Playing for the most northern team in the entire CHL hasn't kept local Jackson Leppard off the map.
Leppard, in his second full season with the Prince George Cougars, was one of just 27 WHL players to appear on NHL Central Scouting's preliminary "Players to Watch" list. Released in October, the list identifies prospects that will likely be selected in the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas, Texas.
"(As soon as) you start playing hockey, you watch the NHL and just want to be there," said Leppard. "To be on (the list), I guess it can make that step a little more realistic. But you just have to keep working and hopefully that dream comes true."
After playing in just 35 games last season and notching four points, Leppard has taken on an expanded role on this year's team and is proving that his spot on the Central Scouting list is no fluke. Through 17 games, he's blown past last season's point total, scoring six goals and adding four assists. He credits getting more opportunity, as well as his line-mates Jared Bethune and Kody MacDonald, for his strong opening.
"For me personally, I think it was just confidence. That and playing on a really good line now," said Leppard. "Last year we had an older team and I didn't get much opportunity, and this year it's changed. It's really opened up a lot of new spots and the young guys have slots to fill. I think I've handled it all pretty well and I'm taking advantage of my opportunities, so that's led to some success for me at the start."
Leppard has had a few meetings with scouts already, including a chat with his dad's favourite childhood team, the Chicago Blackhawks, which led to a phone call home immediately afterwards. Ultimately, Leppard just wants hear his name called at the draft, but he wouldn't mind playing in larger metropolitan areas like New York, Toronto or Vancouver.
In his short WHL career, the 17-year-old has shown a willingness to fill a lot of different roles on a hockey team, including occasionally dropping the gloves. But when he thinks about the next level, Leppard would like to some day slot in as a top-six forward.
"I see myself as a power forward. I have some skill, maybe like a second line guy in the NHL is where I can see myself going if I really work at it. That's a long ways from now, but that's where I hope to be."
The "Players to Watch" list has accompanying letter grades for each prospect, rating roughly where they could expect to hear their names called. Leppard currently has a C-rating, meaning he's a candidate to go in the fourth round or later. But he's very aware that a lot can change between now and the draft in June.
"It's early on in the season, so I'm not looking at it too much. I think it's cool to be a part of, but if you're working and have a great season, anything can really happen in the draft, and you never really know until the day. I'm just going to keep working throughout the season and hope we have a good year," said Leppard.
It hasn't been the best start for the 2017-18 Cougars, but some struggles are understandable for a team going through as much roster turnover as it is. The top six scorers from last season's B.C. Division Champions are all gone after forward Nikita Popugaev returned home to Moscow for personal reasons. Yet Leppard likes how this team is adjusting.
"We've had some really good games where we've beaten top teams like Portland, and I think we're still trying to gel. We're a pretty young team... but I think once we all figure it out and play that team game, we're going to do pretty well. I think it'll take a little time, but we're starting to go here."
Even as his career carries him further away from the mountains, Leppard continues to keep tabs on his fellow Whistler players. He made a special point of shouting out the efforts of Will Warm (Edmonton Oil Kings) Beck Warm (Tri-City Americans), Tyler Welsh (Yale Bulldogs), Nolan Welsh (Prince George Spruce Kings) and Noah Brusse (Princeton Posse).