usually? He’s just powering through some guy’s hopelessly flailing stick after he’s already beaten them with speed.
Off. Instincts: 9.25/10
8.75-9.5: More likely than not that this trait reaches an elite projection
Ryan Leonard has often been derided as not as smart as his two linemates. That may be technically true, given that Smith is a 10 grade and Perreault nearly reached an 11 grade in offensive instincts.
I suppose that makes him the least cerebral of the bunch, but you would be making a grave mistake to underrate his instincts offensively.
There’s a reason that the NTDP top-line looks like the Harlem Globetrotters out there, and it’s because all 3 of them are thinking of the game at a level entirely beyond their competition.
He has the ability to time his forays to the net front and choose his routes to avoid a battle altogether. He waits until the defense is distracted by the play unfolding near the blue line, and steps under the closest defender to travel into the net front. By the time the defenseman knows someone is past him, he’s already on Leonard’s back. And the shot is already being deflected off of his stick.
His ability to read the offensive zone play and find shooting pockets is among the best in the class.
As we discussed on Twitter, Leonard has a sort of superpower that all the best goal-scorers have. They manage to find the right space on the ice at the right time. It’s a lot harder than it will ever work, and it’s what separates guys like David Pastrnak from guys who score 20 in a season with their awesome shot.
There’s a tendency to think of playmaking in hockey as similar to playmaking in basketball. The guy who draws the extra defensive attention gets all the credit.
That isn’t entirely improper, but it isn’t true either. Drawing defensive attention is important. Getting two on the puck is an incredibly valuable skill. But playing in skates vs playing in sneakers creates a massive difference.
It’s hard to park in any one place for long. So the best goal scorers run routes like a wide receiver in football. Leonard is a master route runner.
A route runner has a big job. You have to detach yourself from your defensive assignment. You have to do it in a way that the guy won’t just follow you. You have to detach to a place where a passing lane exists to find you. And that place has to be in a spot where you can unleash a shot that actually has a hope of beating the goalie.
Ryan Leonard can do all of it. Besides Matvei Michkov, I’m not sure anyone “route runs” better than he does. And it’s what makes goal scorers who they are.
He’s either the third or fourth most dangerous goal-scoring prospect in this class, to my eyes. Michkov and Bedard are clearly a step ahead. Fantilli may have him edged out as well. Beyond those three and Leonard? There’s a sharp drop.
Def. Instincts: 6.25/10
5.5-6.25: NHL average. Neither strength nor weakness.
Leonard has a reputation among those who don’t watch him for being a defensive stalwart and a 200-foot player. Let me tell you right now: he isn’t. He isn’t bad. Unlike his two linemates, he doesn’t have an outright allergy to playing defense. But you will never watch Ryan Leonard and see a Selke in his future.
He wins a lot of battles for loose pucks, and he does a good job of supporting the breakout down low. Actually, he’s even more likely to do that than Smith. And it’s the kind of thing a center usually does for a line.
Those things make him at the top end of the average for me, but I struggle to go any higher.
10: Virtual certainty to be an elite NHL trait.
I don’t feel the need to regale you with examples and analysis of Leonard’s compete level. It’s one of the three pillars of his game along with his hands and goal-scoring instincts. It’s also the most universally celebrated. It’s so celebrated that it usually gets talked up at the expense of his other skills.
And if this writing accomplished anything, I would hope that you’ve seen there is far more to Leonard’s game than his grit and competitiveness.
8.75-9.5: More likely than not that this trait reaches an elite projection
Leonard has one of the most impressive shots in the draft, and there are a ton of extremely dangerous shooters in the draft. Still, his shot is less like the dangerous cannon that you see from Patrik Laine or prospects like Cutter Gauthier. It isn’t exactly as dynamic and malleable as Auston Matthews and Connor Bedard.
Leonard’s shot is surgical. He has a release that’s lightning fast and he can pick corners from all sorts of awkward shooting positions. It’s a shot with upside and mechanics somewhat similar to, again, David Pastrnak.
Will Smith’s 11 grades are the star of this show, but don’t let them fully distract you from Leonard’s shooting here. That is hardly a perfect pass. It’s slightly behind Leonard, and there’s not much chance to one-time this.
It doesn’t matter. Leonard can catch the pass and load his shot in the same motion, and unleash a bullet before the goalie can close off the available net. He’s a sniper in every sense of the word.
He has some ability to change angles and release points. He can get his shot off through an earnest contest.
His release is so fast that it’s likely to make goalies wonder if the puck was even shot in the first place. A simple flash screen is enough to make a goalie completely miss Leonard’s release if his release is timed well enough.
Leonard received an 8.4/10 overall grade, which clears the bar of “franchise prospect” that was set to be an 8.0. Fitting to the strength of the top end of this draft, he’s one of several prospects with an 8.0+ grade. But few prospects have actually cleared the threshold as decisively as he has.
All in all, I think Leonard is an outstanding value at any point from the 5th pick onwards.
Mandatory Credit: Credit: (Photo by Steven Ellis/Daily Faceoff