Produced by the WHL in partnership with BC Tree Fruits, “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” is a multipart series highlighting the next generation of WHL stars set to embark on a journey pursuing NHL dreams. “Growing the Game’s Best Talent” can be seen monthly at WHL.ca, featuring a key member of the upcoming 2018 NHL Draft Class. Together, the WHL and BC Tree Fruits are “Growing the Game’s Best Talent.”
Most scouts will tell you through all the insight and data available, the best way to judge a player is through watching them again and again.
While that’s not always a luxury in the Western Hockey League, one of these rare partnerships has been fostered over the past 12 years by Prince George Cougars general manager Todd Harkins and forward Jackson Leppard.
Now, it has Leppard closer than ever to hearing his name called at the NHL Draft and the 6-foot-2, 196-pound North Vancouver, B.C. product is determined to make his dream a reality.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” Leppard said in regard to being identified as a ‘Player to Watch’ by NHL Central Scouting.
“Obviously, it’s still early on, and it’s a nice feeling to be recognized this early, but I think it’s a long season and you’ve got to keep working the full season to stay on that list.”
From a young age on the ice, Leppard had made life tough for Harkins, battling against him on many spring hockey teams and showing him what type of player he could be. Harkins, who was then the director of hockey operations at the North Shore Winter Club, convinced Leppard to join him in North Vancouver and the duo have never been that far away from each other in their hockey careers ever since.
“He was just one of those players, even when he was [young] that he always just wanted to get to the net and score,” Harkins said. “He just had a huge compete level and he would even throw bodychecks at that age so I knew there was some fire in his belly to try to compete and win and be the best hockey player he could be.”
If other scouts and general managers didn’t know who he was, Leppard put himself on the map during the 2014-15 season, racking up 89 points (46G-43A) in 63 games with the Winter Club’s Tier-1 Bantam team.
So when the eighth overall selection in the 2015 WHL Bantam Draft came around, Leppard still had yet to hear his name called, presenting an opportunity for Harkins to reunite the pair on the Cougars.
It took a bit of time for Leppard to become a regular with the Cougars. Leppard made his debut near the end of the 2015-16, playing in two games and getting adjusted to the pace of play in the WHL.
“I noticed right away in my first shift that all the guys were just so much faster,” Leppard added. “I took a big hit right off the start coming down the wall. That really opened it up for me. I think you’ve just got to learn with it and play through it.”
Leppard was back and ready to be a part of the team’s success in the 2016-17 season, but found himself in and out of the lineup as is common with rookies, especially on a squad that wound up winning their first B.C. Division title in franchise history.
The downside was that Leppard played in a limited role, scoring four points (2G-2A) in 35 regular season games before appearing in two of the Cougars’ playoff contests. As a standout performer in his age group, Leppard still found time for an opportunity of a lifetime, representing Canada at the 2016 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in what was a “surreal” experience for the young forward.
“When you’re there playing, it’s not far off of the level from the WHL,” Leppard said of his first international experience. “It might even be more skilled. It was a pretty cool experience.’’
Given that Harkins went through a similar process with his son Jansen, who played with the Cougars for four years and was drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2015, he can relate.
“Jackson being one of those kids last year, he practiced a lot, but he didn’t play a lot and they get frustrated,” Harkins shared. “To try and get them in their 17-year-old year to quit being frustrated and to find who they are as a player.
“It’s a very big job to do from a coaching standpoint and I think [Cougars head coach] Richard Matvichuk has done a fabulous job with getting Jackson acclimated to the season and finding a niche for him in the top-six.”
With last year’s core moving on, Leppard found himself given more of an opportunity to work this year and has taken full advantage of it. In his first 23 games, he’s put up 13 points (6G-7A) and even scored his first WHL game-winning goal. That has earned him a ‘C Rating’ from NHL Central Scouting.
That rating means one things for Leppard: He’s not at the top of his draft class, but he’s close.
Harkins knows that Leppard may not be at the top of the list right now, but has the skills to elevate his game. He’s gotten to know how hard of a worker Leppard is and knows it’s just a matter of time before NHL scouts see that same determination to succeed.
“Obviously he’s got to fill out as he matures into an adult and gets some strength, but he can shoot the puck,” Harkins noted. “He does have some vision and again he has hockey IQ.
“He can skate and he loves to score goals and he has a huge compete level. At the next level, you have to have compete and you’ve got to be able to skate and I think he’s got those qualities.”
It’s all a part of the system Harkins and the Cougars utilize to prepare players for a career after junior hockey. Whether it’s the rigid schedule of morning skates, afternoon school or the support staff on hand to help the players succeed, the Cougars are working to go the extra mile. That process, mixed with a player of Leppard’s size and skill set, has produced a talented forward who has shown he has what it takes to compete with the best of the best.
After all, who wouldn’t want to add their name to an alumni list that includes the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Zdeno Chara, and Dan Hamhuis among others.
As close as Leppard is, his work is far from done, but the big 17-year-old not only has the size and skill to succeed, but the confidence in his abilities going forward.
“When I show that, I think it’s pretty noticeable and I have some skill to go along with it.”