When the Flyers make their selections in the NHL draft on June 28-29 in Nashville, they’ll be looking for the “biggest, most skilled, fastest, hardest-working” players to add to the team, according to assistant general manager Brent Flahr.
With those coveted traits in mind, perhaps the Flyers ought to be zeroing in on U.S. National Team Development Program winger Ryan Leonard with the No. 7 pick.
At 5-foot-11½, 192 pounds, Leonard isn’t exceptionally tall, but his strength allows him to play a big, physical game that would be embraced by the organization. A 50-plus goal scorer with the development program this season, the 18-year-old Leonard is the fifth-ranked North American skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting and could be an option in play for the Flyers if they decide to remain at the No. 7 pick.
The Inquirer caught up with Chris Peters, an NHL draft and prospects analyst for FloHockey, to get his thoughts on Leonard in the second installment of a six-part series looking at some of the players the Flyers could take with their first-round pick.
In addition to being a rugged player and a strong skater, Leonard is “truly a gifted goal scorer,” according to Peters. Leonard finished the season tied for second in the NTDP in goals (51) with linemate Will Smith (Central Scouting’s No. 3 North American skater) and just two goals behind linemate Gabe Perreault (ranked 10th in North America by Central Scouting).
Before each member of the top-line trio eclipsed the 50-goal mark with the NTDP’s under-18 team, only a handful of players had pulled off the feat before, including Cole Caufield (72 goals in 2018-19), Auston Matthews (55 goals in 2014-15), Patrick Kane (52 goals in 2005-06), and current Flyer Kieffer Bellows (50 goals in 2015-16).
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“A really good shot,” Peters said of Leonard. “A guy who gets to the right areas, who knows how to get to the net. He can score from distance, but he also is really good at the net front and has quick hands, so he’s able to finish pretty well.”
In his conversations with scouts, Peters said Leonard is viewed as “the guy that you win with,” who can play under pressure and in the playoffs. At the U18 World Championship in April, Leonard scored the winning goal in overtime for the U.S. in the gold-medal game against Sweden. His character is evident on and off the ice, according to Peters.
“He’s a leader and a guy that his teammates really like … not just because of his personality but also because of the way that he plays,” Peters said. “He’s a hard worker, and that resonates. He’s definitely one of those guys that is kind of a glue player for a team.”
Areas for improvement
On a line with Smith and Perreault, whom Peters said possess the ability to process the game at an “elite” level, Leonard did not drive play as frequently. Peters would like to see him have opportunities to get more touches and be more of a playmaker instead of being a shoot-first player most of the time.
While Leonard will be heading to Boston College next year along with Smith and Perreault and could end up on a line with them again, Peters said Leonard still could develop his playmaking skills.
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“I think that even Ryan would say that playing with those two guys really forced him to kind of anticipate differently, to always be ready,” Peters said. “Whereas I think at the NHL level, a lot of the best players are going to be the guys that are dictating the play a little bit more.”
Still, Peters has been encouraged by what he’s seen lately from Leonard as he works to improve his playmaking ability.
“At the Under-18 Worlds, we saw a couple of instances where he became the guy that was bringing the puck over the blue line,” Peters said. “He was making the first play in the offensive zone, which would typically be something that Will Smith would do. But when they were trying to shut down Smith, he was able to take that over. So that’s a good sign for where that’s going.”
Fit for the Flyers
Leonard played right wing with the NTDP this season, but he has the ability to play all three positions. The Flyers have a relatively strong 26-and-under pipeline at right wing, including Travis Konecny, Owen Tippett, Tyson Foerster, and Bobby Brink. However, Flahr said the Flyers prioritize the best player available over position, especially early in the draft.
With his combination of strength and size, Leonard comes off as a prototypical Flyer. Peters said he has plenty in common with 2022 No. 5 pick Cutter Gauthier, who will be Leonard’s teammate at Boston College. Both players are shooters with good hands and one-on-one ability. Although both NTDP alums have power elements to their games, Peters said Gauthier’s athletic tools and his size (6-2, 193 pounds) set him apart.
NHL player comparison
Peters compared aspects of Leonard’s game to those of Vancouver Canucks forward J.T. Miller. At 6-1, 218 pounds, Miller is a bigger player, but both bring “rough-and-tumble, energetic” elements to the game while boasting scoring ability.