It's rare for sixth-round picks to become NHLers, let alone three years after getting drafted.
From a San Jose Sharks perspective, Kevin Labanc has turned out quite impressive after going 171st overall in 2014, with Dylan DeMelo (179th in 2011) being the only other sixth-round Sharks pick to make the NHL over the past decade.
That's good value in the draft, and now John Leonard, the 182nd overall pick in 2018, is the latest example of finding a hidden gem late in the selection process. Leonard didn't even make our annual Future Watch top 10 prospects list for the Sharks back in 2019 but bounced up to fifth last season on a Sharks team that finished last in the organizational prospect rankings.
He was very off the radar early as a prospect, but as his NCAA career continued, it was clear a hot freshman season wasn't a fluke. Leonard was establishing himself as a true prospect, finishing his three-year college tenure last spring with 105 points in 106 games. It was a remarkable collegiate career that saw him lead the NCAA in goals last year with 27 before becoming a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
He was clearly good enough to earn top-line minutes in Game 1 with Tomas Hertl and Evander Kane, recording two assists in 13:14 of ice time as a 22-year-old rookie. Early season cap reasons contributed to Leonard's debut, but it was hard not to root for him. Coach Bob Boughner referred to Leonard as the "best young guy in camp" and wasn't afraid to give him the opportunity so early in his career.
“For a young guy, he has a lot of good about his game," Boughner said last Friday. "We pointed out a couple things defensively last night. Just subtle things that you might not catch unless you rewatch the tape, just turning his back towards the puck in his own end, things like that and just little intricacies is defensively more than anything."
According to Hockey Prospecting, a tool that tracks player development using the NHLe formula to project offensive potential, Leonard's numbers have continued to grow each season, but he never had above a 50 percent shot at becoming an NHLer. And while it doesn't look like he's going to be a big-time offensive threat, the Sharks seem quite pleased about Leonard's overall development from a prep student putting a beating on Massachusetts goaltenders in high school to a plug-and-play winger in his debut pro season.
"He's our shooter," Sharks director of scouting Doug Wilson Jr. told The Hockey News for our Future Watch issue. "He's in very good shape, he's a goal-scorer, he's got speed. He's someone we're grooming to be a future top-six goal-scorer."
At this point, it seems like he's trending more to become a long-term middle-six playmaking winger that can play higher in a pinch. His defensive game has taken nice strides since he was selected and scouts have praised his work ethic with and without the puck, and on and off the ice. For the Sharks, who sat 28th in goals for last season, having an inexpensive young gun in the lineup is a nice touch, and if he keeps playing the way he has through four NHL games, he'll find some luck along the way.
It's still early days in Leonard's NHL career, but this is someone that they likely didn't have high expectations for when he was selected. He's already fallen to the third line, but that was to be expected. It's a better fit, for sure, and he almost scored after hitting the iron on Wednesday evening.
But his development can be seen viewed as a high success just solely for the fact that he made an impact in camp and in his NHL debut to beat out a few veterans to make the opening day roster. As it stands, Leonard might be the only player other than New Jersey's Yegor Sharangovich to get selected after the third round in 2018 and stick in the big leagues and joins defenseman Mario Ferraro as the only player selected since 2017 to make the Sharks.
Now that's what you call value.