VANCOUVER — Forgive Morgan Frost if he didn’t know who Brett Leason was prior to this hockey season.
Heck, many avid Western Hockey League followers weren’t even familiar with Leason before his big breakout. He wasn’t a household name by any means. And Frost, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers playing in the Ontario Hockey League, likely wouldn’t have heard of Leason from out east.
So, if told in September — just a few months ago — that they would be linemates for Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship, Frost almost certainly would have asked ‘who?’ And surely would have needed to look up Leason on HockeyDB, where Frost would have found an undrafted 19-year-old forward with only 24 goals and 54 points to show for his efforts through 146 career WHL games — counting 11 playoff appearances with just three assists in the postseason.
Leason did finish relatively strong last season following an Oct. 25, 2017 trade from Tri-City to Prince Albert — producing 15 goals and 32 points in 54 regular-season games for his new team, the Raiders. That prorates to 19 goals and 40 points over a full 68-game campaign.
Still, those aren’t the numbers of somebody you’d expect to be representing Canada on the international stage. Not when, by comparison, Frost finished as runner-up in the OHL scoring race last season with a whopping 112 points, including 42 goals.
Yet here we are, at the premier under-20 tournament showcasing an array of future NHL stars, with Leason flanking Frost and this year’s fifth overall pick Barrett Hayton to form Canada’s second line.
Frost knows all about Hayton since they have been playing together for the past 2 1/2 seasons — on the same junior team but rarely the same line with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
The two of them are still getting to know Leason, a revelation this season who ranked among the WHL leaders in both goals (28) and points (64) at the holiday break. Those totals through 31 games would prorate to 61 goals and 140 points in a full season.
Now that’s a stat-line and scoring pace worthy of cracking Team Canada.
“He’s definitely an offensive force,” Frost said of Leason following Wednesday’s 14-0 demolition of Denmark that saw their line combine for five goals and 10 points in the tournament opener. Frost netted a hat-trick and finished with five points (three goals, two assists) to earn player of the game for Canada, while Leason score twice and added two assists for a four-point debut.
“That was kind of our first full game together, with him, Hayton and I. Barrett and I kind of read off each other, and Brett’s a guy that can put the puck in the back of the net, so if we can find him in good areas, there’s a good chance it’s going to go in.”
Their line wasn’t as dominant in Thursday’s 3-2 victory over Switzerland, though Hayton was named Canada’s player of the game after assisting on defenceman Noah Dobson’s second-period goal that stood up as the winner. Frost and Leason were both held off the scoresheet in what amounted to an “off game” for Canada as a whole, getting by the Swiss thanks to some depth contributions.
“It was definitely stressful, they gave us a nice push at the end. It was close and tense the whole time,” Leason said after that nail-biter. “Definitely didn’t play as good as we did (against Denmark), definitely need to sharpen up on some stuff — special teams included.”
When Canada resumes round-robin play against the Czech Republic on Saturday (5 p.m. PT, TSN), that Frost-Hayton-Leason trio will be counted on to continue providing offence as a go-to line going forward and through the medal round next week.
“They’re great playmakers, great speed and great skill. I think I can bring a shot and goal-scoring to that line, and we can be successful,” Leason said. “I just got to find open ice and they’ll get me the puck and it’ll work out.”
Indeed, that plan worked splendidly against Denmark as they developed instant chemistry.
“I wasn’t expecting that much, just got some lucky bounces,” Leason said of his two goals — consecutive snipes that ran the score up to 11-0 and 12-0 in the third period.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 27, 2018
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) December 27, 2018
As you can see, Leason was more modest than lucky, but it’s true that nobody was expecting him to be in this position. In this spotlight.
It’s been a whirlwind year for Leason, who was getting a new lease on life in Prince Albert while watching Canada win gold in Buffalo at the 2018 tournament.
“I always watched (the World Juniors) growing up, always a big fan of it,” Leason said. “I never would have expected this to happen. . . . I had a big summer and came to Prince Albert camp ready to go (in September) and just took off from there.”
Leason was off the radar from the outset — both for Canada’s roster, having never been part of the Hockey Canada program, and for NHL scouts, having been twice passed over in 2017 and 2018 — but now the late-bloomer is rocketing up the draft rankings, projected by some as a first- or second-round pick for 2019 as a double-overager, and more than holding his own so far in this best-on-best setting.
Confidence is half the battle for athletes and Leason has always believed in his ability. He was playing further down the depth chart on a contending team in Tri-City, but the change of scenery to Prince Albert gave him a chance to shine with the retooling Raiders under coach Marc Habscheid.
This season, the Raiders are leading the entire Canadian Hockey League with a record of 32-2-0-1 following Thursday’s 4-3 overtime win against the Saskatoon Blades — without Leason and goaltender Ian Scott, who backstopped Canada over Switzerland but is expected to back up Michael DiPietro the rest of the way. Prince Albert was entrenched at No. 1 in the CHL’s top-10 rankings for much of the first half and is the current favourite to represent the WHL at the 2019 Memorial Cup in Halifax, N.S.
With Leason leading that charge, he gradually gained the attention of Team Canada head coach Tim Hunter and head scout Brad McEwen, who both have roots in the WHL with Hunter guiding the division rival Moose Jaw Warriors in his full-time job.
“Every time we play there (in Moose Jaw), you always got to give a bit extra just to show him what you can do,” Leason said of trying to play his way into the roster mix for Canada after not getting invited to the WJC Summer Showcase.
That mini-tournament took place in Kamloops over the August long weekend — back when Leason was an unknown commodity to most — but Hunter, McEwen and others took notice of his hot start and named Leason to Team WHL for the annual Canada-Russia Series in November as an audition for selection camp.
“When the Canada-Russia Series kicked off, I realized I had a chance and that I could push for a spot,” said Leason, who assisted on the winning goal in the first of those two games. “I gave it my best there and made the most of it to get here.”
Leason overcame long odds to turn his World Junior dream into a reality, also overcoming a hand injury during selection camp to make an immediate impact against Denmark on Boxing Day.
“It’s been an awesome experience so far,” said the Calgary product, “and hopefully we can keep it going and keep getting better and better as we go.”
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.