ARLINGTON, VA — Washington Capitals’ 2023 first-round pick Ryan Leonard was described in a pre-draft feature story by The Athletic as a “bulldog”, and compared to Tom Wilson by analysts during ESPN’s draft night coverage.
This is a man with muscles in his face. He’s mean, said one analyst.
Scouts are combing the world for another Tom Wilson and Jamie Benn-like player, said another.
Leonard appears fast, physical, and feisty like Wilson, but his most unique attribute might just be his shot and just how he fast he can whip the puck at the net.
“It’s elite,” defense prospect Ryan Chesley said matter-of-factly during Capitals’ Development Camp.
The specialness of Leonard’s special shot becomes evident immediately upon watching a mic’d up video posted by the Capitals. The prospect bends and leans into his wrister, putting his entire body into whipping the puck toward the net. His release is very fast. It’s also very accurate, as you could hear Leonard dinging the puck bardown and into the net with consistency throughout camp.
“Eighth overall, let’s see what he has,” goaltender Chase Clark said in his own Mic’d Up video as he squared up to try and stop the young forward. Seconds later: “Aw, he broke my glove already.”
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) July 3, 2023
“This guy has a HEATER on him,” the Capitals 2021 sixth round draft pick says as he struggles to make saves. “How is this kid an ’05?! These (USA National Development) Program kids… For being only 18, he’s probably got one of the hardest shots out here.”
There’s been many great players who have participated in Capitals Development Camps in the past that have had big shots like Filip Forsberg, Andre Burakovsky, Jakub Vrana, Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov. But there’s no precedent, in my experience, for a shot like Leonard’s.
In all my years of watching Capitals Development Camps, I’ve never seen someone with this fast of a slinging shot. It’s also heavy and very accurate. pic.twitter.com/RuuYJBwf6m
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) July 5, 2023
“He dis-formed my glove on his first shot,” Clark said laughing in response to the clip. “It’s definitely one of the hardest shots I have ever faced. The way Ryan shoots makes it hard to track the puck with how fast his release is and how he changes the angle.”
“It’s tough,” Chesley, a former USNTDP teammate of Leonard’s, said. “He can kind of release it from anywhere on the ice and it’s tough to defend. It’s an NHL-ready shot.”
Where it developed
Leonard wasn’t drafted out of a typical junior team in the US or Canada. He is product of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program – an organization started in 1996 to centralize the training and development of the country’s best hockey players. When not at their home base in Plymouth, Michigan, players from USNTDP form a group and play against USHL and NCAA teams. They also compete in international tournaments. The goal is to help players get to the next level and realize their full potential while also building chemistry with other top US talents.
The USNTDP’s overall success has grown since its inception. The program has helped launch the careers of some of the best hockey players in the NHL including Auston Matthews, Jack Hughes, Patrick Kane, and Cole Caufield.
Leonard is coming off a season where he scored 51 goals in 57 games for the U-18 national team. His 94 points were third-most on the team. Leonard also chipped in 20 points (11g, 9a) in 17 USHL games.
The Caps draft pick ended his 2022-23 season with a standout offensive performance in the U18 World Championship. Leonard blitzed the competition for 17 points (8g, 9a) in seven games and scored the overtime, gold-medal winner against Sweden.
In an interview with RMNB, Leonard said his tricky shot first developed not on the ice but in the basement of his childhood home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where he meticulously studied how other NHL players scored goals. He credited his brother John who is six years older and already an NHL player as a huge influence.
“The basement, that’s where you go downstairs when you’re a kid and shoot how ever many pucks you can,” Leonard said. “Making your parents buy you all those stupid targets that you’re just going to break in a couple days and just wait for a new one to come in. I definitely threw a lot of targets down there and put a lot of holes in the wall.”
John Leonard, a left wing, is the veteran of 64 NHL games. He signed a one-year, two-way deal this summer with the Arizona Coyotes after spending last season with the Nashville Predators.
“My brother showed me how to really shoot the puck quick,” Ryan said. “Then whenever he wasn’t home, I just tried to shoot it as hard as I could and as quick and fast as possible.”
Leonard also credited his neighbors up the street, Chris and Nick Foster, who are two talented hockey players in their own right, in helping him grow as a player.
“They’re still my best buddies to this day,” Leonard said. “Those guys went though my whole youth career with them. Chris mostly, Nick’s older. We would always shoot pucks whenever we could. They would come over, I’d go to their house. They got a pretty good setup. Just little (shooting) competitions like that.”
That repetition and practice on top of a next-level dedication to the sport gave Leonard, already a natural athlete, even more power in his forearms, shoulders, and chest as a teenager. And it showed at the NHL’s Draft Combine in the spring. Leonard finished in the top 10 in hand grip and bench press.
While Leonard compared his playing style to Matthew Tkachuk, Zach Hyman, and Alex Tuch, he said he tries to emulate how Auston Matthews shoots the puck in a quick and shifty way. Matthews scored 60 goals during the 2021-22 season.
“I like how he changes the angle,” Leonard said. “It’s pretty special how he shoots the puck.”
With NHL goaltenders now so athletic and efficient in their movements, Leonard feels the best way to attack them is to beat them before they can even react.
“The release, I just obviously want to get the quickest shot,” he said.
Now that Development Camp is over, Leonard will go home and train until he moves out for his first full season competing in the NCAA. Leonard committed to Boston College and will be coached by Greg Brown, who was formerly an assistant with the New York Rangers.
While Leonard has aspirations of winning the Beanpot, a hockey tournament pitting the four major Boston area schools against each other, and the NCAA title, he may be asked to turn pro shortly into his stay at Chestnut Hill.
With the Capitals re-tooling on the fly and getting younger as Alex Ovechkin nears retirement, the team could ask Leonard to turn pro after his freshman or sophomore season, depending on where he is in his development. Typically, high-talent college players stay at a university two years and turn pro after their postseason ends their second year. One recent example is New Jersey Devils’ defenseman Luke Hughes, who made his NHL debut on April 11 after completing his second season at the University of Michigan.
Regardless of when that happens, Leonard turned heads and made a big impression on Caps’ brass at Development Camp in a short amount of time.
“He showed why we were so pleased to get him,” Capitals’ assistant GM, Ross Mahoney, said. “Strong. Explosive. I think I said before, after the draft, his shot. It was on display here. It’s not only accurate, not only does he have a quick release, but he has such a heavy shot. He is very competitive. He’s not afraid to take the puck to the net. He’ll score goals in those tougher areas. Really, really happy with him.”
And his talent was undeniable to the players he competed against.
“A lot of the guys have stood out,” Chesley said. “Obviously, there’s a really good number of guys here. I think Ryan Leonard is one of the better ones here.”
“He’s an all-around great kid and person,” Clark said. “For being an ’05 and with a shot like that is definitely something people should be excited about. Just watching him throughout the camp, he’s a very complete player all-around and he’s going to do great things at Boston College next year.
“In my opinion, we got a steal of a pick for getting him at eighth overall.”
Photos: Alan Dobbins/RMNB
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