TORONTO — Brett Leason is no stranger to adversity.
Much of his time in major junior was defined by it, highlighted by the fact he went unselected in two NHL drafts before his name was called by the Washington Capitals in the second round (56th overall) last June.
And that’s why he’s seemingly unfazed by the slow start to his professional career.
“It was definitely a motivating piece of my life, getting passed over, realizing my dream could be coming to an end all of a sudden,” Leason said.
“So I think that pushed me and motivated me to have the summer I did and the season that I did, never giving up and even now, continuing to push it and try to be the best I can be.”
The 20-year-old power forward from Calgary has a single assist with 10 shots in eight games for the Capitals’ AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, and admits he’s had trouble finding time and space.
“Everyone’s good, everyone’s quick, so that’s something I’m still trying to figure out,” he said.
“I’m working on my release, trying to get that off quick, trying to solve small things, just trying to play smarter and quicker. But so far it’s been good, been getting chances, but the puck’s not bouncing my way right now.”
Leason didn’t get off to a flying start in junior either.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pound right winger struggled to find his place on a deep Tri-City Americans squad, recording just 18 points in 68 games during 2016-17, before requesting a trade and being sent to the Prince Albert Raiders the following fall.
Leason collected just a combined 33 points with the Americans and Raiders in 2017-18, but exploded for 36 goals and 53 assists in 55 games last year.
He racked up an additional 25 points in 22 post-season games to help Prince Albert capture its first Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL playoff champions in 34 years.
It culminated in a moment that he worked hard toward — and, understandably, doubted might ever happen — getting drafted into the NHL.
“It meant a lot, obviously,” Leason recalled.
“As a kid, you grow up dreaming about that moment your whole life and when I had those two years where I was passed over, I didn’t know if it would become a reality, but it did and it was an exciting moment for everybody who was involved in supporting me along the way.”
Leason will have to keep up that same level of commitment if he wants to make it to the NHL.
He got to peer into his possible future, should he attain his potential, lining up next to superstars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom with the big club during the pre-season.
“Playing alongside Ovie and Backstrom — just one of the best in the game in Ovie, one of the best goal scorers, Backstrom, of the best playmakers in the league for a long time — so I think it was just that moment that kind of shocked me, like ‘Wow, I’m here,'” Leason reflected.
“It was exciting and thrilling.”
But Leason has played just a handful of pro games and has a long road ahead of him.
Before Leason was sent down to the AHL, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan told Leason that he’d spend the year in Hershey and that he needs to work on being quicker and making smarter decisions along the wall, among other things. He’d then come back with a year of pro experience under his belt and be better equipped to have a strong crack at making the Capitals next season.
And that’s exactly how the Bears are treating his development: with an eye on the future.
Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said he’s not concerned about Leason’s lack of production so far, but rather is focused on helping him create opportunities to set him up long term.
“He just has to get comfortable with the speed, the heaviness, being able to use his body and his reach, because he has great hands, he can finish, he’s really strong on his stick, which is another really good quality for a power forward like himself for finding pucks and pulling pucks out of tight areas,” he said.
“So he’ll just get more and more comfortable with that, but … we’re focusing on details with him, that’s going to help him down the road be an NHL player for years to come.”
Carbery said Leason could also stand to get stronger so he can use his frame more effectively along the boards and in front of the net, and improve his skating so he can create separation from defenders in the O-zone or off the rush.
But Carbery said in the short time Leason’s been under his tutelage, the forward has already taken ownership of his development.
That certainly appears to be true. Leason acknowledged there’s plenty of room for improvement — especially with his skating.
“That’s something I always need to work on, my skating can always get better, just that first stride, top-end speed and agility,” he said
“If I can keep working on that, I think I have a bright future, it’s something that is really important in the game in this day and age.”
Leason knows how it feels to get passed by, and he doesn’t want it to happen again.