NASHVILLE — Delivering the United States a gold medal is the pinnacle of Ryan Leonard’s brief hockey career — higher than draft day, even.
It was Leonard who weaved through the defense of Team Sweden in overtime before flicking the puck into the net during April’s under-18 IIHF World Championship, securing America’s 11th title.
“That was awesome,” Leonard said, “being with those guys for two years and then capping off with that, it was so special.”
— USA Hockey (@usahockey) April 30, 2023
He’ll stay in the red, white and blue after the Washington Capitals made him the No. 8 pick in the first round of the NHL Draft. And the Capitals are hoping that, one day, the 18-year-old will play a key role in bringing home a different kind of hardware: the franchise’s second Stanley Cup.
“He’s got a real interesting skillset … he’s a very competitive guy,” Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney said of Leonard, “so I think to be able to get that scoring ability, the playmaking ability and that edge that he plays with I think is a real interesting combination.”
The Capitals, picking in the top 10 for the first time in 16 years, emerged with Leonard by sheer luck. The first three players off the board — Connor Bedard, Leo Carlsson and Adam Fantilli — were expected, but when San Jose went on the clock at No. 4, the “real” draft began.
After Arizona’s selection of defenseman Dmitri Simashev at No. 6 drew the draft crowd’s first big gasp of the night, Philadelphia scooped up Russian phenom Matvei Michkov at No. 7 — resulting in Leonard falling right into Washington’s lap.
“I thought he was probably gonna go two or three picks ahead of us,” Mahoney, the team’s draft head, said, “so we’re really excited that he was there.”
Leonard, ranked the fifth-best North American skater by NHL Central Scouting, was the U18 team’s third-highest scorer with 97 points — 51 goals, 43 assists. He was in good company, sharing a line with No. 23 overall pick Gabriel Perreault and No. 4 overall pick Will Smith — the team’s leader and second-place finisher in scoring, respectively.
Playing on such a skilled line helped Leonard’s hockey IQ stand out, Mahoney said.
“He’s a smart player,” Mahoney said. “You don’t end up with all those goals and all the assists he had … without having good hockey sense and being able to play in all different situations.”
Mahoney also noted that Leonard’s strength was extremely intriguing to the team’s draft contingent.
“Strong in the corners, he’s hard to stop when he drives the net,” Mahoney said.” He can hold his ground in front of the net and get to loose pucks. That was very appealing for us, his strength. And he uses it. He finishes checks, he’s an honest player. Not afraid to go to those tough areas to score, in addition to having that really good shot.”
Leonard will reunite with Perreault and Smith at Boston College this fall, saying that he does not have a timeline for when he’ll make the jump to the pros.
“He’ll work with our development team, obviously he’s going to a great school with a really good hockey program,” Mahoney said. “That’s also a really good situation for us also; you draft a player, you want them to be in a good program, which he will be … how long it takes him to get to the NHL? It depends on him and how he progresses.”