Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The First Cut Is The Deepest:

The Reaction To Leblanc's Demotion

Louis Leblanc was cut from Canadiens camp yesterday. You may have heard.

Tempest in a teapot  is what comes to mind as descriptor for what came from the announcement that a player with a marginal chance at helping the Canadiens on the 4th line after an abysmal season would be given some time in Hamilton before getting another NHL minute. But, putting aside the irrational and oddly broadcasted feelings of his girlfriend (tennis star Aleksandra Wozniak), the reaction to cut across all quarters is much more interesting than the real implications for Leblanc.

To understand why this might be interesting at all, one has to put back some of the context.

First and foremost remember this: Leblanc is from Montreal. He was selected because he was from Montreal. All the stories around him are amplified because of this. When Danny Kristo got suspended by his university, few even knew of it. When he was traded for someone we'd never even looked up on Elite Prospects, we didn't bat an eye. Danny Kristo was a better prospect than Leblanc on the merit of achievements in hockey. But when Montreal is factored in, Leblanc is a much bigger deal.

To leave it at that would be simplistic. Lots of Montrealais and Quebecois are tried by the team and left to try their careers in Germany every year. There can be a minor fuss, but not front page stories.

Louis isn't really just the next Quebecois. He happens to be the Quebecois who carries the hopes and dreams of many of his neighbours (not all pro tennis players, mind you). When the Canadiens stepped up to the draft board in 2009, it had been 11 years since they had committed a first round pick to a boy from the province (and Chouinard was the only one over an even longer span). The team whose lore is built on star Habitants representing their city and province had been trying to do so on the cheap for so long.

The excuses for overlooking Quebec talent at the first kick at the can were many. Everyone else was doing it, the timing of the picks was off, the team had other needs to address. Yet, as time went by the team began to reflect its drafting practices. After Mike Ribeiro and Guillaume Latendresse were jettisoned, the local contingent were filling out the roster at the edges.

2009 was a collapse of the old regime. Bad enough to blow up the old plan. The old guard was told to find new jobs. A new leaf was to be turned. As it happened, this coincided with a young Quebecois playing his way into first round discussions. Good enough to be a serious pick, not good enough to worry the lottery crowd. He was set to be ripe for the Canadiens to scoop up.

Draft day came and scoop they did.

If you look back at that draft, you'll agree that there wasn't much wrong with that decision from a hockey standpoint. At the time, Louis represented a credible candidate for the 18th overall pick. A team less focused on origin and less jaded by US high schools probably would have favoured the bigger and more straightforward Chris Kreider. only a clairvoyant would have known that Marcus Johansson or Ryan O'Reilly would have been the truest path to success. On hockey, Leblanc's Rookie of the Year USHL season was right to impress.

What came next was perhaps the problem. The Canadiens, in need of positive press stirred the pot of hometown hope and let it simmer as it always does that summer and beyond. No sensible hockey scout ever said Louis Leblanc would lead the Canadiens to their next Stanley Cup. But with snippets like this to hold onto:

“intelligent, very competitive, with good skills and the opportunity to get better and get bigger.”

... the fans filled in the blanks themselves.

As an origin story, it's not exactly the Guy Lafleur saga. But it was to be as good as it could get for those seeking their Skywalker.

What came next

As new property of the Montreal Canadiens, Louis Leblanc was now on track to be developed into an NHL player.

The track began in Harvard, where the stay ended up being brief. He ended on the all-rookie team, which we took to be good. because we didn't know what to make of 11 goals and 23 points over 32 games in the Ivy League (except perhaps that it was far worse than what Chris Higgins had accomplished).

Never mind, the patchy stats, it was the move to the QMJHL that would take the spotlight now. It was a move that also cast him into a possible Team Canada role. Things were looking up. Or so we were told. Yet by season's end, Louis' team was not really improved by his presence and he did not dominate the league or even his own team of future ECHLers in any way. he did OK for Team canada, but it was clear that his relegation to checking role was fully warranted by this point.

Even by this point, the hype hadn't really slowed to the reality. Louis was absolved for many reasons. Benefit of the doubt was the word and we were all prepared to give it. Louis was still a potential saviour for the team. We'd all see.

The next season was another change for the prospect. Out of camp, it was decided that he would be assigned at age 20 to the Hamilton Bulldogs rather than endure any more junior. We were told that his play in the AHL was exceptional for a rookie (what did we know?). On a team with little (if any) scoring talent, 11 goals and 22 points in 31 games was to be Louis' next benefit of the doubt moment. Sure Cory Conacher and Gustav Nyqvist were doing better things that season as rookies, but they were older. What's more Louis cracked the NHL. As Cammalleri lost favour and Gomez lost everything, Leblanc found a place opening up for him in the Cunneyworth Canadiens.

By fall 2012, Leblanc had been a good rookie in 5 leagues in 4 consecutive years. He was riding high on the benefit of the doubt he received for having to adapt his play. We were told to look forward to new and great things as he played out his role on his team in a league he was now accustomed too, a league below the one he had finished the previous season. For the first time he would not be eligible for rookie accolades, but would be expected to lead as a veteran and experienced player.

Alas, it was a burden too far for Leblanc. Not only were the Bulldogs missing teeth, they were in the midst of an experiment by which every coach to ever have played with the Montreal Canadiens would lead the AHL outfit. The new big club regime was pulling more strings through newly implemented hockey dvelopment positions and the over-managed team faltered badly all season long.

But even in the midst of a bad situation, one would have expected Leblanc the hyped to at least rise to the top of his team. Except, he didn't. Whatever you want to say about injury, the player skated for 62 games. Even if he was stricken from half those scoresheets for limping, his 10 goals and 18 points would have struggled to impress.

It was the festering wound of which the cut yesterday was only a symptom. Louis Leblanc had lost whatever mojo he once had in the US midwest. Whether through mismanagement, overly ambitious change, failure to grow (physically and in play), the balloon of inflated expectation was deflating fast.

With the benefit of hindsight we can now see that Leblanc was benefitting from our caveats and by changing leagues every year, he was assuring himself of that comfort. We can see he has been at times a decent player on a decent team, but also at times a lesser player on a lesser team. The hype was right to find its way out of that balloon.

Out of step

Chronologically in this story, however, things are amiss for some observers. For while deflation of expectation happened for many observers of prospects steadily and surely with each slightly above average season, for others the myth lived on. I can only tell you that I believe his origin tale has some major part in this. I think I see evidence of that in the mixed reactions I read.

Why else would someone, anyone feel the need to reassure of an 18-point AHLers remaining prospects in the NHL? Why would anyone still need to make excuses for the "young" player now superseded by a multitude his junior in years and pick rank?

The sentimentality about Louis Leblanc remains strong. The hope pinned to his eventual Canadiens sweater is still thick. We're reading a lot into the timing of a demotion we should have all known was coming this September.

What now?

As usual the Canadiens sideshow is almost as entertaining to the long-time fan as the real show. As always, it says far more about the participants in the sideshow than it does about the subjects of their attention. When veteran players are still getting in shape, veteran fans and commentators are in full stride.

Louis Leblanc will be fine. He may yet be back. Play hockey and play hard. Everything is still well within the realm of possibility for him.

For fans, however, it might be high time we might stop pretending that the Louis Leblanc story is about an AHL player at all, and admit that it has everything to do with us, the running sideshow.

For Leblanc the first cut of training camp will be forgotten two games into a season. For the rest hurt so deeply, healing is made to sound far off. Who knew Chouinard the sequel would draw such a box office? Before even worrying another minute about what happens if Leblanc doesn't find his redemption in the script, or looking for the star of the next in the series; perhaps now it is time to question a vision of glory by a single blueprint? Just a thought.

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