After all 31 NHL teams passed on him for the second straight draft, Brett Leason felt he needed a job last summer. Almost anything would suffice as long as it gave him somewhere to be and something to do. He didn’t want to sleep in, play video games, skate and then repeat. He still envisioned a future in professional hockey — that wasn’t going to change because of a few snubs — but he had time to fill.
So Leason signed up to work eight-hour days as a landscaper in his hometown of Calgary. He dreaded the alarm at 6 a.m. every weekday. While disappointed that he had been passed over, he pushed lawn mowers, trimmed lawns, painted and fixed potholes for $15 an hour.
Looking back at the experience, Leason chuckled. It wasn’t ideal for an NHL hopeful who at 19 already was older than nearly every draft pick. But the job toughened him, and it reminded him of where his passion was all along.
“They were long days,” he said. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I realized hockey could be a great thing for the rest of my life, and it made me dig deeper for that.”
In June, he fulfilled his dream of being an NHL draft pick when the Washington Capitals selected him in the second round, 56th overall. For the first time since 2012, the Capitals drafted forwards with their first two picks: Connor McMichael, their first-rounder, and Leason. On Thursday the team signed Leason to a three-year, entry-level contract.
With a 6-foot-4 frame, Leason has a quick release, good skills without the puck and a quality IQ at right wing. He worked this summer with his fellow prospects during development camp at the Capitals’ training complex, and he projects to join the Hershey Bears, the team’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Leason is 20, no longer a teenager. That makes him different from most draft picks, and his age could accelerate his timetable. Now signed, the Capitals will be able to monitor him directly and help him bulk up.
For Washington, the main concern with Leason remains his strength. He weighs a shade over 200 pounds. He’s on a weight program this summer and wants to come to training camp stronger and a few pounds heavier.
“He’s shown he can skate, and he has a good shot,” Assistant General Manager Ross Mahoney said. “We saw him this year, and he really took off. The challenge for him will be to continue to get stronger off the ice.”
From the first time Mahoney heard of Leason, about three years ago, he saw a tall, lanky wing with room to grow. He mostly liked what he saw. The Capitals kept an eye on him while he played most of the past two seasons for the Prince Albert Raiders, a major junior team in the Western Hockey League.
Last month, they pounced. In Leason, they saw raw ability and a second-round steal. And he will enter the Capitals’ system right away, even if he may get pushed around.
“He’s going to realize he was one of the bigger, stronger guys where he was at," said Steve Richmond, the Capitals’ director of player development. “Now he’s nowhere near that.”
By age 12, Leason quit football to focus on hockey. He played street hockey before hitting the local rinks in Calgary. He “was never a great skater,” said his father, Darryl. His first stride wasn’t explosive, and he didn’t gain speed in open ice. His skating needed refinement.
Leason’s height may have held back his progress as a skater. His father is 6-4, his mother 5-11. He recalled always being taller than many of his peers.
“Once I stepped on the ice, at 4 or 5 years old, I loved the game right away," Leason said. “I think my skill has always been there, but I wasn’t able to use it all with my skating the way it was.”
In 2016-17, his first full year in the WHL, Leason said he didn’t feel he got a fair chance. “It was tough to stay motivated, not getting the minutes you think you could,” he recalled. In those moments, he called his chief role model: Darryl encouraged him to stick with the task, stay patient and see what he could become.
That mind-set became helpful again last summer. After his landscaping shift, Leason developed his skating nearly every day. By improving there, he became a better prospect. What was holding him back pushed him forward: Last season, he scored 36 goals and racked up 89 points in 55 games. He led Prince Albert in scoring and played for Canada at the world junior championship, where he had three goals and two assists in five games — despite nursing a broken thumb.
By then, he had popped up on the NHL draft radar. He said he also had gained a clearer sense of himself, feeling more comfortable in his body — and in his skates.
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