TSN reporter Mark Masters checks in daily with news and notes on Team Canada, which wraps up its World Junior Selection Camp with a scrimmage against the U Sports all-stars on Friday at the Q Centre in Victoria.
After getting passed over in consecutive NHL drafts, did Brett Leason think this was possible?
"No," he said. "Never."
The Prince Albert Raiders forward is on the cusp of making Canada’s World Junior team after a breakthrough start to the year. Before this season, Leason had played 135 Western Hockey League games, recording just 24 goals and 51 points. This season, he has 28 goals and 64 points in just 31 games to lead the WHL.
"I've surpassed my own expectations," Leason admits. “I was (not) thinking about this or realizing it could happen."
Leason wasn’t invited to Canada’s summer camp and really hasn’t gotten a whiff of international competition over the years. He watched the last two NHL drafts closely, waiting and hoping for a moment that never came.
And all that disappointment lit a fire under him.
"It motivated me a lot," he said. "Realized, like, it’s a dream of mine to get drafted and realized this is my last chance so I thought I'd do something and push for that."
During the first scrimmage of Canada's selection camp, Leason lined up beside returning player Alex Formenton and Montreal Canadiens prospect Nick Suzuki, two front-runners to make this Team Canada roster. Leason’s spot on that line was an indication that the coaching staff views him not only as a candidate for the roster, but a player who can fill a significant role.
"It’s a different Brett Leason from last year,” said Canada head coach Tim Hunter, whose Moose Jaw Warriors eliminated Leason’s Raiders in the first round of the WHL playoffs last season. “Brett was a big-body guy, skated well, moved the puck and could handle the puck well, but didn’t have that second gear in his skating and, really, that compete and confidence. He’s gained a step in his skating over the summer. He’s worked on his skating tremendously."
In Friday's scrimmage, Leason started on a line with Barrett Hayton and Joe Veleno.
Leason didn’t seek out any power-skating instructor in the off-season. It was all about pushing himself.
"Just really tried to build strength in my legs," he said, "and then towards the end of the summer was working on quick feet and agility to get that extra step."
A trade from Tri-City to Prince Albert last season also helped him get a "fresh start." With the Americans he was “buried” behind more experienced players. Meanwhile, he has felt an immediate kinship with Raiders coach Marc Habscheid.
"Had a strong summer and then when I came to camp just took off," Leason explained. "Coach trusted me and just let me play my game."
Hunter has made it clear that the hallmark of this year’s Team Canada will be speed and the six-foot-four, 199-pound Leason is now able to fit that identity.
"He's very capable of being a fast player in this tournament," Hunter said.
"It's a little crazy that he was passed over twice, but definitely won't be this year," said Spokane defenceman Ty Smith, who faced Leason once in the WHL this season. "He's a fast forward. Lots of size. He's got lots of range to his game, sharp stick handles, good fakes, I mean, he's playing great this year."
There's a sense that Team Canada can capitalize on something special here. Leason started the year with a 30-game point streak. In fact, his only game off the scoresheet came on Sunday in his final WHL appearance before leaving for Victoria. And he still had five shots in that outing.
“We’re riding that wave of a guy who’s having a great year and trending in the right direction,” said Hunter. “And those are the kind of guys that you really have to pay attention to and give a good opportunity to.”
Hunter believes there was a valuable lesson for his players in Thursday's 5-3 loss to a team of U Sports all-stars.
"We have to get some of the CHL hockey out of our game and get more of the way they (U Sports) play," Hunter noted, "smart, tight, detailed game and we have to get that in our game. And it's all coachable stuff and stuff that will happen."
"We get a little bit more time in the CHL," forward Max Comtois said. "They did a really good job closing our gap and putting sticks in passing lanes and sometimes we were trying little fancy plays, soft plays, trying to make tape-to-tape passes when the (right) play was just to put it in and forechek."
Losing a game to the older university players at this camp isn't a huge surprise. It actually happened last year as well before Canada went on to win a gold medal.
"This is good for our team," insisted Comtois, one of two returning players in camp. "We saw it last year. We lost two games and it helped our team clean up our game and to be ready for the tournament. This is just a wake-up call for us."
Team Canada lineup for Friday's scrimmage against the U Sports all-stars:
Scratches: Formenton (knee), Vilardi (back), Anderson-Dolan (wrist), Studnicka
Scratches: Bouchard, Dobson, Mitchell
Canada goalies: Scott, Villalta
U Sports goalie: DiPietro