Once all 31 NHL teams passed on him for the second straight draft, Brett Leason felt he needed a job. Almost anything would suffice, as long as it gave him somewhere to be and something to do. He didn’t want to sleep in, play video games, skate, and then repeat. He still envisioned a future in professional hockey — that wasn’t going to change because of a few snubs — but he had time to fill.
So Leason signed up to work eight-hour days as a landscaper in his hometown Calgary. He dreaded the alarm at 6 a.m. every weekday. While he was disappointed that he’d been passed up by the NHL, he pushed lawnmowers, trimmed lawns, painted and fixed potholes for $15 an hour.
Looking back at the experience, Leason chuckles. It wasn’t ideal for an NHL hopeful, who at 19 was already older than nearly every draft pick. But the job toughened him, and it reminded him of where his passion was all along.
“They were long days,” Leason said last month. “It wasn’t something I wanted to do. I realized hockey could be a great thing for the rest of my life, and it made me dig deeper for that.”
In June, he fulfilled his dream of being an NHL draft pick when the Washington Capitals selected him in the second round, No. 56 overall. For the first time since 2012, the Capitals drafted two forwards with their first two picks: Leason and Connor McMichael, their first-rounder. On Thursday the team signed him to a three-year entry level contract with an average annual value of $842,500.
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With a six-foot-four frame, Leason has a quick release, good skills without the puck and a quality IQ at right wing. He worked this summer with his fellow prospects during Washington’s development camp at MedStar Capitals Iceplex, and he projects to join the Hershey Bears, the Capitals’ AHL affiliate.
Leason is 20, no longer a teenager. That makes him different from most draft picks because his age could accelerate his timetable. Now signed, the Capitals will be able to monitor him directly and help him bulk up.
To Washington, the main concern with Leason remains his strength. He weighs a shade over 200 pounds. He’s on a weight program this summer and wants to return to camp later this year a few pounds stronger.
“He’s shown he can skate, and he has a good shot,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said. “We saw him this year and he really took off. The challenge for him will be to continue to get stronger off the ice.”
From the first time Mahoney heard of Leason, about three years ago, he noted a tall, lanky wing with room to grow. He mostly liked what he saw. The Capitals kept an eye on him while he played for the Prince Albert Raiders, a major junior hockey team in the Western Hockey League.
Then they pounced. In Leason, they saw raw ability and a second-round steal. And he will enter the Capitals’ system right away, even if he may get pushed around.
“He’s going to realize he was one of the bigger, stronger guys where he was at,” said Steve Richmond, the Capitals’ director of player development. “Now he’s nowhere near that.”
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By age 12, Leason quit football to focus on hockey. He played street hockey before hitting the local rinks in Calgary. He “was never a great skater,” his father, Darryl, said. His first stride wasn’t explosive and he didn’t gain speed in the open. His skating needed refinement.
Leason’s length may have held back his progress as a skater. His father is six-foot-four, his mother five-foot-11. He recalls always being taller than many of his peers.
“Once I stepped on the ice, at 4 or 5 years old, I loved the game right away,” Leason said. “I think my skill has always been there, but I wasn’t able to use it all with my skating the way it was.”
In 2016-17, his first full year in the WHL, Leason said he didn’t feel he got a fair chance. “It was tough to stay motivated, not getting the minutes you think you could,” he recalled. In those moments, he called his chief role model, Darryl, 45, who encouraged him to stick with the task, maintain patience, and see what he could become.
This mindset became helpful again last summer. After his landscaping shift, Leason developed his skating nearly every day. By improving there, he became a better prospect. What was holding him back pushed him forward: Last season, he scored 36 goals and racked up 89 points in 55 games. He led the league in scoring, then played for Canada at the world junior championship, where he had three goals and five points in five games — despite nursing a broken thumb.
By then, he had exploded onto the NHL draft radar. He says he also gained a clearer sense of himself, feeling more comfortable in his body. And in his skates.