Do you remember, when you were 20-years-old, ever making a mistake? (That’s assuming you remember when you were 20-years-old, a giant step back in time for some of us.) Did you ever have a bad day? Maybe even a bad week?
If you plead guilty, were you wearing a number and name on your back? Did you err in front of 21,000 people? Was your transgression televised, written about in newspapers and dissected on the Internet? Did Sam the Fan blast you on talk radio?
Think about this when digesting the recent “struggles” of Nick Leddy, the Blackhawks defenseman who will turn 21 on March 20. Leddy recently posted a -4 +/- rating report card during a game against the Colorado Avalanche, which is low as you can go in a 4-0 defeat. What’s worse is, over a stretch of four games, he was -9.
Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. He authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001, was the featured contributor in "One Goal Achieved: The Inside Story of the 2010 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks," and has co-authored biographies on Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.
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Well, to hear the sounds of distress from the many caring thousands, you’d have thought Leddy suddenly had hit a wall, forgotten how to skate, and might think seriously about changing occupations.
One word: relax. That stretch should be the bleakest in his career, which promises to be extensive and excellent because everybody in the Blackhawks family believes he will be a star, including those who play with him and those who pay him.
Start with Stan Bowman, the vice president/general manager who acquired Leddy from the Minnesota Wild on Feb. 12, 2010, in exchange for Cam Barker. On the open market, this bit of commerce generally would be characterized as a “steal,” although it is not Bowman’s style to chirp. Nor is he given to panic.
“Slump?” said Bowman. “Oh, all players in all sports go through periods like that. You’ve got to consider the body of work with Nick, and it’s been excellent.”
Leddy is a quiet type, so it requires some probing to determine whether he suffered from a temporary breach of confidence or a succession of unfortunate bounces. But spend 10 minutes around him, lean forward so as to hear him, and you conclude that he handled the “crisis” with perspective—as an estimable talent accumulating significant minutes on a squad built to chase another Stanley Cup.
“I’m still learning,” said Leddy, “and part of learning means dealing with difficult times and correcting them. The best way to do that is to keep things as simple as possible.”
Leddy has been paired alternately with Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson, complementing either by adjusting slightly. If Keith is rushing the puck, as is his wont, Leddy will stay back. With Hjalmarsson as a partner, Leddy might be more inclined toward offense, which was his calling card when he was voted Mr. Hockey as the most outstanding high school senior in the state of Minnesota. A problematic caveat with the honor was that Leddy had to make a speech.
Did we mention that he’s quiet? Leddy will win multiple Norris Trophies before he’s ever expelled from church or a library for making too much noise.
“Oh, it didn’t last long, that speech of mine back home,” he admitted. “I said something like, ‘This is a great honor, thank you very much.’ There might have been a crowd of about 400 there. Nobody will ever have to tell me I’m talking too long or give me a time limit on one of those. I think I got that from my mother, Vicki. Now my dad, Mike, is a salesman. He’ll talk your ear off. That just isn’t me. I also don’t talk very loud. We’re fine now because there are just two of us. But if other people were in this locker room…”
But Nick, hockey demands communication. Teammates need to know where you are on the ice. If you were playing five years ago, when you would see more people at Thanksgiving dinner than you saw at the United Center, that might have worked. But now…
“Dunc gives me grief about that once in a while,” Leddy whispered, as if broadcasting above the 18th green at the Masters. “He tells me to yell like I’m trying to be heard up in those suites on the top level. My yell isn’t really a yell. I have to learn that, too.”
When the Blackhawks surveyed the draft class in 2009, they liked Leddy, but not their chances of landing him.
“We were picking 28th overall and would have taken Nick if he was available,” recalled Bowman. “But we didn’t figure it would happen, and the Wild took him 16th. We selected Dylan Olsen, another excellent prospect. Now we have them both, which is nice. Nick has shown a lot of progress and has a tremendous upside. He’s on pace for 40 points. We like his shot from the point, he gets it off quickly and he rushes the puck well.
THEY SAID IT...
Head Coach Joel Quenneville talks to Blackhawks TV about Nick Leddy
's recent play.
“He’s very impressive for his age. Poised, doesn’t get rattled, and his decision making is good. The speed in the NHL is obviously different from other levels, but he fits in well with our style. He looks to make a play, and if it’s not there, he circles back, draws people to him, and then gets the puck in the hands of the forwards. Defensive zone coverage is the hardest thing to learn in the NHL, and he’s shown a good grasp. Nick is soaking it all in.”
Leddy was on a road trip with the University of Minnesota a couple of winters ago when his cell phone detonated.
“I got one message from Mike Reilly, a friend of mine who has since been drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets,” Leddy said. “He asked if I had been traded. Then I got another message from Stan, welcoming me to the Blackhawks. It would have been fun playing in Minnesota, but Chicago, this is great. I hope to be here for a lot of years.”
In the summer, Leddy returns to Eden Prairie, Minn., where he enjoys watersports on the idyllic Minnesota lakes and occasionally picks up tabs for dinner with buddies who are still in college. In Chicago, Leddy resides in a condominium once occupied by Adam Burish, one of the all-time chat champs. Among Leddy’s Blackhawk pals is Ben Smith, who lives nearby and will drop by to prepare meals.
“Nick can’t cook,” Smith said. “I cook, he washes the dishes. I also had to show him how to use his clothes washer.”
Leddy heard that, paused, then cleared his throat to lower the boom.
“Ben threw me under the bus?” he said. “I think I’ll take the high road on that one.”
Told of Leddy’s volatile return volley, Smith smiled.
“That’s Nick,” he said. “He’s really quiet, you know.”
Leddy's game is also back on track; he was a +3 against Buffalo on Wednesday.