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Louis Leblanc’s time as a member of the Montreal Canadiens has been nothing
short of a roller coaster ride.  After being the Habs’ top pick at the 2009
draft (18th overall), which took place at the Bell Centre, he was widely touted as a core piece
of the future.  However, after a rough 2012-13 campaign, many are beginning
to write him off.  Although that may be premature, the Pointe-Claire native
has a lot to prove heading into the 2013-14 season.

Leblanc has been somewhat of a hockey nomad over the past half-decade,
playing for no fewer than five different teams in five different leagues over
that span.  Up until last year, there’s a case to be made that he met
expectations each step of the way, including a stint with the Habs for half of
the 2011-12 campaign.  Unfortunately, it went downhill last season as
2012-13 was nothing short of a nightmare.

Shortly after being assigned to the Hamilton Bulldogs prior to the lockout,
Leblanc suffered a high ankle sprain.  It took him a month before he could
return to the lineup but the effects of the injury continued throughout the
season.  As a result, he struggled upon his return (four points in 26
games) and found himself demoted on the depth chart, often behind career minor
leaguers or players on tryout contracts.  Leblanc’s defensive game also
took a step backwards, a far from ideal scenario for a player whose ideal role
is as a two-way winger.

The upcoming season is Leblanc’s final year on his entry-level contract. 
As a result, it’s also the final year of him being waiver exempt so it’s safe to
say that he is facing a make-or-break situation.  If he plays well, he
could find himself penciled into a roster spot with the big club (or at least be
part of the battle for one) but if he struggles, he could find himself out of
the organization to make way for several promising wingers who will become
eligible to play in the AHL in 2014-15.  What needs to happen for Leblanc
to get back on track?  Here are three key areas for improvement.

Bulk up: Although he’s not particularly small at 6’0, Leblanc has
always been slight of frame.  He hasn’t really bulked up since his days in
the USHL.  He could get away with that at the junior level but that’s not
the case in the pros.  As a result, he often was easily knocked off the
puck along the boards while it also negatively affected his defensive play. 
Leblanc is listed at 178 lbs (that’s from last training camp); his ideal playing
weight is probably around 195 lbs but getting up into the 190 range would be
enough of an improvement to help him for 2013-14.

Re-discover his offensive touch: In his first stint with Hamilton,
Leblanc had 11 goals and 11 assists in just 31 games.  Last year, despite
playing in twice as many contests, he had four fewer points.  Some of that
is attributable to playing in a third/fourth line role but he did see
considerable top-six time as well and did little with it.  In order for him
to keep the ‘two-way player’ label, not only will he have to improve on his
2011-12 numbers but quite likely will need to at least double them; 20-30 point
two-way forwards in the minors don’t often find success at the NHL level.

Maturity: When you’re a third year AHL’er, you normally become one of
the longer-tenured players on the team.  On what looks to be yet another
excessively young Hamilton squad, there’s a chance that Leblanc may be the
longest-tenured player, depending on what happens with Gabriel Dumont. 
Needless to say, he’s going to be counted on to shoulder the load in a top-six
role and quite possibly wear a letter.  Marc Bergevin has made it
abundantly clear that the organization highly values character.  This is a
terrific chance for Leblanc to step up in this area and send the Habs’ brass a
positive message.

Up until now, Leblanc has been considered an important part of the future for
the Habs.  In fact, in the four years since he was drafted, he has ranked
no lower than fourth on our annual prospect rankings and slotted in the #1 spot
in 2011.  Given his struggles, it’s quite likely that he doesn’t go that
high in the 2013 edition (which will begin in September) but it’s still too
early to stick him with the ‘bust’ label either.  One thing is for sure
though, he’ll head to training camp in September firmly on the hot seat with a
chip on his shoulder, determined to make his 2012-13 struggles a thing of the
past.  If he can rebound as he is capable of doing, he can still be a
quality piece for the Canadiens for years to come.