Leppard heating up for Cougars 

Dying-seconds overtime assist latest feat for Whistlerite

click to enlarge PHOTO BY SCOTT AUDETTE/TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING - Finding his spots Jackson Leppard, shown here at the Tampa Bay Lightning development camp this summer, is hitting his stride with his junior team, the Prince George Cougars.
  • Photo by Scott Audette/Tampa Bay Lightning
  • Finding his spots Jackson Leppard, shown here at the Tampa Bay Lightning development camp this summer, is hitting his stride with his junior team, the Prince George Cougars.

It may seem a little counterintuitive, but Whistler's Jackson Leppard took a bit of time readjusting from Tampa Bay Lightning main camp to his junior club, the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.His first nine games saw the 19-year-old chip in just a pair of assists, and much more was expected from the prospect.

"It might have been just a change coming back from the Tampa Bay main camp and getting used to how the WHL games go differently. You have to adjust to that pace and find a way to score," he said. "It's different hockey in the Dub compared to playing with NHL guys."

Leppard's first goal didn't come until his 10th game of the season in a 2-1 win over the host Kootenay Ice, but since then he has three goals and four assists in 10 games, including a three-point effort to help lift the Cougars over the Swift Current Broncos on Oct. 21.

"Once I got that goal, it kind of took off from there," he said. "I've been starting to put up some more points and the team's been doing well. It's been all coming together lately in the last 10 games or so."

Leppard also set up the overtime winner in the Cougars' Nov. 15 win over Kelowna, setting up Josh Maser with just six seconds remaining in the extra frame.

Part of Leppard's recent strength has come from playing with Cougars' leading scorer Vladislav Mikhalchuk and rookie Brendan Boyle, as they've found chemistry over the past few weeks.

Though it wasn't a smooth transition from Florida back to northern B.C., Leppard has soaked in the experience like it was the Tampa sun.

"It was pretty cool going there and getting to see some of the faces of NHL stars like (Steven) Stamkos and (Nikita) Kucherov, being around them and in the same locker room as them," he said. "It was a great experience and I learned a lot."

Leppard will use his NHL knowledge as he tries to catch a pro club's eye in advance of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, where any of the league's 31 teams can scoop him up. Despite being ranked by NHL Central Scouting, Leppard went undrafted in 2018 but was invited to camp by the Lightning on an amateur tryout.

"(You see) how they present themselves, carry themselves off the ice, for sure. It's really professional," he said. "Their first few steps are so fast. They're always ready to go for every drill and every game. It's a professional league, so they're getting paid lots of money and they've got to start every night and every practice ready or else someone's going to come and take their job.

"It's good to learn and have that experience."

Before the season, Leppard was named as one of the Cougars' four alternate captains by head coach Richard Matvichuk as he's set to help guide a team with seven freshmen players.

"We're a pretty young team, but we get along pretty well. We're in a good mood and getting along really well. Coach has been happy with us. It's a pretty good atmosphere right now," he said.

Matvichuk told the Prince George Citizen in August that he liked what he saw from Leppard in training camp and felt he was primed for a strong season.

"He worked out real hard over the summer and put some meat on his bones and he did the right things and is proving it here in camp. That's why he got the invitation to go (to Tampa). I'm sure he has the fire in his belly knowing that he didn't get drafted and what he can do now is put the past behind him and get ready to go get drafted this year," Matvichuk, a 1999 Stanley Cup champion, said.

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