For all but a select few players in Canadian major junior hockey, a player’s rookie season is an apprenticeship of sorts before he begins to take on a larger offensive role with his team. Portland Winter Hawks left wing Taylor Leier showed an intriguing package of two-way skills in his first Western Hockey League season, and hopes to gain more ice time in 2012-13.
The Flyers were sufficiently impressed by what their scouts saw of Leier last season to use the second of the team’s two fourth round picks (No. 117 overall) in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to select the 5-foot-10, 174-pound Saskatoon native. He is currently attending the Flyers annual Summer Development Camp and is a virtual lock to return to his WHL season with increased expectations.
As a 17-year-old rookie in 2011-12, Leier dressed in all 72 of his team's regular-season games. He produced 37 points (13 goals with 24 assists) and 36 penalty minutes. In the playoffs, Leier chipped in 5 goals and a pair of assists in 22 playoff games, helping Portland reach the WHL Finals. For the second straight year, the Winter Hawks ultimately lost in the finals.
Central Scouting ranked Leier 117th in their midterm rankings and 130th in their final rankings. As it turned out, he was taken by the Flyers with the 117th pick of the 2012 Draft. Over the latter part of the season, Leier was a teammate of Flyers' prospect Marcel Noebels (who is likely slated to join the AHL’s Adirondack Phantoms as a rookie next season). He also played with Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round pick Derrick Pouliot and numerous other high-end prospects.
“We had a good team, and I think I learned a lot last season,” said Leier. “Mike [Johnston, a former Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings assistant coach] is a real good coach and there was a good mix on the team. I’m excited for next season for sure.”
While Leier’s Draft year offensive stats do not jump off the page, it should also be remembered that he was a first-season player on a team that was already loaded with scoring talent. The trio of top Calgary Flames prospect Sven Bartschi (33 goals, 94 points), St. Louis Blues 2011 second-round pick Ty Rattie (57 goals, 121 points) and Toronto Maple Leafs power forward prospect Brad Ross (42 goals, 86 points, 163 penalty minutes) led the way offensively for the Winter Hawks.
Overall, the 2011-12 Winter Hawks boasted 14 players who scored double-digit goals, with five players (six if Noebels' combined totals from Seattle and Portland are included) who tallied 20 more goals last season. There is only so much power play time and offensive zone starts at even strength to go around on any team.
As such, Leier spent most of the season playing on a checking-oriented line with a 20-year-old center, Taylor Peters (12 goals, 38 points) and an overage winger, Oliver Gabriel (20 goals, 42 points). Leier's production was still good enough to rank 14th among WHL rookies this season. He was also a plus-11 on the season.
Taking on a defensive role was something new to Leier but he handled his assignments well. A 2nd-round pick by Portland, Leier was used to playing on the top line at the bantam and midget hockey levels. He was a dominating offensive for the Saskatoon Contacts of the SMJHL, tallying 74 points in 44 games in his final season before moving up to the WHL in 2011-12.
Over the next season or two, Leier figures to see increased offensive responsibility as the nucleus of the Winter Hawks team graduates to the professional level and other veteran teammates simply age out of junior hockey eligibility. It remains to be seen if the offensive game will fully emerge at the WHL level, but the potential is certainly there.
According to Flyers’ scouts, Leier brings a package of grit and above-average hockey sense for a player of his age. He doesn't give up on plays and is not afraid to mix it up when he has to. Already a promising young penalty killer, he is also good in transition with above-average quickness.
Apart from adapting to a bigger offensive role in subsequent seasons, Leier will have to make all the usual adjustments that most potential pro hockey prospects face. He will need to add muscle and continue to improve the pacing of his game to a pro-caliber level.
Apart from his ice hockey prowess, Leier is also regarded as one of the top teenaged ball hockey (floorball) players in Canada. He recently represented his home country in the recent U18 Ball Hockey World Championships in the Czech Republic, bringing home a gold medal from the tournament. Leier posted four assists in five games.
“That was a real fun experience,” said Leier. “It was nice to go over there and to win.”
If he continues to build on his early promise in Portland, the 2012-13 season could be even more fun for Leier. As a 2012 draftee from the WHL, the Flyers have until June 1, 2014 to sign the youngster to an entry-level contract. For now, however, the main focus on both the player and organization’s side is for Leier to gain additional experience and keep getting stronger.