JOINING TO WIN
Goaltender Antti Raanta, 24, was signed to a one-year deal on June 3, after the Blackhawks took a 2-0 series lead over the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final. Mats Hallin, the Blackhawks’ European pro scout, zeroed in on Raanta in February, and for good reason, given his lofty stats last season in the Finnish SM-liiga: a 1.85 goals-allowed average and .943 save percentage in 45 regular-season games with Assat Pori, which was somehow slightly less impressive than the 1.33 GAA and .955 SV% he recorded in 16 playoff games.
Was he perhaps monitoring the play of Corey Crawford, who was in the midst of a similarly transcendent performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
“Games are on in the middle of the night, so it was hard to stay awake,” Raanta explained. “I watched maybe two full games, but I did watch highlights afterward. It’s pretty big in Finland—there are a lot of people watching those games in the middle of the night.”
Raanta can be forgiven for missing most of his future team’s title run. After all, he was busy completing one of the greatest campaigns ever by a goaltender in the Finnish league. While the Blackhawks snatched up six trophies collectively in 2012-13; Raanta himself garnered three individual awards—the Lasse Oksanen trophy as regular-season MVP, the Urpo Ylönen trophy for best goaltender and the Jari Kurri trophy as MVP of the playoffs.
“As the year went on, his play improved, and it was clear that he was the top goaltender in Europe,” Bowman said after the signing was announced. “We’ve been on him for a while now, following him for the last number of months... Our staff worked hard and had discussions with him and his agent.”
By the time Raanta signed, center Drew LeBlanc had already entered the fold, and he had a front-row seat to the Blackhawks’ playoff run, though it wasn’t from the Chicago bench. (NHL rules stipulate that free agents acquired after the trade deadline are ineligible for postseason action.) He had joined the team in mid-April after his own miraculous postseason run and MVP coronation with the Western Collegiate Hockey League’s St. Cloud State Huskies.
As a returning captain and fifth-year senior, LeBlanc led St. Cloud to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time in the program’s history, emerging from a tough bracket that included Notre Dame and Miami of Ohio. In the semifinals, the Huskies lost to Quinnipiac 4-1, but LeBlanc’s roller-coaster ride had one more twist to it. The next night, he was announced as the 2013 Hobey Baker Memorial Award recipient as college hockey’s top individual.
The accolade was richly deserved for LeBlanc, who led the nation with 37 assists in 42 games and ranked seventh with 50 points In addition to recording career-high offensive numbers, he became the first player in the WCHA’s 52-year history to win both Student-Athlete of the Year and Player of the Year. Without a fifth season, LeBlanc may not have gotten the ultimate recognition in college hockey, but Blackhawks brass didn’t need extra convincing, having identified his potential and kept him on their fine-tuned radars two years prior.
“He was actually ready to sign with us [after attending our Prospect Camp in 2011], but his team put a hard press on him to stay,” Bowman said. “They were going to make him [a co-captain for his senior year], so he stayed.”
That fall, LeBlanc broke his leg, but he received medical exemption from the NCAA to remain with St. Cloud for a fifth season, in which he blossomed. As a promising young free agent with nearly pro-ready offensive talents, he could have gone to a team that offered immediate playing time, perhaps even a starring role. But LeBlanc was swayed by another factor: Chicago’s dynamic style of play.
“They’re a puck possession team, they love to play offense, they’re good at it, and they have a great reputation for developing their players,” LeBlanc explained. “It was what I was looking for. Yes, they’re a tougher lineup to crack, but I think they do everything the right way from top to bottom, and I want to be a part of that.”
Circumstances dictated that he join Chicago’s NHL roster instead of reporting to Rockford in the AHL, and the 24-year-old took full advantage of the opportunity. He made his debut on April 24 in Edmonton, playing 12:12 in a 4-1 win that clinched the Presidents’ Trophy for the Blackhawks.
“It happened so fast, so it was special to be a part of a team that was geared for the playoffs,” LeBlanc said. “Everything aligned, and to get a chance to play with those guys and see how they go about their business is pretty special. I think I learned a lot from them.”
After being crowned SM-liiga champion, Raanta was handed starting netminder duties for Team Finland at the IIHF World Championship, where he played in front of a partisan crowd through the quarterfinals. Despite a solid tournament and a respectable fourth-place finish, Raanta knows he’s most likely on the outside looking in when it comes to the Olympic team selection for Sochi 2014.
“Every time you get the chance to play with the national team, it’s a unique thing, and everybody is looking forward to those games,” Raanta said. “It’s hard to speak about the Olympic team because there are so many good goalies here and in Europe. Maybe I need to get playing time in the NHL to get to the Olympic Games, but you never know what could happen. Hopefully I will get to play in the NHL someday; the Olympics are not what I’m thinking of right now. I still have lots of years left, so there will be lots of games.”
Raanta’s inclusion on Team Finland for the World Championship made sense, given the type of season he just had, but LeBlanc was genuinely shocked when he got the summons from his national team.
“That was very unexpected,” he recalled. “Stan came to the rink one day and told me, ‘Yeah, you’re going to play for Team USA at the World Championship.’ That was something I never even thought of doing. It was a very unique experience for me; it’s special to play for your country, and being in that environment was very cool. I had the time of my life over there, was on a team that had some success, won a medal, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”
The Hermantown, Minn., native added another destination on his world tour map when he attended the ESPY Awards in Los Angeles later in the summer as a nominee—albeit at great odds, with Johnny Manziel also on the ballot—for “Best Male College Athlete.” On the flight to L.A., LeBlanc and his cousin encountered a special seatmate.
“We were on a plane with Michael Phelps,” LeBlanc said. “Not many people can say that they’ve sat with Michael Phelps and talked to him for an hour and a half. And to be in a room and get to meet some of the greatest athletes in the world was very cool... I don’t know, I had a really good year last year!”
BACK TO WORK
LeBlanc’s whirlwind summer has quieted down. After participating in the rookie tournament in London, Ontario, and in Blackhawks training camp at Notre Dame and in Chicago, autumn has thankfully returned him to the daily grind of another hockey season.
“I’m a very routine-oriented person, and to get back to training and being able to plan out a day-to-day schedule was good for me,” LeBlanc said. “Getting back into the swing of things and back into hockey is something I enjoy.”
LeBlanc was assigned to Rockford after playing a couple of preseason games with the Blackhawks, and while the reorientation from college hockey to the American Hockey League isn’t as drastic as a jump from junior hockey or Europe might be, there are still significant gaps to be covered.
“It’s a fast game, and things don’t slow down at all from college to pro,” LeBlanc said. “I think that’s a big thing for me—playing with speed, making decisions faster. All of the coaches are working with me in Rockford to develop that part of my game, and hopefully in a month or two or a few weeks, whenever it may be, I’ll get used to the pace.”
One thing the IceHogs do not lack is offensive firepower. Even with last year’s AHL scoring leader Brandon Pirri transitioning to the NHL, the roster boasts first-round draft picks Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill, former USHL/OHL standout Alex Broadhurst and seasoned veterans such as Jeremy Morin and Jimmy Hayes. Still, LeBlanc has made his mark in the first few weeks of the season, sharing sixth in team scoring with six points (3G, 3A) in 10 games.
“He’s off to a good start,” Bowman said. “He’s an older player, not a 20-year-old rookie, so he’s been able to make the adjustment just fine to pro hockey. He really likes to slow a game down, and playing in college, he got away with that. He’s got to do the opposite now; the program [we’ve set for him] is to speed his game up and still make those good plays. He’s got incredible talent and all those little things you can’t teach.”
Raanta’s North American debut could end up mirroring that of another late-blooming Antti—Niemi, who joined Chicago as a free agent in 2008, played one season with Rockford, then won the Stanley Cup in 2010 after proving his mettle as a starter. Bowman views Raanta as a middle rung between the experienced vets and a relatively untested prospect pool, a safety valve should calamity strike at the NHL level.
“That was a position that we wanted to get depth at,” Bowman said. “The nice thing about Antti is that he’s a little bit older. Guys like Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth, Brandon Whitney and Matt Tomkins—they’re good young guys. But Antti’s in that next category: He’s 24 years old, and he’s a guy who we think has a bright NHL future.”
After completing two training camps with Chicago and Rockford, Raanta says each minute spent on the smaller ice surface becomes easier, valuable experience absorbed with each puck. Like Niemi, Raanta’s strength lies not in pure size, but in his lateral movement, aggressiveness and reaction speed.
“I’m not a big goalie like you see in the NHL, but I try to be accurate and work my legs and hands to be in a good position,” Raanta said. “That’s my game plan. When you let some stupid things get inside your head, you make mistakes, but you just try to do your best every game, try to stop the puck and be ready for any rebounds. Trying to battle and get all the saves—that’s my style.”
With Blackhawks Developmental Goaltending Coach Andrew Allen supervising Raanta’s acclimation to the AHL, results are already beginning to show. Through his first seven appearances, Raanta was 5-1-0 with 172 saves on 187 shots (.926 SV%), and Allen likes the way his newest pupil has adapted so far.
“One of the things we have worked on the most early in the season is his angles,” he said. “It is important for him to feel comfortable with his positioning in order to use his natural instincts. Another area has been spending time on traffic situations. There is big net-front presence in the North American game; we have been working to find the best sight lines through screens.”
“[Andrew] was watching my games in Finland last season, and I got to know him before I signed here,” Raanta said. “That was a big thing for me, because I know what he wants me to do. We were on the same page right away.”
“Antti’s transition has been very good so far,” Allen added. “He came over with a great attitude: positive and willing to learn. Antti is a very calm athlete, a hard worker and student of the game. As a coach, these are the type of athletes you enjoy working with.”
Raanta’s learning curve is twofold: Not only are the rinks smaller and the game faster, more relentless, but the American lifestyle is also a big leap from the familiar pastures of Rauma, Finland, the town of 40,000 where he grew up.
“Life off the ice is pretty different,” Raanta said. “If some North American guy goes to Finland, everything is taken care of, like cars and houses, but we have to take care of everything here, [like] trying to find a place. We are young, so doing small things by ourselves and learning new things is pretty nice.”
Also different: the level of fan interaction and accessibility.
“You write something on Twitter, and straight away you get lots of new followers and messages,” Raanta marveled. “I’m trying to write more in English, not only in Finnish, so everybody can try to understand me. It’s a big thing here; lots of teammates use Instagram and Twitter. It’s growing all the time in Finland, too, but everything is bigger here than in Finland, and that’s including social media.”
Raanta has been up to the task, posting positive notes and retweeting fan messages after every start. LeBlanc’s own Twitter bio lists him as a “hopeful Chicago Blackhawk.” For both players, that’s a good place to start.