Leclaire: A career never realized

When a hockey player is one of the top draft picks in the NHL, there is an inordinate amount of high expectations placed on said player.

When this occurs, several things can happen. A player can exceed those expectations, come close to living up to them or fail to accomplish anything close to what is expected of them.

When it comes to recently retired netminder Pascal Leclaire, it is easy to say that the 30-year-old never came close to living up to his potential. Instead of having a career filled with many games, wins and great numbers, it was a career filled with some inconsistency on the ice but mostly, it was a seven-year career filled with injuries.

“I’ve been through the ‘Why me?’ phase,” Leclaire told the Columbus Dispatch this week. “When I look around the world, I know there are way worse things in life than having a bad hip. There are people making sacrifices every day, and I try to keep that in mind.

“But when I think about it just from the hockey aspect, this really (stinks). I don’t wish any player to go through something like this. It’s a tough thing to stop playing at my age.”

Prior to the injuries, there is no doubt that Leclaire showed promise.

In the 2005-06 season, Leclaire’s play indicated that he was both as a strong NHL netminder and someone who could help the Blue Jackets contend. Leclaire went 11-5-0-3 with a 3.23 GAA, and a .911 save percentage, decent numbers considering the team he had in front of him.

However, it was not until the 2007-08 season that Leclaire gave the Blue Jackets and the NHL a taste of what he could be. At 25 years of age, Leclaire went 24-17-6 in 54 games, posting a 2.25 GAA, a .919 save percentage and nine shutouts.

That season, Leclaire finished second in the league in shutouts (behind New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist), ranked second in the league in goals against, third overall in save percentage and second in fan voting among Western Conference netminders for the NHL All-Star Game. Leclaire’s strong play helped earn him a three-year, $11.4-million extension from the Blue Jackets.

After that season, everything went downhill for Leclaire in terms of his play on the ice and his health. Leclaire would play just 60 more games in the NHL and go through seven surgeries, three of which were on his right hip in a span of 16 months.

Ken Hitchcock, who coached Leclaire for a few season with a Blue Jackets, believes that because of his style of play and his wanting to do anything to stop the puck, Leclaire constantly put his body at risk.

“Pazzy never gave up on any shot, and he was so acrobatic,” St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who coached Leclaire that season in Columbus, told the Dispatch. “He never quit on a puck — practice or game — and he got hurt because of it. He put his body in jeopardy because he was so freaking competitive. He didn’t even want to let a warm-up shot go in.”

After his career best season, Leclaire injured his ankle, which sidelined him for the season. This allowed Blue Jackets rookie netminder Steve Mason to take over the starting position and thrive as one of the league’s top netminders.

With Mason playing well and the team in a playoff race for the first time in franchise history, the Jackets traded Leclaire to the Ottawa Senators for Antoine Vermette. Leclaire became the starter the following season, 2009-10, only to lose it to Brian Elliott due to inconsistent play between the pipes and more injuries.

Eerily, one of those injuries included a broken cheekbone suffered when sitting on the bench during a game against the Washington Capitals due to a lower body injury. The unlucky Leclaire ended up being hit by an errant puck.

In 2010-11, Leclaire played just 14 games and needed hip surgery. The following year, Leclaire was unsigned as an unrestricted free agent and went the whole year without signing with an NHL club.

“The process of getting injured, having surgery, going through rehab and getting excited … only to get hurt again, it’s incredibly frustrating,” Leclaire told the Dispatch. “But I still look back at my career and smile. I played in great cities, with great guys, for great fans. So, in that respect, I was lucky.”

Rick Wamsley, goaltending coach for the Senators, witnessed Leclaire when he was just starting out with the Blue Jackets and then ending his career with the Senators. Wamsley told Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch that Leclaire could have been a good goaltender in the NHL but that, ultimately, his own body got in the way of that.

“It was all right there,” Wamsley said. “He had all the tools, and he had a personality that everybody wanted to be around. He had major joint issues, and when you’re a goalie, those are major parts.”

It is always a shame when an NHLer is not able to live up to his potential. It is even worse when said player cannot live up to his potential because of the injuries he has suffered.

Unfortunately, this is the story of Leclaire’s short-lived NHL career.

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