If not for bad luck with injuries, Flyers 2016 second-round pick Pascal Laberge may not have had any luck at all last season. The good news: He is fully recovered and seems poised for breakout campaign in 2017-18.
Laberge's 2016-17 season was an unpleasant surprise for all parties. Signed to an entry-level contract on July 14, 2016 after the Flyers selected him with the 36th overall pick of the 2016 Draft, the conscientious and skilled native of Chateauguay, Quebec, set out to improve upon an excellent 2015-16 season that saw him produce 68 points in 56 games for the QMJHL's Victoriaville Tigres.
Unfortunately, during an early season game against the Moncton Wildcats, Laberge fell victim to a predatory blindside hit by defenseman Zachary Malatesta and was rendered unconscious. Malatesta was suspended for seven games. Laberge, meanwhile, had a rough time for several months.
"It took a while because the first month I couldn't wake up. I had to sleep all day because it was a bad concussion. The second month I started to do workouts. I went on the ice. I had to take a step back in the workout. It took a little while, but you want to take your time when you have a concussion," Laberge said during development camp.
Even after he returned to the Victoriaville lineup, Laberge did not play to the standards he set in his draft-eligible campaign the previous year. He finished the season with just 32 points (12g-20a) in 46 regular season games and two goals in four playoff matches.
However, late in the season, the right winger started to regain his form as he posted at least one point in 11 of the final 18 games and scored seven goals.
"You hope when players go through it they learn from it," Hextall said. "We didn't like what he went through. We didn't like, at times, the level he was playing to where it wasn't the level he was capable of, but again sometimes you go through adversity like that as a young man and you become better, you become stronger."
Laberge, who has the ability either to center or play wing, has good quickness and above-average offensive awareness. In his Draft year, he competed fearlessly for pucks and willingly drove to the heavy punishment but high reward areas near the net. He admits that he got away from those standards after the vicious hit from Malatesta, and needs to get back to consistently doing what he did the previous year.
Asked what he'd do differently next time to avoid being targeted, Laberge grinned sheepishly.
"All I can do is try to keep my head on a swivel next time," he said. "Just be aware out there."
Laberge is determined to reward the Flyers' faith in not only drafting him early in the 2016 second round but also quickly getting him signed to an entry-level deal thereafter. He has regained his confidence in his game and has added muscle to his frame during the offseason.
"I want to show the Flyers that last year wasn't the real me," Laberge said. "Maybe I was pressing for a while after I came back, but I know I can do better and I definitely feel like I will."
There has never been a doubt about Laberge's character or emotional maturity.
In his young life, he's already dealt with anguish far worse than a hockey injury. The teenager had to cope with the cancer-related passing of his stepmother, with whom he was very close, his father's diagnosis and successful battle with prostate cancer and his mother's struggles with multiple sclerosis. Through it all, Laberge found solace in hockey.
In 2015-16, Laberge had a strong QMJHL season that saw him significantly raise his stock in the NHL Draft. He led Victoriaville in scoring (68 points in 58 games) this season, scoring 23 goals and recording a club-high 45 assists before contributing five points in five playoff games (3g-2a). Laberge also enjoyed a standout performance at the Top Prospects Game, earning first-star honors after a two-goal, one assist performance, and was a member of Team Canada at the Under-18 World Championships in Grand Forks (2g-1a).
Apart from regaining his offensive form, the main thing that Laberge needs to do before turning pro is to add additional strength on his 6-foot-1 frame and to refine his defensive play. These are typical improvement opportunities for teenage players. As he fills out over the next few years, there is still considerable potential for Laberge to elevate his game to the next level.