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Preview/Lines #59: Leonard in Right Frame of Mind

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Credit: San Jose Barracuda

The path back to the NHL after an AHL demotion is never an easy one. It’s a mental, emotional, and physical battle, and for John Leonard, it’s been hard-fought. After a struggling start to his season, Leonard’s found an extra gear as of late – with five goals and four assists in his last five games – and it’s paid off with a call-up to the San Jose Sharks. 

“I was playing with some really good players you know, playing with [Lane Pederson] and [Joachim Blichfield] for the past couple games or so, and they’re obviously two really good players. It’s also a little bit of puck luck too. Sometimes you get the bounces and sometimes you don’t and confidence is a huge thing. As you guys know, at the beginning of the year, I was struggling with that a little bit. And then it started to click and you kind of just try to roll with momentum,” Leonard said. 

Part of the winning formula to scoring more goals is…well, the obvious of shooting the puck more. And, the more confidence a player has, the more likely it is that they’ll increase their shots on net and the quality of their chances. Leonard’s a perfect example of how growing confidence and shooting the puck more leads to amazing things. 

“I like shooting the puck. You know, I think when I’m playing well, and I’m skating well and I’m moving my feet, and when those things happen, I feel like I create some more space for myself, and some more lanes to the net, which creates more shots.” 

Part of the confidence-boosting process is just good old experience, and the beauty of his extended time in the AHL was that it allowed Leonard to experience a variety of in-game scenarios to develop his offensive and defensive instincts. Leonard spoke on how impactful his time in the AHL has been in cultivating his game, too. 

“They do such a good job with video sessions and talking with everyone and just different meetings and stuff like that – areas where you’re doing well that you want to keep doing on with that and then areas where you need to improve. And John McCarthy is a great skills coach, and he’s on the ice early every day. You know, the majority of us are out there every day and you know, he plays a huge role in that,” he said. 

Leonard has extended NHL experience, after having played 44 games for the team in the 2020-21 season (for a total of three goals and ten assists) right out of his three years at the University of Massachusetts in the NCAA. 

“Coming out of college, I honestly didn’t know what to expect and going into my first NHL camp. I didn’t know what to expect and just tried to leave it all out there,” he recalled. “This development in the American League has also been awesome.”

Leonard’s refreshingly open about his difficulties at the beginning of the season: “[I put] just a little bit too much pressure on myself, trying to play as structured and detailed as possible. And sometimes you can get in your head a little bit when things aren’t going your way.” 

But the rest of the season, as Leonard says, “it’s been good so far.”

Head coach Bob Boughner had his own perspective share on Leonard’s journey back to the NHL, especially after having the NHL experience from last season. 

“Sometimes I think you’ve got to be patient with guys. Last year, I think a lot of guys were in a situation where they got rushed in and they get thrown into the fire and it’s tough to develop like that sometimes. It works for a while, but there’s a danger of falling off the cliff a little bit. And I think that’s what happened with guys that got opportunities last year but maybe couldn’t take that opportunity to convert into a job at the beginning of this year,” said Boughner. 

Leonard’s journey back to the NHL isn’t a unique one, but it’s clear from Boughner’s perspective that he’s put in the work and done all the right things. 

“I always believe that there’s a right time for your call up, and it’s earned. You develop down in the American League and you get your opportunity up here,” he said. “Some guys are at different stages. Sometimes you can jump into the lineup and you can make a difference right away in the NHL but most guys have to learn the pro game – how to be a pro and I think that’s what Johnny’s done. I think he’s got confidence now. I think he slowed it down in his mind a little bit and I think that’s probably the biggest thing I would say to a young guy, especially a forward.

“Slowing the game down…and be able to read it, read it, look at practice. I liked how [he] looked on the top line. And that’s one of the reasons we want a guy like Johnny who could score. he’s scored in college, he scored in the American League. Now, you want to see him try and convert that into the NHL, and you want to give him that opportunity in a top-six role.  Nothing’s given but he’s definitely going to get a look and you want to try and surround him in an environment where you can have success. That’s why he’s on that [top] line.”

Leonard will be skating with some pretty good players in the return to the big show: Yesterday, he skated on a line with Tomas Hertl and Alexander Barabanov.

Even Hertl had something to say about Leonard, and how developing into an NHL-caliber player can be a lengthy process, and why that can be a good thing. 

“Leno [Leonard], he had a tough start to the year, but he showed last month that he plays good hockey, and he’s scored a lot of goals…I think we got some good young guys,” he said. “If they’re not ready, you can harm their future. In my opinion, if you put the young guys [into the NHL] too early – sometimes they need to get through the process, and work hard to get there [to the NHL] and get even better.”

Spending time down in the AHL when you’ve already cut your teeth on NHL ice can sometimes be frustrating, but Hertl’s right – taking the time to adjust and transition not only mentally and emotionally, but also physically, for the rigors of an 82-game season and the stress of an NHL career will only benefit a young players’ career in the long run. And, despite his up and down past two seasons, it’s obvious that John Leonard is in the right frame of mind now to make an impact for the San Jose Sharks.

San Jose Sharks (26-25-7)

James Reimer will get the start, his first appearance since his Mar. 1 injury. Adin Hill is day-to-day with a recurrence of a lower-body injury that’s nagged at him since January.

Bob Boughner said the lines are otherwise the same as at yesterday’s practice.

Florida Panthers (40-13-6)

That No. 19 is for Joe Thornton with Aleksander Barkov (!) and Carter Verhaegae.

GameDay 60: Lineups, Betting Odds for Panthers at Sharks

Where to Watch

Puck drop between the Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks is at 7:30 PM PT at SAP Center. Watch it live on ESPN+ or Hulu. Listen to it on the Sharks Audio Network.

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