Our annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown is rolling right along! The rankings were determined by a combination of reader voting and our staff’s own voting. We then combined the reader rankings (50%) and the staff rankings (50%) to determine the top 25. To be eligible for the countdown, a player must be 24 or younger on October 5, 2017, when the 2017-18 NHL season begins.
We’re taking a look at the best and the brightest in the Los Angeles Kings organization in our fifth annual Top 25 Under 25 countdown. Our next prospect, at #16: Zac Leslie.
2016-17 Team: Ontario Reign (AHL)
2016-17 Statistics: 65 GP, 5 G, 18 A, 23 P (AHL)
Current NHL Projection (via NHLe): 82 GP, 3 G, 10 A, 13 P (based on AHL total)
Jewels Reader Ranking: 22
Jewels Staff Ranking: 11
We seldom hear much about Zac Leslie outside of these annual countdowns. After debuting right at #25 in 2014, he jumped eight spots to #17 in 2015. That year he failed to separate himself from a deep Kings’ defensive pool, getting demoted to Manchester in the ECHL and slipping back to #23 in our 2016 rankings.
This past season, Leslie managed to salvage his prospect status by playing the whole season with the Ontario Reign. The puck-mover finish second among Reign defensemen in scoring, netting five goals and eighteen assists.
Despite finishing the year -13, Reign coach Mike Stothers was pleased with his development, as told to former Reign insider Lindsay Czarnecki:
“Les is quietly putting together a pretty good game,” Stothers said of Leslie, who was drafted by the Kings in 2013 in the sixth round. “He’s starting to round into that offensive, mobile defensemen that we were looking for that was going to contribute with some points and skate pucks out of trouble and be part of your power play and I think he’s feeling more comfortable. It’s good to see. That’s what we’ve been waiting for.”
Following the graduations of Derek Forbort, Kevin Gravel and Paul LaDue to the NHL, Leslie leaped up the defensive pecking order and made the most of his opportunity. Now with the departure of Reign captain Vincent LoVerde, expect Leslie to assume even more responsibility in the upcoming season.
Leslie is built in the mold of Kevin Gravel, holding his own in all areas of the game without necessarily excelling in any of them. He appears to have a bit more offensive upside than Gravel, averaging a slightly better 0.35/PPG than Gravel did during his own age-22 season in the AHL (0.26/PPG). Both are also products of the Kings’ preferred prospect trees. Gravel played two seasons with St. Cloud State University, while Leslie grew up in the OHL, playing four seasons with the Guelph Storm.
After being a fixture on the Reign’s power play last season, expect to see Stothers increase Leslie’s responsibility this year, using him in all situations. A modern, mobile defensemen, expectations that his offensive skillset manifests itself at the NHL level should be modest. Much like LaDue and Gravel before him, he will have to utilize his skating and make quick decisions with the puck if he ever wants to crack the Kings’ roster. He projects as a bottom-pairing defensemen, generally the best you can hope for out of a sixth-round draft pick.
At 23 years-old, 2017-18 will not necessarily be a make-or-break year for Leslie, though it could be. If he fails to take another step forward with added visibility on the Reign blue line, he could see himself passed up by some of the Kings’ younger, more high-profile defensemen. If he continues to round-out his game, he could rise from the fringes and position himself to challenge for a call-up as soon as the 2018-19 season.