CALGARY, ALTA. - The 2014-2015 hockey season has taken Blue Jackets prospect Olivier LeBlanc on a wild ride.
Following his most productive Quebec Major Junior Hockey League campaign, the Blue Jackets’ 197th overall pick in 2014 jumped right into this year's edition of development camp with the big club in early July.
After just a few weeks off to gather his bearings, he got right back at it, touching down in Calgary on Saturday for Hockey Canada’s national under-20 development camp, which serves as a proving ground for the 2016 World Junior Hockey Championship on Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Helsinki, Finland.
“It’s been a pretty intense year,” the 19-year-old defenseman from Quebec City, Que., said following a practice on Sunday at Canada Olympic Park. “But it’s fun, it’s a great experience.”
LeBlanc kicked off his year with the QMJHL’s Saint John Sea Dogs, tallying four goals and 18 assists in 37 games before being shipped to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles in the days leading up to the league’s Jan. 7 trade deadline.
With a record of 13-21-5, the Screaming Eagles sat 17th overall in the 18-team league when coach and GM Marc-Andrè Dumont swung a series of deals to bring in LeBlanc, along with other acquisitions Alexandre Gosselin, Alexandre Bélanger, Marcus Hinds and Stephen Anderson to turn the tide.
With LeBlanc patrolling their blueline, the Screaming Eagles went on a tear. As LeBlanc contributed three goals and nine assists in 21 games, Cape Breton wrapped up the 2014-2015 QMJHL campaign with a 18-10-1 run, clinching the Maritimes Division’s fifth and final playoff spot.
Although an ankle injury sidelined LeBlanc for the Screaming Eagles' first round playoff series against the Quebec Remparts, he watched with glee as they took his high-seeded hometown team to the brink of elimination.
The Screaming Eagles fell to the Remparts 4-3 in a tightly contested best-of-seven series.
“The group we had was a great group of guys,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get to play in the playoffs, but it was good to watch. We still have the core back next season so I’m pretty excited about the upcoming year.”
LeBlanc is looking to bring to his first Hockey Canada camp the same things he contributed to the Screaming Eagles lineup and Blue Jackets development camp.
He describes himself as a natural leader, a two-way defenseman who makes up for his lack of size with tenacious play coupled with a staunch work ethic.
Asked why he thinks Hockey Canada extended him an invitation to camp, he said it was those leadership qualities that stood out to the association, which has built the No. 1-ranked national junior hockey team in the world.
“It was my hard work that I put in on and off the ice and my leadership,” LeBlanc replied. “I went from Saint John to Cape Breton and helped turn things around for both teams. I think that’s what they are looking for, a good hard-working guy that plays a solid defensive game. I’m not the biggest guy out there, but I work hard to compensate for it.”
Dave Lowry, head coach of Canada's 2016 World Junior team, concurred.
“He’s come in and has fit in well,” Lowry said of LeBlanc. “He comes as a highly regarded player. He’s got some finesse and that’s exactly why he’s here.”
Through the first few days of camp, LeBlanc has been paired on the blueline with former Sea Dogs teammate Thomas Chabot.
LeBlanc said he is meshing well with Chabot (a first round pick of Ottawa in 2015) and if he continues to play his game, he sees himself representing Canada as the nation looks to defend its crown at the 2016 World Junior this winter.
“It’s the dream of every Canadian player,” he said. “Making it would be incredible and it would be an honor to put on that jersey. You get to play against the best junior players in the world, so it would be a great experience to compare myself to them and it would give me more luggage moving forward in my career.”
Russia and the Czech Republic’s national junior teams are also training in Calgary.
The three programs will compete in a four-game tournament, which wraps up on Thursday.