If there’s a trend among most of the San Jose Sharks’ top-end prospects — or prospects the front office is hoping can develop into at least middle-six players — is that they were, at one point, a long shot to make the NHL. While John Leonard, who comes in at number 19 in our prospects ranking, has already gotten a shot at the show, his journey began in the US high school prep system before joining the United States Hockey League, the top-tier junior hockey league of the US, a less-trodden path to the big league.
Not to get too into the weeds on the differences between the USHL and Canadian Juniors, especially because the differences in talent levels between the two systems has gotten slimmer over the years, but generally speaking, the USHL preserves amateur status, allowing players to play for the NCAA system, which is not a direct journey to playing hockey professionally. In fact, the ability to receive an education while playing hockey is often touted as having a “back-up” plan for NCAA hockey players — especially because if they complete all four years of their degree, they’re going to be older than the top-end talent coming into the NHL from the CHL.
When Leonard became draft-eligible ahead of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, he had played his first season with the Green Bay Gamblers, notching 9 points (5 goals, 4 assists) and 10 penalty minutes in 48 games, as well as going scoreless in four playoff games. Understandably, that performance wasn’t enough for him to be selected that summer. He turned 18 years old in fall and returned to Green Bay, putting up 34 points (19 goals, 15 assists) in 58 games, ranking fourth on the team in points and tying for second in goals. Still, he went undrafted in his second year of eligibility.
As many a USHL player before him, Leonard decided to commit to the NCAA, playing for the UMass-Amherst Minutemen in Hockey East. Becoming a nearly point-per-game player in his rookie season and leading the team in scoring with his 28 points (13 goals, 15 assists) finally started to earn the winger some attention.
The Sharks — who it should be noted, did not interview Leonard ahead of the draft, but had selected his UMass teammate Mario Ferraro in the second round at the prior year’s draft — used a sixth-round selection in 2018 to select the over-age winger, a low-risk pick for a player who could just as easily regress as he could break out.
Thankfully, Leonard continued to succeed with UMass, finishing one point shy (56 goals, 49 assists) of being exactly a point per game player in 106 NCAA games over three years. In 2020, Leonard was a Hobey Baker finalist (among a slew of other honors) after leading the league with 27 goals in 33 games.
Foregoing a senior year at UMass, Leonard signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the Sharks, featuring a $925,000 yearly salary, as well as $212,500 in potential performance bonuses each year. As the 2021 season began in unusual circumstances, Leonard found himself on the opening night roster, playing on the team’s second line. Despite his two-point (both assists) debut, Leonard’s impact in his 44-game rookie season wasn’t exactly thrilling, notching just 13 points (3 goals, 10 assists).
There were some larger positive trends — notably, his defensive impact was fairly good, he drew more penalties than he took and had more takeaways than giveaways, all of which are big wins for a rookie. His Corsi For percentage at 5-on-5 (ratio of unblocked shots and attempts for versus unblocked shots and attempts against) was below 50 percent (48.15), meaning the team was slightly out-attempted while he was on the ice. However, it’s worth noting that of the 37 skaters to take the ice for the Sharks in 2021, just seven were above 50 percent, with four of those seven having played in five or fewer games. The other three were unsurprisingly Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Kevin Labanc.
Still, Leonard’s lack of offense meant a shorter leash heading into this season and because he is still waivers exempt, he became the odd man out, spending more time with the San Jose Barracuda in the AHL while the NHL schedule returned to near-normal. There, he’s seen success, posting 32 points (17 goals, 15 assists) in 45 games. Leonard’s been with the mother club since mid-March, while the Sharks deal with both injuries and a roster that is no longer competing for playoff contention. As a pending restricted free agent, he only has a handful of games left to make a mark before negotiations begin.
What We Like
The time spent in the collegiate system has made Leonard a much more mature player than some of his peers, which has resulted in strong play away from the puck — a rarity in young players. It’s also largely kept Leonard out of the penalty box, topping out at 24 minutes in his sophomore season at UMass, but staying in the single digits at the AHL and NHL levels.
Being an under-sized winger has forced him to rely on his speed, something the Sharks should be hell-bent on incorporating into their line-up. In terms of draft value, a middle-six upside for a sixth-round pick is the kind of magic the organization has been known for.
His time in the AHL this season allowed him more grace than the grueling 82-game NHL schedule would have, so while the assignment may have been seen as a slight against a player who had played just two AHL games the prior season, it also protected him from the sophomore slump that would have been inevitable had he been tasked with major NHL minutes again this season. A new contract this summer following an AHL season he can feel proud about should put Leonard on track to make an impact soon.
Areas of Improvement
Small wingers are always going to face the wrath of old-school hockey types who think that size is a better asset than speed. However, adding strength to his shot will go a long way in terms of getting up to snuff in the big leagues. Additionally, consistent linemates and finding chemistry with a center is the next step to put him in a position to continue to succeed at the highest level.
Whoever ends up negotiating his next contract will ask Leonard to play hungrier, to be quicker to the puck and more aggressive in creating offense. His sea legs should be steady underneath him: now it’s time to prove it.
This is how you utilize a defensive guy with speed. On the initial play, Leonard hung back behind the play, allowing his teammates to chip away at possession in front of the crease. Timo Meier cleared the puck back to a waiting Leonard, who turned on the jets to beat Ryan Graves for a clean breakaway on Colorado Avalanche netminder Phillip Grubauer.