When you think of any successful team, you don’t often think about the rookies on that team or debate how their contribution led to success.
But it is interesting to see how rookie players on junior hockey teams can be keys to success — maybe not as 16-year-olds, but that is when they begin to lay the ground work for future success.
Probably the one Wolves rookie who has made the biggest impact so far has been defenceman Stefan LeBlanc. Sure, it’s only been six games, but sometimes that’s all that’s needed to figure out if a player has what it takes.
It should be noted LeBlanc is not 16. He was Sudbury’s seventh-round pick in the 2012 OHL draft, making him 17. He did impress last year at both the spring rookie camp and again at the main training camp, but the Wolves went with a veteran blueline for the most part.
That’s not always a bad thing. Sending a young player back to where he’s going to get a ton of playing time will help in his development, and that’s not something guaranteed at the OHL level. That’s what the Wolves did with Evan de Haan and the same goes for LeBlanc.
When the Wolves held their annual summer press conference to introduce their 2013 draft picks who were committing to the team, LeBlanc was also part of that event. General Manager Blaine Smith told me they were extremely pleased LeBlanc was ready for the big club and they expected him to contribute at more than just a rookie level.
So far, so good.
Again, it’s only six games into the season, but already LeBlanc is a regular on the Wolves defence and at times finds himself in a top four position. Besides a regular shift, the Oakville native is also a regular on the power play, often starting on the No. 1 power play unit.
His coming out party could very well have been last Saturday night in Barrie when he scored his first two OHL goals in the team’s huge 6-3 win. There was no way you were going to wipe the huge smile off his face — I’m sure it was probably still there the next day.
I talked to him shortly after the game and while he was still excited, he was quick to make it about the team.
“I just took the pass and shot it has hard as I could,” Leblanc said. “It was great to come into Barrie’s barn and leave with the win.
“I think the coaching staff showing confidence in me and putting me in key situations is definitely boosting my confidence,” he added. “I’m just going out there trying to play my game.”
Head Coach Paul Fixter likes what he sees and said he thinks the experiment that saw him put LeBlanc up on left wing for a couple of games is likely over.
The young Wolves defenceman has two goals and three assists so far and finds himself fifth in rookie scoring. Leblanc is knocking on the door of the top 10 top-scoring defencemen in the league.
As I have emphasized on more than one occasion, it is still very early in the season, but it appears Leblanc is the real deal and is starting to draw comparisons to some of the top defencemen who have patrolled the Wolves blueline in the past.
I am a little hesitant to put that kind of pressure on a 17-year-old, but I wouldn’t be surprised if LeBlanc becomes a much talked about player as the season progresses.
Stew Kernan is the radio and television voice of the Sudbury Wolves and the news director at KiSS 105.3 and Q92. This column appears every other week in Northern Life.