|NHL.com: Impact Magazine|
|"He's got the hands of a scoring forward. And the important part of his makeup is he never looks rushed in practice. One of these days, he's just going to emerge and everyone will wonder where this kid came from." - - Calgary's Jarome Iginla on Jordan Leopold|
There are glimpses of greatness that rush through our mind every time we see or think about certain young players. For me, a player like that is Calgary Flames defenseman Jordan Leopold.
Listening to Flames coach Darryl Sutter talk about how his team needs his 23-year-old defenseman to step up and make an impact before Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals and you'd think that Leopold was just biding his time, occupying space on the blue line for more than 20 minutes a night. Far from it.
But the glimpse I remember is of Leopold as a senior at the University of Minnesota, when he sparked the Golden Gophers to the NCAA title and won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player after scoring 20 goals and 28 assists in just 44 regular-season games.
I still swear that if you put a puck on Leopold's stick and give him some time and space to work with, you've got the possibly of one of those glimpses of greatness that I spoke of.
Sometimes you just don't see the whole picture. Just glimpses and in this case, glimpses of skill and talent and the kind of play by a youngster on hockey's center stage.
The problem is most young players don't have the confidence to use those skills every shift when they are just in their second NHL season. It takes time. But with the Stanley Cup on the line, now is the time to push and prod young players, making them realize that with the right impetus -- like playing for the Cup -- they will show you how ready they really are for prime time.
"We just wait and watch for Jordan to show his stuff," Flames captain Jarome Iginla said before the Finals. "He's got the hands of a scoring forward. And the important part of his makeup is he never looks rushed in practice. One of these days, he's just going to emerge and everyone will wonder where this kid came from."
The pep talk by Sutter worked for Game 3 as Leopold helped set up the Flames' first goal and was on the ice for Calgary's other power-play goal by Iginla in a 3-0 victory. In just over 23 minutes of ice time, Leopold was solid if unspectacular, contributing the one assist and playing strong on defense with partner Robyn Regehr as they played 34 shifts -- most of them against the red-hot line of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.
"I have to play my game and my role and, I guess, that's skating and moving pucks and making plays," Leopold said before the Finals, sporting a thick, red beard that looked better on him that many of the older veterans on the Flames.
Still, when playing for a taskmaster like Sutter, you know you have to put in your work on defense first. The offensive part of your game is always there once you have made your impression in the NHL on defense.
|"I just want to be known as a complete player and, to me, that means being better on the defensive end of things first." -- Jordan Leopold|
That's where we are crossing Jordan's career right now.
What is so puzzling is that we've seen the great offensive skills by Leopold. That's what made an impression on NHL scouts (first pick by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and 44th overall selection in the 1999 Entry Draft) and college hockey fans and earned him a shot at the big stage in his first professional training camp in September of 2003.
But getting to know Jordan Leopold the defenseman first is how the Golden Valley, Minnesota native wants it.
"Some people back home encourage me to skate with the puck like I'm going to have the same kind of impact in this series like Bobby Orr might," Leopold laughed before the Finals. "I just want to be known as a complete player and, to me, that means being better on the defensive end of things first."
It's easy to see why some teammates say he's 23 going on 28 with the patience and poise he displays to them every day.
Former Flames GM Craig Button was so taken by Leopold's skills that he traded giant winger Andrei Nazarov and a second-round draft choice in 2001 to the Mighty Ducks for Leopold's NHL rights in September of 2000. Don't be surprised if in the future this deal is considered one of the steals of the game.
The reason we spend so much time talking about a player who has yet to show off those immense offensive skills is because of the inherent glimpses of talent we see, plus the special personality Leopold brings with him.
|Leopold was one of only three Flames to play in all 82 regular-season games, leading Calgary defenseman in points with 33. He averaged 22:13, only seven seconds off the team-leading amount played by Robin Regehr. Leopold also compiled a plus-8, compared to his team-worst minus-15 last season.|
This is not just another rink rat from the state of Minnesota, where high school hockey is at its best and U.S. hockey players invariably are spawned.
"I always loved to skate," Leopold admitted. "I'd go to the park to skate on the ice in the winters and when the weather was warm, I'd be on roller blades skating in my driveway or playing street hockey somewhere in the neighborhood.
"No one pushed me to play this game, it's just something I always wanted to do, and my parents still have a few holes and dents in the garage to prove how much I wanted to improve my shot. We weren't supposed to use real pucks in the driveway ... but, you know, kids will be kids, even if my dad wasn't too happy when he learned about what we had done to the garage."
And Leopold's rise to fame hasn't come without problems, the kind of health problems that probably kept him out of the first round of the draft. You see, Jordan carries an inhaler around with him, because of a respiratory condition that is caused by an inflammation of the lung passage linings that can narrow his airways and reduce the intake of oxygen.
"Being up in the Calgary altitude really helps," Leopold explained. "I just take my inhaler before the game and that's it, really. Maybe before practice -- it depends on how I'm feeling that day.
"I've only had one asthma attack, thankfully. I was 15 or 16 and it felt like someone was standing on my chest. But that's the wonder of these inhalers, they open up your bronchial tubes. Actually, what really got me here at first was sleeping, where I tended to get a lot more headaches from the air pressure and the dry air. That took more time to adjust to than the asthma."
For now, Leopold is growing up fast, marrying his college sweetheart, Jamie, after his senior year at Minnesota and having the responsibility of a being a dad to his daughter, Jordyn, another redhead.
On the ice, Leopold was one of only three Flames to play in all 82 regular-season games, leading Calgary defenseman in points with 33. He averaged 22:13, only seven seconds off the team-leading amount played by Regehr. Leopold also compiled a plus-8, compared to his team-worst minus-15 last season.
In the playoffs, Leopold's plus-5 and 10 points paced all Flames defensemen. His playing time was up, too, to 25:41 per game, second behind Regehr.
"Just watching him, you can see there's a lot of patience, poise in his game," Red Wings veteran defenseman Chris Chelios said after seeing Leopold's game up close in the playoffs. "He's a good skater. Smart -- plays the game with his head up, looking to make plays."
|"No one pushed me to play this game, it's just something I always wanted to do, and my parents still have a few holes and dents in the garage to prove how much I wanted to improve my shot. We weren't supposed to use real pucks in the driveway ... but, you know, kids will be kids, even if my dad wasn't too happy when he learned about what we had done to the garage." -- Jordan Leopold|
In August, Leopold could be paired with Chelios or Toronto star Brian Leetch for that matter as Team USA prepares for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. At 23, he is the only under-30 defenseman on the U.S. roster.
Which tells you a little bit about how much officials on that team, like St. Louis Blues GM Larry Pleau and Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell think of Leopold's skills now -- not just in the future.
"I've been telling people, 'I'm just going to get my notebook out and take notes on everything I learn on that stage,' " Leopold smiled.
He's acutely aware that the stage of playing for the Stanley Cup is a pretty exclusive stage as well.
What's interesting is that he's being encouraged to be all he can be now -- at a time when one or two defensemen typically show off their skills, like Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski did for the New Jersey Devils and Sandis Ozolinsh did for the Mighty Ducks in last year's Stanley Cup Finals.
I've always believed one of the main ingredients to winning a Stanley Cup is having defensemen who can move the puck up the ice in transition to start the offense, plus be ready to step into the offense and make a play when the defense seems to be covering every available forward.
All of this proves that the defense never rests in the NHL anymore and defensemen have sort of become a secret weapon. The next secret weapon? Don't be surprised if it's Jordan Leopold.