Linemate Protas also expected to be selected in Vancouver this weekend
From being passed over twice to being a potential first round pick at the 2019 National Hockey League Draft in Vancouver on Friday, it’s been a wild ride for Prince Albert Raiders forward Brett Leason.
His whirlwind campaign, which included the chance to play for Canada at the World Juniors, was one that the 20-year-old hadn’t had a chance to reflect on until recently when he returned home to Calgary.
“It was easily the best season of my life and something I won’t forget, especially with everything that I was able to accomplish and that our team was able to accomplish,” Leason said.
“When we arrived in Prince Albert for the first day of training camp, our goal was to be WHL champions. We made some incredible memories and I’m going to be talking with my teammates about for the rest of my life.”
After starting the season with an incredible 30-game point streak, Leason led the Raiders in scoring with 89 points in 55 games during the regular season.
He also represented Canada at the World Juniors in Vancouver, where he had five points in five games.
“Brett wasn’t really on the radar when the season started and then he became the talk of the hockey world after just a few months,” Raiders head coach Marc Habscheid said.
“It was a bit of an adjustment for him to have all of that extra exposure, which also meant that you started to get more attention from the other teams, but I thought he did a great job of getting used to it.”
Leason would again lead the Raiders in scoring through the playoffs with 25 points in 22 games, which was one marker back of post-season scoring leader Bowen Byram of the Vancouver Giants.
Although he was held off of the stat sheet at the Memorial Cup, the trip to Halifax was another big learning experience for Leason.
“Obviously it was a tough result for us to miss out on the playoffs there, but we all battled as hard as we could,” Leason said.
“It’s a great competition as you play against the best teams from the Canadian Hockey League. You have to be ready to play as soon as you get there.”
After coming back to Prince Albert for the Raiders’ championship celebration, Leason then headed to NHL Scouting Combine, which took place in Buffalo from May 27-June 1.
“The first few days were a little long as there were a lot of interviews, but it was a still pretty fun week as I got to meet a lot of the other top prospects,” Leason said. “I don’t think any of us were looking forward to the fitness testing, but it was still a great experience.
“After the first interview, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Obviously, each team has a different number of guys in the room, but they all ask pretty similar questions as they try to get to know you both and off the ice.”
Ranked 25th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting, Leason is expected to have his name called either late in the first round Friday evening or in the early stages of the second round Saturday morning.
“I’m obviously pretty anxious for Friday and there are a few nerves as well,” Leason said. “I’m looking forward to it though and for whatever happens out there.”
Leason’s linemate Aliaksei Protas is also expected to have his name called in Vancouver as he was ranked 44th by NHL Central Scouting and is projected to be picked in the late stages of the third round.
“He has great vision and he’s a really smart player out there,” Leason said. “I think he showed that in the playoffs as he got better with the faster pace and the higher level of play.”
The 18-year-old forward from Vitebsk, Belarus had 40 points in 61 regular season games in his first season in North America and also had five points in five games for his country at the Division I World Juniors in Fussen, Germany.
He saved his best performances for the post-season as he posted 22 points in 23 games and became the first WHL player to record hat tricks in back-to-back playoff games since 1996 during Games 5 and 6 of the Eastern Conference final against the Edmonton Oil Kings.
All of that success came in the middle of a growth spurt for Protas, who was at 6’3” when selected by the Raiders in the 2018 CHL Import Draft and grew two inches over the course of the campaign.
“It (the growth spurt) was something that (assistant coach) Jeff (Truitt) realized shortly after Christmas,” Habscheid said. “We measured him and it turned out that he had grown at least an inch since the start of the year.
“When that happens, you have to find your feet and your coordination again as a big man, which he was able to do and that allowed him to have a strong finish to the season.”
Like Leason, Protas was also held off the score sheet at the Memorial Cup.
While both players should help the Raiders extend their streak of having a player chosen at the NHL Draft to nine straight years, there’s also a chance that other members of the roster could be selected in the later rounds or be invited to development camps following the weekend.
“That’s what winning does,” Habscheid said. “Teams want to have winners in their organization and I think you’ll see some of our guys be rewarded for that.”
Goaltender Boston Bilous and blueliners Zack Hayes, Max Martin, Jeremy Masella, Brayden Pachal, Sergei Sapego and Loeden Schaufler are all eligible to be selected this weekend, along with forwards Spencer Moe, Justin Nachbaur and Eric Pearce.
Humboldt Broncos defenceman Chase Felgueiras and Okotoks Oilers forward Quinn Olson, who are both former draft picks by the Raiders, have also been ranked by NHL Central Scouting ahead of the draft.
Former Prince Albert Mintos forward Logan Barlage, who is coming off his second season in the WHL with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, is also projected to be a potential late round pick.
Friday’s opening round is expected to be a banner one for the WHL as Byram, Saskatoon Blades forward Kirby Dach, Hurricanes forward Dylan Cozens and Winnipeg Ice forward Peyton Krebs could all be drafted in the top 10.
In addition to Leason, Edmonton Oil Kings defenceman Matthew Robertson, Kelowna Rockets blueliner Lassi Thomson and Moose Jaw Warriors forward Brayden Tracey are also potential first round picks.
Forwards Jack Hughes of the US NTDP and Kaapo Kakko of TPS in Finland are the consensus top two prospects and are widely expected to be selected by the New Jersey Devils and the New York Rangers.
Byram is projected to be the first blueliner off of the board, while Spencer Knight of the US NTDP could become the first goaltender to be taken in the first round since 2017.
The opening round will get underway at 5:30 p.m. Friday and will air nationally on Sportsnet.