THE CANADIAN PRESS
Louis Leblanc isn’t in the eye of the storm yet, but he can feel the strong winds.
The 19-year-old from Montreal has committed to play for his hometown Juniors in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League this season. After two years at Harvard University, the talented forward has come home to play hockey.
Leblanc is the first francophone drafted in the first round by the Montreal Canadiens since Eric Chouinard in 1998, which makes him of particular interest in a city obsessed with all things Habs.
"There’s always pressure everywhere you play and especially Montreal, being the Canadiens and being a first-rounder, obviously there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of expectations," Leblanc said. "I’ve got to stay grounded, work hard and do what I do best."
The 2010-11 QMJHL season opens Thursday with the defending league champion Moncton Wildcats hosting the Acadie-Bathurst Titan.
The Ontario Hockey League season commences Sept. 23 followed by the Western Hockey League on Sept. 24. The three league champions will play in the 2011 MasterCard Memorial Cup next May with the host Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors.
There’s a buzz around the Juniors, who start their season Friday hosting Shawinigan at Verdun Auditorium. Leblanc, drafted No. 18 by the Habs in 2009 and signed to an entry-level contract this summer, is the main focus of the attention.
He’ll be in the Juniors lineup Friday and also Sunday against Gatineau before heading to the Canadiens rookie camp. The Juniors have a roster that can contend for a title in its third season in Montreal.
"With the trades that have been made and the improvement of the players over the first two years, our development has been a little bit faster than we thought," head coach and general manager Pascal Vincent said. "The addition of Louis Leblanc this summer makes us a contender for our league this year."
The franchise moved from St. John’s, N.L., three years ago. The Juniors finished just above .500 and lost in the first round of playoffs each of their first two years in Montreal.
Sensing his team was headed for bigger things this season, Vincent dealt his first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 at the QMJHL draft in June to acquire Nashville prospect Charles Oliver Roussel from Shawinigan and another Habs property, Philippe Lefebvre, from Drummondville.
Vincent gambled a third-round pick in 2011 on getting Leblanc’s rights from Chicoutimi, not knowing then if Leblanc would report.
But if any QMJHL team had a chance to land Leblanc, it was the Juniors. The proximity to home and the Habs, plus the team’s bright prospects this season, were irresistible to Leblanc.
"Obviously you like to play in front of your family," Leblanc said. "I’m going to be living at home this year.
"It was the overall package. I’m going to be playing a lot more games and right near the Habs."
There is a chance Leblanc could make the Canadiens’ roster, although Vincent believes the NHL club wants to develop its marquee prospect slowly. After playing 33 games for the Harvard Crimson last season, Leblanc faces a 68-game schedule, plus playoffs, this season.
"I spoke with some members of the Montreal Canadiens organization and it seems like the general perception is he’s going to go there, maybe play some exhibition games and then send him to junior," Vincent said.
"I think they feel he has to play and play at a level where he’s competing against kids of his own age and be a go-to type of guy."
The six-foot, 181-pounder is a speedy, high-energy player who has been compared to Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards. Leblanc was a standout at the Canadian junior team’s summer development camp in St. John’s.
The Juniors have sold out five of their first 10 home games. Requests for public appearances and media interviews are pouring in for Leblanc.
"He’s going to get a lot of coverage, probably more than some players playing for the Habs, but we’re ready for it," Vincent said.
"A lot of people are saying ‘That’s a lot of pressure for a kid’ and it’s true it is a lot of pressure for a kid. If there’s one kid that can handle it, it’s Louis."
Leblanc, Roussel, Lefebvre, Detroit Red Wings draft pick Louis-Marc Aubry and goaltender Jean-Francois Berube, who is a Los Angeles Kings prospect, are the key cogs in the Juniors’ wheel this season.
Berube is an interesting story himself. He paid $50 to attend an open Juniors skate two seasons ago and made the club as a walk-on. Berube was drafted by the Kings in 2009 and also invited to the national junior team’s camp this summer.
The QMJHL has altered its look for the 2010-11 season by dividing the 18 teams into three six-team divisions.
Acadie-Bathurst, Cape Breton, Halifax, Moncton, P.E.I. and Saint John are in the Maritimes Division. Drummondville, Gatineau, Montreal, Rouyn-Noranda, Shawinigan and Val-D’Or make up the West, while Baie-Comeau, Chicoutimi, Lewiston, Quebec, Rimouski and Victoriaville comprise the East.
The top team in each of the three divisions are seeded first to third according to their points. The remaining 13 playoff teams are then ranked fourth to 16th according to their point totals. The top-ranked team will play No. 16 and the runner-up faces No. 15 and so on.
Among other off-season changes, Lewiston businessman Paul Spellman purchased a minority ownership in the Maineiacs and former NHL defenceman Steve Finn has joined the club as an assistant coach.
Finn played for the Quebec Nordiques the final season (1994-95) before the team moved to Colorado. Also, Lewiston acquired highly regarded goaltender Olivier Roy from Cape Breton. Roy is another goaltending prospect for Canada’s junior team.
The Wildcats and City of Moncton have agreed the hockey team will continue playing out of the Coliseum for the next three years, with the understanding the city will build a new arena in the next 15 years.
Benoit Groulx has returned to the Gatineau Olympiques after two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans. Groulx coached the Olympiques to league championships in 2003, 2004 and 2008.
The City of Victoriaville plans to sink $1.5 million in renovations into the Gilbert Perreault Arena, which is the home of the Tigres. Victoriaville is scheduled to hold the 2011 QMJHL draft.