With Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty set to return this weekend, there’s a very good chance either Mike Blunden or Louis Leblanc will be sent down to the Hamilton Bulldogs as a result. It should be Blunden.
No disrespect to the former second-rounder—yes, Blunden was chosen in the second round of the 2005 draft. Leblanc just has more to offer. A former first-round pick (2009), he just has more offensive upside.
Yes, every player has a role to play, and that of the 6’3”, 209-pound Blunden is on the fourth line, where any open spot in the lineup would be. However, as Leblanc evidenced during his first long-term stint with the Habs, he’s capable of playing bottom-six minutes and not looking out of place.
Averaging just 11:11 of ice time back in 2011-12, Leblanc accumulated five goals and five assists in 42 games. Those aren’t stellar numbers, but, taking into account the bottom-six role he was playing, no one can deny he was contributing.
It’s admittedly a bit of a different situation now, even though he’s in much the same position in the lineup.
Playing on the team’s current third line with David Desharnais and Rene Bourque, two arguably top-six forwards, Leblanc is being given more of an opportunity to put points on the board.
While he hasn’t in the three games he’s played since being called last week, he has shown considerable improvement with each subsequent contest. Put simply, he’s getting scoring chances, and, while he’s got zero goals to his name so far, so does Desharnais, and he’s facing little risk of being sent down.
Granted, that has a little to do with Desharnais’ richer $3.5 million cap hit (Leblanc’s is $870,000, excluding bonuses). The Habs understandably can’t justify demoting a player making $3.5 million. Of course, they probably can’t justify Desharnais’ contract either at this very moment, but that’s another story for another day.
In any case, Leblanc has looked increasingly at home, playing with Bourque and Desharnais, and not just because all three are well-documented underachievers. As mentioned previously, they’re generating scoring opportunities. That’s about all any NHL coach can realistically ask from a third-liner.
Seeing as that’s what Leblanc currently projects as, at this point there’s little reason to send him down. It would in turn send the wrong message, just as cutting him after one game during training camp did, especially when he had one assist, two shots on goal and two hits against the Boston Bruins on Sept. 16.
It may be a bit of a letdown, admitting to one’s self that Leblanc will likely never turn out to be a top-six forward despite being a first-round pick, but that doesn’t necessarily make him a bust.
By now, everyone has heard the theory that Leblanc was selected where he was, 18th overall, because he’s from Montreal, and the Habs felt the need to appease the hometown crowd at the Bell Centre at the draft that year. However, it’s not as if every player selected after him has turned out to be a home run.
There may be just two in all actuality, in Washington Capital Marcus Johansson (24) and Ryan O’Reilly of the Colorado Avalanche (33). And it’s not as if Leblanc ever had the benefit of playing with Alexander Ovechkin like Johansson, nor is O’Reilly undisputedly worth his current $5 million cap hit—a hit the Habs wouldn’t be able to afford either.
Meanwhile, potential future stars like New York Ranger Chris Kreider (19), Anaheim Ducks Kyle Palmieri (26) and Jakob Silfverberg (39), Dallas Star Alex Chiasson (38), Ottawa Senator Robin Lehner (46), and Detroit Red Wing Tomas Tatar (60) are only now starting to get their chances in the NHL.
Each of those players is projected to have a higher ceiling than Leblanc, and yet none have established themselves in the NHL at this point. Give them time, though. Regarding Leblanc’s development specifically, it couldn’t have been said any better. Talk of him being a bust at this point is simply unfounded and premature.
When he was cut as early as he was during training camp, two theories stuck out as hypothetical explanations regarding the curious move. Either the Habs were going to cut him regardless of his preseason performance to send a message after last year (18 points in 62 games in the AHL), or he just didn’t figure into their plans anymore.
If it’s the former, perhaps the message has been received. After all, even with all the injuries the Habs have sustained this year, the team still could have called up Gabriel Dumont, but it opted for Leblanc instead after he scored two consecutive goals in overtime for Hamilton.
Conversely, if it’s more a case of the latter theory, Leblanc still represents an asset who’s proven himself capable of playing competently in the NHL. Burying him in the minors is not going to do anyone any good. At the very least, give him more of an opportunity to show off his skills so that the return the Habs get in a hypothetical trade down the road isn’t hilariously low.
While Pacioretty will likely take over Leblanc’s spot on that third line upon his return (no longer making it a a third line, in theory), Leblanc should not only stick with the Habs but stay in the lineup as well.
That isn’t just because fellow forwards Brandon Prust and Daniel Briere are still injured and the Habs need the healthy body. It’s because they are just better with him in the lineup than without. That in itself should be reason enough for him to stay for good.
That ultimately might mean demoting a guy with a one-way contract like Travis Moen or Davis Drewiske and paying a minor-leaguer like an NHLer to stay under the cap. That's better than paying a player who's proving himself to be a bona fide major-leaguer as an AHLer, though.