If you follow our Twitter account and have a working knowledge of the French language, then you know that for days, the buzz in Montreal has been all about what will happen this summer with Montreal Canadiens prospect and Harvard forward Louis Leblanc. Rumors began swirling around in Quebec that Leblanc was soon to depart for a pro contract in the AHL or would head north of the border to play in Major Juniors. None of the signs were looking good for the Crimson, but Leblanc had continued to state that while he was looking at other options, he was expecting to be in Cambridge in the fall. But, a major trade today in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, featuring the rights for the Crimson's leading scorer last year, means the Magic 8 ball has switched from "Ask Again Later" to "Outlook Not So Good" when asked if the talented center will be in a Crimson uniform next year. Below, we'll take you through the week of news and analyze today's trade, and give a look at what losing Leblanc means for the Cantabs.
Pre-History of the Deal
The first sign that Harvard and Leblanc might be parting ways happened on May 28th, as it was reported by the media that Leblanc had split from his long-time "family adviser" Phillip Lecavalier, the older brother of Tampa Bay's Vincent, and it was reported that his new adviser was Pat Brisson, who is the agent for NHL star Sydney Crosby. NESN's Jimmy Murphy speculated that this was to precede a move to the Hamilton Bulldogs, Montreal's AHL affiliate.
Cyber Presse in Canada then reported that Leblanc was also getting advice from Richard Martel, the General Manager of the Chicoutimi Sagueneens of the QMJHL, the team that had drafted Leblanc in the Q's Entry Draft and held his rights. Martel said he initiated the conversation with Leblanc and that the young forward had not made a decision yet. After we posted this story on Twitter, we were informed that Leblanc and his family had toured the city of Chicoutimi and had a 90 minute "cordial" dinner with Mr. Martel in the near future. Still, Mr. Martel admitted no decision had been made, saying of Leblanc, "Il n'a pas pris de décision encore."
The next rash of articles started to look better for the Crimson, as the Montreal press began to build on the theme that he had not made a decision yet. The Montreal Gazette wrote an article entitled "Canadiens Prospect Leblanc Not Ready to Close the Book on School." Leblanc said he was mostly focusing on his Canadiens prospect camp and playing the best hockey, but on the topic of Harvard, Leblanc did say, "As of now, I’m signed to go to Harvard and that’s what I’m getting ready for and I’m excited," adding, "Harvard’s the better fit right now. I get to do my schooling at the best university in the world. My coach (Ted Donato, Harvard Class of 1991) played 13 years in the NHL and I think it’s the best combination." An article appearing on the Canadiens website included a feature on Leblanc, "Getting Schooled," where Leblanc was described as planning on attending Harvard in the fall, but keeping his options open. Leblanc was quoted as saying, "I want to be a hockey player and I have to develop to get there. I'm planning to take the best road to play for the Canadiens one day. You just need to look at a guy like Dominic Moore who did his four years at Harvard and was an important player for the Canadiens this year." This was likely a translation from an interview posted on Radio-Canada.ca in French, where he added, " Je peux retourner à Harvard, je peux choisir la LHJMQ et Chicoutimi ou je peux opter pour la Ligue américaine. Les trois chemins peuvent te mener à la LNH." (That there are three options for him, to return to Harvard, to choose the Q and Chicoutimi, or to head to the AHL, all options that could lead him to the NHL). He later added "Pour l'instant, je suis inscrit à l'Université Harvard et je me dirige vers cette option pour le mois de septembre. Mais il reste encore du temps et on verra ce qui peut arriver." (That for the moment, he was still enrolled at Harvard and that he planned on attending in September, but that there was still time to change his mind.)
The Gazette article, though, would also provide the seeds of doubt, particularly in light of today's trade. Leblanc was asked about a situation in which his QMJHL rights would be traded from Chicoutimi to the Montreal Juniors, so that he could play in the Q and attend McGill University, a school with a strong reputation that leads to some of their students to refer to Harvard as "America's McGill." Leblanc was non-committal, saying he would think over any changes, but he did admit more generally, when discussing Harvard, that "if I find something better, then I’ll do it."
This trade, of course, is exactly what occurred today at the end of the Q's 2010 Entry Draft, as Chicoutimi sent the rights to Leblanc as well as a third round pick in 2011 to the Montreal Juniors, who gave up Guillaume Asselin and a first round pick in 2011. Asselin, an 18 year old Quebec native, was a number one draft pick for Montreal, eighth overall in the 2008 QMJHL Entry Draft, and has played two seasons for the club. In his first year, he played in 63 games, tallying 18 goals and 19 assists, 37 PIM, and a +6 rating, with 5 of his goals coming on the power play and 6 GWGs. This past season, he put up 19 goals and 23 assists, 37 PIM, a -9 rating, with 5 PPG and 1 GWG. He's also played 17 playoff games in the two seasons, with career totals on 5 goals and 8 assists, 8 PIM and a -4 rating, plus 3 PPGs. Montreal's GM, Pascal Vincent, told William Palov of the Halifax Chronicle Herald that Chicoutimi only wanted Asselin and that he didn't want to trade him- between the stats, this info, and fan scuttlebut on Twitter, it is clear Montreal gave up a franchise player for the rights to Leblanc. Or, as Corey Krakower, a Habs blogger put it, "If he [Leblanc] plays it's a steal, if not they got killed."
When rumors of this trade first popped up a couple of days ago, I was skeptical. After all, as noted above, Leblanc had been talking with the GM of Chicoutimi, and the intention was clear- Martel wanted Leblanc on the Sags, and it seemed odd that he would be willing to risk facing Leblanc next season. To me, it seemed as if it would be better for the Sags to leave Leblanc in Cambridge, rather than trade him so that he could play in the Q and go to McGill- after all, it's not the responsibility of Chicoutimi to help develop a player for the Habs.
Still, the Montreal Juniors were not likely to give up a first round pick and Asselin unless they thought the odds were high that they wouldn't just be getting a third round pick in return. Re-evaluating the situation, the most plausible to me is that in his "cordial" discussions with Mr. Martel, Leblanc told the GM that he might be willing to come to the Q if he could also attend McGill, but that he'd rather go to Harvard then play for Chicoutimi and not go to school. As a result, Chicoutimi, knowing they would never get Leblanc, traded for a player that is talented and already in the Q, plus a high quality pick next year. As a result, the best case for them is still for Leblanc to return to Cambridge, meaning Montreal got fleeced, and at the worst, they made a balanced trade, getting two first round talents for the price of one and a third rounder.
Harvard fans could probably care less about the fortunes of Chicoutimi or the Montreal Juniors, but the reason for this discussion is to show that Montreal would not have pulled the trigger on this deal if they thought it was a high risk gamble. They have to be confident that Leblanc will leave the ECAC for the QMJHL, and Mr. Martel of Chicoutimi must be reasonably confident Leblanc will too, to demand such a high price in exchange for his rights. Otherwise the trade would likely have seen less talented chips involved in the exchange, players or picks Montreal could have gambled losing without getting hurt. Thus, it's my opinion that this trade signals Leblanc is likely to be the opposite of Douglas MacArthur and that he shall not return, at least not to the Harvard Crimson roster. At this point, the best hope for the Crimson fans would be if Mr. Martel could sell ice to the Eskimos, and that despite having talked to Leblanc and knowing Louis was returning to campus in the fall, managed to convince his counterpart in Montreal that Leblanc would sign with them and got a large reward for the con.
As for Mr. Martel's counterpart, Mr. Vincent told William Pavlov that he has not talked to Leblanc before today because of league tampering rules, though he will be able to discuss Leblanc's future with the young man now. He did say though that, "No idea if he will come but we have a good team, it's his home town and he could go to McGill."
Regarding Harvard, this is about the worst summer news the team could have gotten. While Crimson fans certainly were not expecting that he'd necessarily be in Cambridge for four years, they were certainly hoping he'd last past his freshman year. So what does this mean for the Johnnies?
Well, the first thing that immediately springs to mind is roster issues- the Crimson were only supposed to lose one forward, senior pivot Doug Rodgers, their 1b centerman (with Leblanc as 1a) and the team's best faceoff man. If Leblanc leaves, the Crimson will have either P.O. Michaud or Conor Morrison as their top line center. Michaud would likely fit better with the remains of the West Island Connection, but was plagued by injuries last season, playing only 22 games and registering only 5 points. This leaves Colin Moore as their checking line shut-down center, in the mode of a John Madden (Chicago Blackhawks), but Moore also missed time after an injury, playing in only 17 games. Lastly, their fourth line center would then be David Valek, who saw limited time in his rookie season, earning a -14 rating in 28 games. The Crimson then would have no center depth with two centers who missed 27 games due to injury- with no incoming forwards in this year's recruiting class, the Crimson would be forced to switch a winger to the middle to cover for defense. Their are a few candidates for this but the Crimson struggled in the face-off dot all last year, and having to play with non-natural centers is not going to help that improve next season.
The second problem for the Crimson is goal scoring, or lack their of. The Crimson were 47th out of 58 teams in scoring offense, scoring only 2.48 goals per game, the worst out of every ECAC team, including last year's ECAC basement dweller Clarkson (2.49 GPG). Harvard was also 52nd in the country in scoring margin, finishing just ahead of the Golden Knights. They had a 17.2 PP% efficiency rating, making them 39th in the country, again just ahead of Clarkson. They now may have to replace their top scorer and the center of their first power play, depending on Leblanc's decision. Leblanc had 11 goals and 12 assists in 31 games for the Crimson, netting 3 of the team's 23 PP goals this season. With the 5 Crimson skaters set to graduate, Rogers, A. Biega, Morin, Christian, and Tallett, the Crimson were losing 14.6% of their goal scoring and 16.3% of their overall point scoring. Adding in Leblanc, those numbers jump to 28.0% of goal scoring and 27.0% of point scoring that the Crimson will need to replace, and they'll need to replace it with no incoming forwards. The current players were going to need to improve on an anemic offense to begin with- losing Leblanc just makes it all the more difficult.
Past just next year, though, Leblanc's leaving would hurt the program for the future as well. Firstly, this would mark the second straight year that a Harvard player has defected for Major Juniors in the summer, as G Matt Hoyle left for Guelph of the OHL last summer after his rookie year. For Harvard fans and alumni used to the four year players, this is a trend that they will not like to see continue. (Incidentally, Hoyle's move to the OHL was also preceded by a trade for his rights, although Guelph certainly knew that Hoyle would sign with them, as his father owns the team.) More importantly would be the perception that Harvard and the NHL don't mix for top prospects- Leblanc came to the Crimson because he saw alums like Dom Moore and Craig Adams succeed in the NHL and because Coach Ted Donato, had combined Harvard and the NHL as well. But future players might shy away from the Crimson if they are near as talented as Leblanc, seeing his apparent buyer's remorse after the first season. While this may seem off base to some readers, the West Island Gazette article about a fellow Lac St.-Louis Lions player (where Leblanc also played), defenseman Michael Matheson, who announced he wanted to pursue an NCAA career, noted "he hopes to pursue his hockey career and university education at a U.S. college. It's the same route taken by former Lions sniper Louis Leblanc, who played two years with the Triple-A Lions before using the USHL as a springboard to an Ivy League education at esteemed Harvard University. Ironically, after one season at Harvard, there is speculation Leblanc, a first-round pick of the Canadiens at last summer's NHL entry draft, might jump to the Q to play for Chicoutimi."
At the end of the day, what reason could Leblanc have for considering leaving the Crimson, despite his comments to the Montreal media about the strength of the program, his enjoyment playing in Cambridge, etc.? Some might point to last year's poor record for Harvard, that perhaps Montreal did not like how Leblanc had progressed on a weak team in what many Canadians (and Canadiens, I suppose) regard as a weak league (the NCAA in general). But an article today in The Montreal Gazette had questions for Habs GM Pierre Gauthier. Gauthier suggested Leblanc's development would not be affected by playing for Harvard, saying, "The policy of the organization is that it's their choice. Sometimes, they don't ask for advice and sometimes they do, and we share our opinion, but either way it works. We try to counsel them, based on their questions, (but) they're young and they're not ready to play. They're going to progress either way." (Gauthier also added in general about Leblanc: "He's a hard-working person, naturally, so you know he's going to progress." "When you look at character and competitiveness in a prospect, (you see) a guy like Mr. Leblanc and people who work hard get better."
If there's no pressure from the Habs, then what has Leblanc thinking that the Q is better than the Crimson? TSN's Bob McKenzie (father of recent St. Lawrence Saints grad Mike McKenzie, and thus someone who knows the ECAC) suggests that Leblanc missed this past year's World Junior Championship because he did not yet have enough games with the Crimson, due to the late start of the Ivy League (by rule, Ivy League teams play only one exhibition, in late October, and then start the season around Halloween weekend. The Crimson started at Dartmouth on October 30th.) compared with other leagues, both the CHL and within the NCAA. Thus, McKenzie feels Leblanc may be leaving so as not to be left off Canada's roster for the 2011 version of the tournament in Buffalo. He furthered stated that he imagined that now that his rights had been traded, Leblanc would leave, and that had his rights not been traded, he would not have been surprised had Leblanc gone to Hamilton. Mr. McKenzie did not respond to our tweet asking if he thought Leblanc was AHL ready.
Still, if there's any hope for Crimson fans (besides hoping for Bill Simmons' "Ewing Theory" to both be true and apply in this case), it's this tweet from Mr. McKenzie: "All that said, I am told LeBlanc has made no decisions on his future at this point."
Earlier this week, recent WHRB Sports broadcaster and graduate Tom Brennan spoke with sources close to the team, but this was the first they had heard of this situation so they did not have any insight into Mr. Leblanc's decisions. Mr. Leblanc did not respond to a text message sent to him by Mr. Brennan at the same time.
This is a breaking news story. Check back on the blog for further developments or check Twitter.com/whrbsports. Also join me tomorrow (6/6) on Team 990 in Montreal (listen live here) at 8am with Amanda Stein where we'll be discussing this story on The Franchise.