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Expectations raised, Liles beginning to produce

by Larry Wigge
Sometimes very good isn't good enough.

Such was the case with the play of defenseman John-Michael Liles last season -- after six seasons with the Colorado Avalanche.

There was a new coach in Joe Sacco, a new general manager in Greg Sherman and some very different expectations for Liles, an Indianapolis, Ind., native -- especially after management shelled out a new four-year, $16.8 million contract to keep him in Denver.

More production was expected for the price.

As a result, Liles was a healthy scratch four, five, maybe six times -- the first time he had experienced sitting while healthy. After an offseason to think about what had happened, the 30-year-old defenseman raised his own expectations. Six goals and 25 assists were not good enough for Liles.

During a preseason interview Liles said he intended to be extra vigilant this season. Little did we know Liles would be no longer producing at his usual pace -- instead he would be challenging for the NHL scoring lead among defensemen. The 31 points he had last season are in his eyesight by late November.

"First of all, let me say I love it in Colorado. I wanted to make it work with the Avs," said Liles, who has produced 20 points in 20 games and was recently named the NHL's second star of the week. "Sometimes, you seek out people who know your game. You know what, the responses I sought out were to me like 'wow.' The words began to sink in. That was important to me because I wanted to get back on track, trying to re-establish myself this season.

"My biggest strength is when I'm moving my feet on the ice, finding the open areas and getting the puck to my teammates. I'm never going to be considered a tough player running guys, crashing and banging. My job is skate the puck up the ice or joining in the rush, helping to create offense."

According to Sacco, "With Joe we were looking for a more consistent point producer. We're seeing a difference."

Like things were better for Liles and he was making things happen.

"This is my seventh year here and I always looked to improve," Liles said. "It doesn't matter how old you are -- you learn different tricks to be better. Our coaching staff has been challenging me to use less energy in getting to those open spaces on the ice.

"Right now, I'm feeling better and better out there on the ice."

Listening to advice from his best friends -- a former high school buddy, TV analyst Peter McNab and his new coaches -- is admirable. His always-present dad, John Liles, was there as well.

"He's the one who got me into this," Liles said of his love for hockey, which began when his dad got hooked on hockey in Indianapolis, of all places, when he was a season ticket holder for the WHA's Racers. There, he saw Wayne Gretzky play as a teenager and fell in love with the game.

Liles was born and raised in Hoosier country, where basketball is king. So this is all pretty heady stuff for a kid from Zionsville, Ind., about a half-hour north of Indianapolis.

"It's like a suburb outside the suburbs," Liles said. "Cornfields, brick main street, stuff like that."

Going from Zionsville, population 8,775, is like hockey's "Field of Dreams" in this instance. No hockey arena there. A volunteer fire department. Mayberry, if you will. But there's this brick street that runs through the heart of Zionsville's business district that recognizes the fact that Abe Lincoln once stepped off a train and spoke there while on route from Illinois to Washington, D.C., for his inauguration back in 1860.

Liles has no hockey bloodlines, but tenacity and competitiveness are in his blood. His grandfather played semi-pro baseball. His father enjoys golf and plays a spirited game of basketball. The late Michael Laughlin, a 5-foot-8, 160-pound prep star who played quarterback despite his lack of size, was John-Michael Liles' great uncle, who died unexpectedly in 1982. The talented, young defenseman is named after him, as well as his grandfather and father.

The fact Liles is thriving in the NHL today is testament to his will and drive to be a success -- having to travel miles and miles to Carmel, Ind., to play in an organized hockey program during his youth.

"Sometimes, I take a step back and look at where I am. I know how lucky I am every day." -- John-Michael Liles

It was especially pleasing considering hockey hasn't really been a place for defensemen who stand 5-10, 183 pounds -- particularly in the NHL, where you almost have to be 6-foot, 200 pounds to get a look. That's probably why Liles, despite the imposing skating ability and innate knack of moving the puck and making offensive plays that made him a Hobey Baker contender, was only an fifth-round choice, the 159th pick in the 2000 Entry Draft by the Avalanche.

There's always a need for offensively-skilled defensemen.

"Sometimes, I take a step back and look at where I am," Liles said. "I know how lucky I am every day."

It's a great story. There aren't a lot of kids that leave programs like Michigan State and play right away in the NHL.

"It's hard to get a young guy to step in on defense who has as much composure as he does," said teammate Adam Foote, who was Liles' mentor in 2003-04 and came back at the NHL trade deadline in February 2008. "He's not a big guy, but he plays big; he's stronger than he looks and he really moves the puck well."

John-Michael Liles is older ... and he is better.
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