VICTORIA, British Columbia -- As Brett Leason watched the 2018 NHL Draft wind down on television and realized he wasn't going to get picked for a second straight year, the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship was the furthest thing from his mind.
Now the 19-year-old forward is tied for the Western Hockey League scoring lead with 64 points (28 goals, 26 assists) in 31 games with Prince Albert. Not only is Leason among the candidates to play for Canada at the WJC, but he's got a chance to play on the top two lines and on the power play.
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He also received a B rating from NHL Central Scouting in its November players to watch list, making it likely he'll hear his name called early at the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver.
"I've surpassed my own expectations," Leason (6-foot-4, 200 pounds) said. "I was nowhere near thinking about this or realizing it could happen. (Not getting drafted) motivated me a lot. It's a dream of mine to get drafted and I realized this is my last chance."
So what's changed? How did he not get invited to the World Junior Summer Showcase in July but now have a chance at a top-six role at the elite under-20 international tournament that will go from Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia?
Leason said it's a combination of better skating, improved confidence and opportunity.
The latter came courtesy of a trade from Tri-City to Prince Albert on Oct. 25, 2017. Leason had 19 points (nine goals, 10 assists) in 81 games during parts of three seasons with Tri-City. After the trade he had 32 points (15 goals, 17 assists) in 54 games with Prince Albert, and he started this season with a 30-game point streak.
"I was buried behind an experienced group when I was playing in Tri-City, and when I got traded to [Prince Albert] I finally got the chance to play and be a guy they can rely on," Leason said. "I was able to play my game this year. Coach (Marc Habscheid) let me do my thing and it paid off. Getting moved and getting a chance to play was a fresh start."
Leason made the most of it by improving his skating during the summer.
"Really tried to bring strength in my legs, and then toward the end of the summer I just worked on quick feet and agility to get the extra step," he said.
Canada coach Tim Hunter noticed the difference when he coached Moose Jaw in the WHL against Prince Albert, and also liked what he saw from Leason during two games for the WHL against Russia in the 2018 Canada Russia Series on Nov. 5-6.
"He's really come on, improved his skating and he's having a great year," Hunter said. "Very versatile, he kills penalties, he can play on the power play and he can score goals. Obviously he's a big body guy, real patient with the puck along the boards when he gets it, can transfer the puck to teammates coming out of our end and that's a tough thing to do when you have defense bearing down on you."
Leason's talent hasn't been lost on his more highly touted Canada teammates, even though some said they had no idea who he was before the start of this season.
"To be honest I didn't know much about him," said forward Nick Suzuki (Montreal Canadiens), who has been Leason's linemate during selection camp. "He's a big body and he has a good shot and he thinks the game really well."
Well enough to help Canada try to win a second straight WJC, something he said he wouldn't have even dreamed of doing after going undrafted for a second straight summer.
Leason's path from overlooked draft prospect to Canada's World Junior team isn't unprecedented.
Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Tanner Pearson was passed over in the NHL Draft twice, then helped Canada finish third at the 2012 WJC.
Months later he was selected by the Los Angeles Kings with the No. 30 pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.
Leason is hoping for a similar experience, starting with the World Juniors.
"It would mean a lot to play for my country," Leason said. "It would be everything."
Photos courtesy Lucas Chudleigh/Apollo Multimedia and Robert Murray/WHL