The following is excerpted from the January 2015 issue of Blackhawks Magazine. Pick up the newest issue of the magazine at the next Blackhawks home game, or by calling the Blackhawks Store at 312-759-0079.
This is how you achieve depth: This past summer, Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman traded away Nick Leddy, a young, mobile defenseman with a Stanley Cup ring, flipping him for two defensive prospects.
While the immediate impact of the swap was salary cap compliance, it’s becoming clearer as the season progresses that Bowman was able to strengthen the blue line at the American Hockey League level. Chicago acquired T.J. Brennan and Ville Pokka in the deal, and it’s difficult to overstate the impact the duo has made in Rockford.
A late-bloomer from South Jersey who didn’t start playing ice hockey until he was 11 years old, Brennan was a second-round selection in the 2007 NHL Draft and has 40 games of NHL experience. He spent last season with the Toronto Marlies, then signed a free-agent deal with the Islanders in the summer, with the expectation that he would get a genuine shot at making their NHL roster. After all, the Isles needed help on the blue line, and Brennan was the reigning AHL Defenseman of the Year.
Despite the abrupt change in plans, Brennan’s self-motivation never wavered.
“You aren’t exactly expecting some things like being traded and kind of thrown around, so to speak, on different teams,” Brennan said. “It definitely changes your perspective. I think it’s our job to find the positives in that, and fortunately I’ve been able to do that with a lot of support from family and friends, and obviously fellow teammates along the way.”
Pokka, a native of Tornio, Finland, is technically already a pro at age 20, having lived on his own while playing for Karpat in the Finnish League the previous three seasons. The former second-round pick had a wildly successful 2013-14 campaign, notching 27 points in 54 regular-season games before adding 11 more points in the playoffs, which ended with a league title. That was his second trophy of the year, having won gold with Finland at World Juniors in midseason. But past success is best left behind as a warm memory, and Pokka had barely set foot in Long Island before he got the notice that he’d be playing his first North American hockey 800 miles west.
“I was surprised, but it’s the business here—you never know what happens,” he said. “But I’m happy to be here and be part of the Blackhawks organization.”
For both players, the trade may have been unexpected, but for Chicago’s GM of Minor League Affiliations Mark Bernard, it was like Christmas in October.
“When I found out we were getting Brennan as part of the deal, I was absolutely thrilled,” Bernard said. “Not only is he a big player here in Rockford, I think he’s a great depth player for us in Chicago—a player that has the ability to go up and play games.... Ville is a very young player coming over from Europe for the first time. He plays a very safe game, makes good easy plays. He really thinks the game well, has great hockey sense and skates well.”
Brennan and Pokka found instant chemistry and have skated together since November, after Pokka returned from an injury at the start of the season.
“He’s been a good offensive player, plays good with the puck and you can always pass to him,” Pokka said of Brennan. “He’s helped me, and (the partnership has) been good for me.”
“Ville is a really smart player,” Brennan returned. “He has a great skill set and he’s a good skater and good defensively, but he’s a good listener, and I think that has contributed to our success playing together. We help each other out a lot and listen to each other.”