Western Mass. hasn’t seen an NHL Draft prospect like Ryan Leonard since all-star Bill Guerin

By KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer

Published: 06-27-2023 3:38 PM

Western Massachusetts hasn’t seen an NHL Draft prospect like Amherst’s Ryan Leonard in nearly four decades.

Stanley Cup champion Bill Guerin of Wilbraham was the fifth overall selection in 1989 by the New Jersey Devils after two years at Boston College. He made four All-Star teams and raised the cup with the Devils in 1995 and Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. Guerin also spent parts of two seasons with the Boston Bruins.

While Leonard likely won’t go higher than Guerin, he’s the best prospect to come from the area since then and will probably hear his name called in the first dozen picks of Wednesday’s 2023 NHL Entry Draft (7 p.m. ESPN).

“I think he’s the most ready NHL prospect of our group,” said Chad Kolarik, a U.S. National Team Development Program assistant coach. “He could play tomorrow in the NHL.”

Leonard, 18, has spent the past two seasons with the USNTDP playing in the USHL, the top junior ice hockey league sanctioned by USA Hockey, and representing the USA at international tournaments. He joined the program among 24 players after his sophomore year at Pope Francis in Springfield fresh off a USA Hockey High School National Championship.

“From his freshman year, honestly, I was hoping he’d have that opportunity. Knowing him and seeing him every day, I had a hard time believing there were many kids in the country in his age group better than him,” Pope Francis coach Brian Foley said. “I think he surprised people when he went there how good he was. I don’t know if the USA hockey brass at the time knew how good he was.”

As he had for most of his life, Leonard played up a level with the U-18 team even as a 17-year-old. He competed at the U18 World Championships in Germany and brought home a silver medal. That disappointment energized him for this season as an 18-year-old when he played on a line with two fellow Boston College commits and likely first round picks Will Smith and Gabe Perreault.

“When he was playing with Smitty and Gabe, he drove the line in terms of going to get the puck and being the kid that goes in the corners and goes to the net and is the unsung hero of the group,” said Kolarik, who played one season at Deerfield Academy. “He didn’t ask for any accolades. He’s the forgotten child, a little bit, out of the three. He’s the reason that line was able to succeed like they did. I’ve got all the faith in the world in Ryan Leonard.”

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Leonard tied Smith with 51 goals to rank second on the U18 team and amassed 94 points (third on the team) in 57 games. The last seven of those games were at the 2023 IIHF World Championships in Switzerland.

Team USA completed its revenge tour with a 7-0 record, outscoring its opponents 51-10. Leonard registered at least a point in each game and was the tournament's third-leading scorer behind Smith (20 points) and Perreault (18 points).

“His attributes are NHL-ready in terms of his detail and his willingness to battle on pucks and to go to the net. His willingness to go get the pucks for his more skilled linemates,” Kolarik said. “And that’s not taking anything against Ryan. He’s so hard nosed and so strong. His compete level, it just translates.”

Especially in the tournament’s most important moment. Team USA trailed Sweden, the team that beat them for gold in 2022, 2-0 in the third period but rallied to force overtime. Leonard crashed to the middle of the ice between two Swedish defenders and flicked a wrist shot into the back of the net to win the U.S. a gold medal for the first time since 2017.

“If you look through playoff history those are the guys who score those big time goals, the hard working guys. The guys that are willing to go to the net. Playoffs and championship tournaments are harder,” Kolarik said. “He wasn’t scared of getting hit or he wasn’t worried about it, and he put himself in the middle of the ice and scored. It’s a little bit of a lucky bounce, but you put yourself in that position over and over and over again, things will go your way.”

With the work he’s put in, Leonard likely won’t need a lucky bounce at the top of Wednesday’s draft. He’s projected to go anywhere from No. 5 to Montreal (by Sportsnet and The Hockey Writers) to No. 12 to Vancouver (The Athletic’s ‘Think Like A GM’ Mock Draft). Most prognosticators slot him at No. 7 to Philadelphia (NHL.com, the Athletic’s Corey Pronman, Bleacher Report and USA Today).

“He’s got a bright, bright hockey future. He’s had success everywhere he’s gone,” Foley said. “He’s got the work ethic and the skill. The sky’s the limit for him.”

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