By no accounts did the Guelph Storm experience a losing or embattled season. The Ontario Hockey League club won 38 of 68 games and defeated the Owen Sound Attack four games to one in their first round playoff match-up. For a team that hasn’t lost more regulation games than it won in over a decade, this past season represented a commendable weathering of the familiar junior hockey competitive cycle one season after a more senior Storm club won the OHL Championship and appeared in the Memorial Cup championship game.
The season wasn’t quite as formulaic for Kings defensive prospect Zac Leslie. A well-regarded member of the 2013 draft class, Leslie, a sixth round pick, followed up his 60-game, 57-point championship season with a solid 11-goal, 48-point effort in 57 games made all the more impressive considering that Guelph wasn’t the 340-goal offensive juggernaut that they were the previous season.
But as a 20-year-old, Leslie had to contend with the disappointment of not having cracked the Manchester Monarchs’ roster last fall as a skater eligible to play in either the AHL or be returned to his junior club for an overage season.
“I think it’s always tough when you essentially get cut from a team that you wanted an opportunity to play for. It’s obviously not easy,” Leslie said at the Kings’ development camp in El Segundo on Tuesday. “On top of that, I was going back to a team that really had a big transition from the team we had the year before to a younger team with a lot of younger players and a lot of guys just getting their feet wet in junior hockey. So it was something that was definitely a whole different experience for me. I didn’t have the best start to the year that I think I would’ve wanted. I think coming back from Manchester I wasn’t really into it as much, I guess. As the season went on, I really came into my own, obviously. I felt like I was playing really well up until I had to get shut down.”
The “shut down” he referenced came in late February, 2015 after he had dealt with a shoulder injury that had caused “on and off” pain and required surgery, according to a report in the Guelph Mercury. As is often the case with injuries, the decision to undergo surgery came at a difficult time, right when Leslie had been playing his best hockey of the season, having potted seven goals and 22 points with a plus-12 rating in 25 games after the turn of the calendar.
At development camp, Leslie has been confined mostly to the outside of the glass and off-ice conditioning work. According to hockey operations, he has recovered well and should be ready to fully participate in training camp this fall, when he’s expected to again contend for a spot on the AHL club’s blue line.
A mobile and versatile defender with a good stick who makes good reads and is capable of advancing the puck quickly, Leslie has an important year ahead of him and despite the truncated season will be better equipped to lock down a spot as a member of Ontario’s defensive corps.
“It’s exciting that it’s kind of a new scenario for everyone going to Ontario. No one really knows what we’re going to expect yet,” he said. “They’ve had an East Coast hockey team for a little bit, so we know that there is definitely a fan base there but it’s something new for everybody. I think to have the opportunity to play there for their inaugural AHL season, it excites me. Being off as long as I have, it excites me to get back going. It’s nice being around the guys. When your season gets cut short, you don’t have that experience with the players going to the playoffs and stuff like that. So it’s nice being around the guys and starting to get revved up and ready to go for training camp.”
Zac Leslie, on what he’s heard about playing in Ontario:
Not much, I know Eebs (Nick Ebert) played there a bit at the tail of one of his OHL seasons and Roachie (Alex Roach) played there, too. We haven’t heard much. There’s not much I know right now. It’s California, so it’s a whole new ballgame for us Canadians. But I think it’s something that I’m excited for and I’m excited for the challenge to earn a spot there and to produce.
Leslie, on how he has developed since last year:
I think like any player coming back, you mature over the course of a season. I think this year, especially, I did a lot more maturing having to help out and be a bit of a mentor to all of the young guys. Back in Guelph, that was something that I hadn’t had that experience. Most of the guys on my team were always my age or older, so that was a whole new experience. I think I did a good job helping out those young guys and that was something new for me that I’d never had the experience of doing before. So I think that’s just going help me mature going forward.
Leslie, on whether he chats with Rob Blake at camp:
Yeah, I mean we talk here and there. I know that they’ve got a lot going on, so most of my stuff is done with the development guys. Yeah for sure, they’ve pulled me aside and asked how my shoulder is doing and how my summer is going, stuff like that. The little things just make you feel welcomed here.
Leslie, on whether the rehab process has happened like he expected:
Not really, I think it’s what everyone expected but I’d never had a major injury like that before. It was a long process, especially not the first month or so but two months, three months it starts to feel good but you’re still at that place where you can’t really push it to where you want. So that was the most frustrating part, it felt fairly good but I still wasn’t healed enough to where I could really push it. Now that it’s starting to get healed and I can start getting back on the ice and getting into some shooting, it’s nice to just play hockey.
Leslie, on how having former teammates in Ontario could help him:
I think it’s going to help a lot. Obviously the time I spent in Manchester, I started the year and then again visited in the playoffs just to do some rehab. I know a lot of the guys there. I’m familiar with Stutsy and I know Hajter from my junior days in Guelph, as well. There are lots of familiar faces going there. I think it’s going to be an easy transition I think for everyone, it’s going to help having the familiar faces around.
Leslie, on whether this is the most important summer of his career:
I think moving forward, every summer just gets more and more important. This is my chance to push for a spot in Ontario now. After that, you just want to keep developing and keep working towards the goal of playing in the National Hockey League for the LA Kings.