USNTDP forward Leonard targets top 10 at NHL draft
After scoring the overtime winner against Sweden in the gold-medal game at April's Under-18 World Championship, Team USA right winger Ryan Leonard wasn't sure what to do.
"Everybody dreams of that moment," the Amherst, Mass. native said. "You think in your head you have this whole celebration planned out, but the puck went in and, yeah, I didn't really know what to do after that. So, just kind of waited for my team to join me pretty much."
It was sweet revenge for the Americans. One year earlier, they had lost to Sweden in the championship game.
"Our team went through a lot of stuff throughout the two years and did not have, whatsoever, the best of 17s year," Leonard said. "We did not win a lot of games. A lot of people looked at us as a pretty crappy team ... We set a lot of records with those guys this 18s year, and to cap it off the way we did is special for all of us. We're brothers for life, so that's pretty cool."
It was the first gold for Team USA at the event since 2017. There was extra motivation for this group from the National Team Development Program, in particular, to get it done.
"A lot of people kind of looked at us and said, 'What's going to happen this year when they go against college teams? They won one USHL game at home last year,'" Leonard said. "We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and show them we all made the team for a reason."
Leonard proved quite a bit this season. He scored 51 goals in 57 games, which matched linemate Will Smith for third most among draft-eligible players.
Leonard came in No. 5 on NHL Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters. He was No. 7 on the list of all prospects compiled by TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie ahead of May's draft lottery, which was up from No. 10.
"It's an honour to be hopefully chosen in the top 10," Leonard said. "It's been my goal ever since the start of the year. At the start of the year I was looked at as, 'Who knows if he's going to go first round.' I progressed the whole year and hopefully top 10 happens. But whatever happens, happens. Whatever club gives me a chance, I know I'll make the most of it."
In a conversation with TSN, Leonard outlined his biggest improvements and explained why Matthew Tkachuk is a role model. The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
TSN: You posted on Instagram about the gold medal win and Anaheim Ducks forward Frank Vatrano commented on the post. He wrote, 'Still can't win 3-on-3.' What's that about?
Leonard: "He's one of my good buddies back here. I see him every day and train with him ... I'm the youngest in the group with all the pro guys, including my brother [Milwaukee Admirals winger John Leonard], so I'm always getting crap about pretty much everything. We always play 3-on-3 after every single skate. We have two really good goalies who skate with us and a lot of good players out there, so we try to keep the game tactics in shape. We usually play about three games up to five. It was 1-1 in the series and of course Frank scores the game winner in the last game of my summer. I was leaving to go back to the Program and didn't really hear the end of that one. I did tell him I wasn't coming home without a gold medal, so I was proved right on that. So, that's something I'm proud of."
TSN: What worked so well on that line with you, Smith and Gabe Perreault this season?
Leonard: "Our chemistry just clicked ... We were always eager to be better and get better each and every game. We were never satisfied. We stayed hungry both for our line and our team. I think that's what helped us out."
TSN: How would you describe your game?
Leonard: "A power forward who brings a lot of attributes to help a team win. I'm a guy that's a leader throughout the lineup. I like to play in all different situations."
TSN: Who is your NHL role model?
Leonard: "I like to look at three players. Matthew Tkachuk, who's having an unbelievable playoff, is what I'm leaning on right now just because of the run he's having. He's fun to watch. Also, Alex Tuch and Zach Hyman too."
TSN: Tkachuk likes to get under the skin of opponents. Do you have that in you as well?
Leonard: "Yeah. I think that's what makes hockey fun, honestly, is kind of having that bite to your game and making the game interesting."
TSN: How do you go about doing that? Are you a trash talker?
Leonard: "I don't consider myself the biggest trash talker out there. I don't have the best lines, but just doing little things to piss people off. You can't fight at our level yet, but maybe someday I could have that role. But getting under people's skin, stuff like that, just helps me."
TSN: What do you like about Hyman?
Leonard: "He's always been a really good player, but to have a break-out season like he did this year opened up a lot of people's eyes to see the potential he has as a player. The way he performs with top-end guys is pretty cool to watch. It's like my scenario with Will and Gabe. He plays with two of the best guys in the world."
TSN: And Tuch?
Leonard: "He brings it all. He's probably the most powerful skater out of those three. That's what I like to bring. I like to watch the way he shoots in stride and makes stuff happen around the net."
TSN: How do you win so many puck battles?
Leonard: "I don't like to lose at anything. Going into those battles and taking it as personal as possible is what helps me to come out on top."
TSN: How much is being the youngest of four siblings a part of that?
Leonard: "Got beat up a lot growing up, so I have that little bite to me. Yeah, I don't like to lose, that's for sure."
TSN: What allowed you to score so consistently this season?
Leonard: "A lot of credit goes to my linemates. Playing with them the whole year, they were awesome getting me the puck and I learned how to read and get off of them and find space. And I scored a bunch of power-play goals. So, it's just making myself available and stuff like that. My shot is something I really harp on. That's something I always work on so my shot kind of took over a little bit."
TSN: How did your shot improve?
Leonard: "It's always getting quicker. You see going up every level you got to get quicker, faster, stronger so always working on your shot. I'm in the shooting room and then after practice working on the ice and working on things you can implement into your game at game tempo. Not doing them slow so when it gets to the game it becomes easy."
TSN: What's your approach in the gym in the offseason?
Leonard: "Power. Yeah, just fast, fast, fast and moving weight fast. Tuning in my body, especially next year going into the Hockey East [with Boston College], it's a tough league to play in with older teams and a couple older-style barns. So, I'm getting ready for those atmospheres and away games. You got to be ready."
TSN: You're at 192 pounds now, are you looking to put on weight?
Leonard: "Since I've been a little kid it's not been, 'Hey, I got two put this much weight on.' It's come natural to me. I'm lucky. It's not like, 'I have to eat this much, blah, blah, blah.' I just be me and the weight comes naturally. I don't want to get too heavy. Gotta stay fast out there."
TSN: What’s the biggest thing you've learned from your older brother John?
Leonard: "I talked to him before the year, before I left, because that was the last time, I was going to see him before the circus kind of took off a little bit, if you will. He said, 'Have fun with it. You know you're going to be a top pick and not a lot of people get to go through it. So, have fun with it and make the most of your opportunity.'"
TSN: It was different for him. He ended up as a sixth round pick in 2018. Could he give you any advice on the draft process?
Leonard: "Not really. John didn't really have all the interviews like this or with NHL teams throughout the year. He was just playing hockey and if he got drafted it was just something to check off his bucket list. He knew he wasn't going to be a top pick. Even on the day of the draft, I was at a summer tournament with my family, and he was golfing with buddies and got a call from San Jose on the sixth hole and that just kind of happened. He wasn't in this position, but he gives me insider stuff on how to be a pro."
TSN: Can you draw inspiration from how he grinds?
Leonard: "That guy has not been handed anything. His first year in Green Bay [in the USHL], he barely played. We go out for a weekend and we couldn't see him that much. Going out to Wisconsin for the weekend, you hope he plays. He played one game that weekend and maybe played 10 minutes if that. It's tough to see a loved one struggle like that. Even right now, he's not really playing in the [American Hockey League] playoffs. Their team is the conference final and he's watching after all the guys came down with Nashville. I mean, he's rooting for the team and all that, but it's tough to see him go through that after how good a season he had."
TSN: Your dad, John. Sr., played basketball and got drafted by the New York Knicks. Why was hockey the game for you?
Leonard: "We have two and two. Girls went basketball and the boys went hockey. My sisters were Division III athletes for basketball. They were unbelievable. When my dad was coaching at UMass 10 minutes away from here, my mom saw a sign about a skate at the practice rink, so she put my brother in skates and bad decision for her. A lot of money down the drain. If she didn't do that then who knows what we would've done. I was born a couple years later and saw how much John loved it and they put me in skates, and I loved it. It's my passion."