Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series of stories checking in with college hockey personalities, past and present.
CHICAGO — You can forgive Nick Leddy if he has to stop and pinch himself every now and again these days.
Still only 22 years old, Leddy is experiencing a year that most hockey players can only dream about in their lifetime.
After racking up solid numbers (31 games, 3 goals, 13 assists, 12 penalty minutes) for a diminutive 5-foot-11, 190-pound defenseman with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL during the NHL lockout, things truly began to turn once the shortened season started for Chicago in January. And he has never looked back.
Nor have the Blackhawks.
Leddy, in just 48 regular-season games, doubled the goal production of his rookie year, posting six tallies and 18 points. He finished with an impressive plus-15 rating in the high-octane Western Conference, and along the way, he developed a strong bond with veteran teammate Michal Rozsival. The pair — complete with muscle, grit and the ability to eat up quality ice time in several different situations — fit right into the team’s plans as they occupied the third line of defense. They were a key combination as Chicago easily secured the No. 1 seed in the West and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
But Leddy has also shown the versatility — and a strong enough shot from the point — to allow the Blackhawks to mix and match some defensive pairings as well. He also jumps on the power play, in fact, with Brent Seabrook at times.
“He’s also making sure we’re killing plays and defending quickly in the puck area,” Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said, “as well as eliminating players with a puck-possession game in their zone.”
Not bad for a 2009 first-round pick out of Minnesota, and an Eden Prairie, Minn., native who was drafted by his home-state team, the Minnesota Wild, only to be given up by it in a 2010 trade with Chicago.
Well, the Blackhawks are having the last laugh now, and in the midst of their Stanley Cup Final series vs. the Boston Bruins, Leddy talked to USCHO in the locker room about the past, present and future. Here’s an edited transcript of that conversation:
USCHO: It’s easy to get caught up in the moment during the NHL playoffs. It’s easy to be in awe, and that often gets the best of younger players this time of year. For you, this hasn’t been the case. What’s your secret?
Leddy: I think you just try to keep it simple, not think too much out there. I’ve said that a lot lately, I know. But I know that I’ve got to keep focusing on the game, what I need to do in the game, and when I’m out there, just try to make the best of it.
USCHO: As games roll on in the postseason, and matchups develop, sometimes the third line defensive pairing isn’t always out there. You look at Game 1, with three overtimes, there were a lot of times when Quenneville had you on the bench. In Game 4, as Quenneville pointed out, the flow of the game didn’t suit your line and you only had four shifts. Does that get frustrating?
Leddy: Obviously, I want to be out there. But you can’t focus on what’s not happening out there. I think I’ve just got to keep getting better as a player and keep playing. However much that is in a certain game, that’s what it is. We’re playing for a Stanley Cup here, and that’s what’s most important.
USCHO: You had a short but successful career with the Golden Gophers, winning the program’s rookie of the year award in 2010. You played in all 82 regular-season games last year with the Blackhawks, and all 48 this regular season. You are becoming a bit of an ironman in a tough league, but is there anything in your upbringing as a player that prepared you to play essentially six periods of hockey in Game 1 vs. the Bruins?
Leddy: No, not at all. Not even close. But again, you just try not to think about those things. Adrenaline takes over, and you get ready and focus for the next shift. You just kind of know how your body feels at this point, it’s been a long postseason, what you need to do to make yourself feel better, recover. I think you just try to stick to those things.
USCHO: This is a rare Stanley Cup Final, the first since 1995 where the two teams didn’t see each other in the regular season. So there has probably been a bit of a feeling-out process for both clubs, even as the series rolls on. Did you watch much tape of Boston in preparation, and are they as good on the ice as they seem to us?
Leddy: Well, they beat some pretty good teams in the East, and beat them handily, so we knew what kind of a team was coming in. They won a Cup two years ago, they have four lines, any of them can beat you on any shift. So I think you really have got to try and keep things simple, not try and do too much out there. I think during the season we can kind of get away from that at times. You can’t do that now.
USCHO: A big story line for this Chicago team has been its depth on the back line, and certainly you’re a huge part of that. Do you ever stop to look around in the locker room, or on the bench, at the collection of blueliners this team has? Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and your regular partner, Michal. That’s an impressive group.
Leddy: The depth is something that has been there all season, and it’s certainly important. But at this stage, you know, everybody’s playing great team defense. The forwards have been, as well, and that’s been huge.
USCHO: The Bruins appeared to be the aggressor for most of Game 2, and they won it overtime when your defensive pairing was on the ice to tie the series. It’s been a swing of momentum for both teams throughout the Final, but in Game 2, Daniel Paille skated around you and beat goaltender Corey Crawford for the winner. Did you see a difference in play from Boston, more desperation perhaps?
Leddy: Well, we kind of just got away from our game plan and it worked out to their favor. You have to give them credit. They did a really good job. It’s on us as defensemen to get the play moving, get out of trouble and get the puck into their zone. We didn’t do enough of that. And we have to bear down a little more and go from there.
USCHO: This playoff run started with a first-round win against the Wild. You had the opportunity to play in your home state, you defeated your original team in five games, and you even had an assist in the series. Was that a special time for you?
Leddy: It was. Definitely. I’m here now, happy to be in Chicago, it’s a great organization. But I’ll always love Minnesota.