June 22, 2019 will be a day that former linemates Brett Leason and Aliaksei Protas remember for a lifetime, as both of the Prince Albert Raiders were drafted in successive rounds of the 2019 NHL entry draft by the Washington Capitals. Leason and Protas were the first Raiders players to be taken by the Capitals since Ross Lupaschuk was picked in the second round of the 1999 NHL Draft.
Leason, who was passed over in the the previous two drafts, was the Capitals second round pick (56th overall), while linemate Aliaksei Protas went in the third round (91st overall) after the Capitals traded up the draft board to take a pick that belonged to the New Jersey Devils. (The Devils acquired pick from the San Jose Sharks earlier in the day).
“We had them close together on our draft board,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said during a media scrum.
“When we had our first round pick we had a chance to get (London Knights forward) Connor McMichael or Brett Leason, but we didn’t think we’d end up with both of them. We didn’t think Protas was going to be around when we picked again, so we moved up to draft him.”
18 months later, the three picks have the potential of turning out to be the best three picks made by the Capitals in the first three rounds of a draft in franchise history.
BEFORE AND AFTER THE DRAFT
A New Leason Life
Brett Leason’s career in the WHL started slowly. (This would become a recurring theme for Leason). Originally selected by the Tri-City Americans, Leason found himself on a roster stacked with 20-year-old forward prospects. He would total just nine goals and 10 assists in 81 games played spread over parts of three seasons before requesting the club for a trade. On October 26, 2017, the Americans traded Leason to the Prince Albert Raiders.
As we’ve seen before, sometimes a change in scenery is all that’s needed. Leason would finish the remainder of the 2017-2018 season scoring 15 goals and registering 17 assists in 54 games with the Raiders. Unfortunately for him, the improvement went unnoticed by NHL teams, as Leason was passed over once again in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
“So I think that pushed me and motivated me to have the summer I did and the season that I did, never giving up and even now, continuing to push it and try to be the best I can be.”
Leason would continue his strong play the following season, scoring 36 goals and registering 53 assists in 55 games played for the Raiders. Leason was now on everyone’s draft list. The Capitals grabbed him in the second round. The Capitals would sign Leason to an entry-level deal just days after his first development camp with the team.
According to SportsNet, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan told Leason that he’d spend the year in Hershey and that he needs to work on being quicker and making smarter decisions along the wall, among other things. He’d then come back with a year of pro experience under his belt and be better equipped to have a strong crack at making the Capitals next season.
Leason, now 21, indeed spent the following season in Hershey getting acclimated to the AHL. The Calgary native struggled for most of his first professional season. In the end, he recorded just three goals and 11 assists in 50 games played.
“Everyone’s good, everyone’s quick, so that’s something I’m still trying to figure out,” he said to SportsNet. “I’m working on my release, trying to get that off quick, trying to solve small things, just trying to play smarter and quicker. But so far it’s been good, been getting chances, but the puck’s not bouncing my way right now.”
Hershey head coach Spencer Carbery said earlier in the season that he’s not concerned about Leason’s lack of production so far, but rather is focused on helping him create opportunities to set him up long term.
“He just has to get comfortable with the speed, the heaviness, being able to use his body and his reach, because he has great hands, he can finish, he’s really strong on his stick, which is another really good quality for a power forward like himself for finding pucks and pulling pucks out of tight areas,” Carberry said.
“So he’ll just get more and more comfortable with that, but … we’re focusing on details with him, that’s going to help him down the road be an NHL player for years to come.”
Carbery said Leason could also stand to get stronger so he can use his frame more effectively along the boards and in front of the net, and improve his skating so he can create separation from defenders in the O-zone or off the rush.
Following the 2019 draft, Protas, 19, returned to Prince Albert for the 2019-20 season and did very well. He would switch from wing to center, where he has been playing ever since.
The 2018-2019 season was Protas’ first in North America. For the season he would record 11 goals and 29 assists in 61 games (.65 points per game) for the Raiders. Protas would eventually work his way up to the top line by the end of the season, with Brett Leason and Sean Montgomery. The Raiders would go on to win the Ed Chynoweth Cup. Protas would also record two goals and three assists for the Bealrus Junior team in the World Juniors.
The 2019-2020 season was a tale of two seasons for the Viper. Protas, who was selected as an Alternate Captain, started the season with 18 goals and 24 assists in just 27 games (1.55 points per game) before departing for the World Juniors at the end of November. Following a very good showing for Team Belarus where he recorded four goals and three assists in just five games (1.40 points per game), Protas returned to Prince Albert in late December. The second half of the season was not as productive, as Protas may have been running out of gas. He recorded 13 goals and 25 assists in 31 games (1.22 points per game).
Protas was set to return to Prince Albert for a third season when COVID-19 shutdown the hockey world in early March and delayed the start of the 2019-2020 WHL season. Protas was subsequently offered a spot on the roster of his hometown team the Dinamo Minsk of the KHL, but Protas initially decided to pass.
In a recent interview with Hockey.by, Protas detailed his meeting with Dinamo Minsk officials in late July and his decision to initially pass on an offer from the team and focus on returning to the Prince Albert Raiders for a third season.
However, the WHL announced in early August that it was now scheduled to open its 2020-21 Regular Season on Friday, December 4, 2020 (later changed to January, 2021). Thus, the option to remain home and play for Dinamo may have become his best option for playing any hockey at all this fall. The Capitals announced on August 7 that they had loaned Protas to Dinamo Minsk of the KHL.
Protas has done well at learning the KHL game, and has shown signs of flourishing in the league. He looks comfortable on the ice, playing with men much older and has done well in playing Dinamo’s team game. He continues to see time on the team’s first power play unit and has been responsible in his own zone. He has six goals and four assists in 32 games, centering the third line, and occasionally centers the top line for Dinamo Minsk.
Protas was named KHL Rookie of the Week on November 16, after leading Dinamo Minsk to win three of three away games and scoring 3 (1+2) points. He also scored his fifth goal of the season, setting a new franchise record for Dinamo Minsk for most goals in a season by a 19-year-old.
As noted, Protas and Leason spent part of the 2018-19 season, just prior to the draft, together on the top line with veteran Sean Montgomery. The entire line flourished and ultimately won the WHL championship. Montgomery himself had 29 goals and 30 assists in their championship season and 8 goals and 6 assists in 23 playoff games.
Protas finished the regular season (his first in the WHL) with 11 goals and 29 assists in the regular season, and 12 goals and 10 assists in the postseason. Leason finished the regular season (his 3rd in the WHL) with 36 goals and 53 assists in the regular season and 10 goals and 15 assists in 22 playoff games.
Leason surged in his final season before the draft, but Protas did as well. Was it being on a line that was scoring a lot of goals? It can be a challenge assessing two players who share a top line with a high-scoring veteran like Montgomery. Who was really driving the scoring? Are we’re they all driving the scoring?
It’s surprising and disappointing that Leason has been essentially sitting idle since early March. After a disappointing rookie campaign, Leason was in need of playing time as much as any other Capitals prospect. 2019 will essentially go down as a null season in the 21 year-old’s hockey career. Regardless, he will need to show himself for the Bears this upcoming season.
Protas’ success in the KHL in just 30+ games is not only eye-opening, but it’s even a tad bit surprising, as the 19-year-old looks extremely comfortable playing in a league of men. He has areas to work on, but who doesn’t at the age of 19.
It would be best if he finished out the season in the KHL, rather than returning to the WHL, however contracts, rules and/or agreements might forbid that from happening. Regardless, look for Protas to show up in Capitals training camp in September fighting for a spot on the roster.
Neither Leason nor Protas have been back to DC since training camp last season, as neither participated in the Capitals summer training camp. Hopefully they can both find a way to be included in the Capitals upcoming training camp ahead of the 2020-21 season.
Aliaksei Protas sets Dinamo Minsk record for most goals in a season by 19-year-old
Aliaksei Protas wins KHL rookie of the week
Bret Leason: Giving The Capitals Prospect Pool A New Leason Life
Initial Analysis Of Capitals Draft Pick Brett Leason
By Jon Sorensen