If he'd stayed at the University of Minnesota, Nick Leddy would only be a junior right now.
Instead, he's playing 19:44 a game for the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a little more than a month after his 21st birthday. He's also got an NHL caliber playoff beard just two weeks into the postseason.
"Mine's coming in pretty good," Leddy joked recently. "Last year, [Patrick Sharp] called me the 20-year old going on 30 because he said I looked 35 or something."
The same could be said for some aspects of Leddy's game, and that's not the beard talking.
Leddy's career path has been on the fast track ever since the Minnesota Wild took him 16th overall in the 2009 NHL Draft and then dealt his rights to Chicago in 2010 along with Kim Johnssen in exchange for Cam Barker.
After spending one season at the University of Minnesota, the Eden Prairie, Minn., product opened some eyes during a prospects camp held just weeks after the Blackhawks won the 2010 Stanley Cup. He continued to impress at training camp and opened last season on the NHL roster as a 19-year-old before heading to Rockford of the American Hockey League.
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Leddy eventually worked his way back to Chicago and played 46 games with the Hawks before starting all seven games of a classic first-round series against the rival Vancouver Canucks, which ended with Chicago losing in overtime of the seventh game. Monday's Game 6 of Chicago's Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes at United Center (9 p.m., CNBC, CSN-CH, FS-W) will already be Leddy's 13th career NHL playoff contest.
He's also played 128 games in his regular-season career already.
"I feel like the more games I play, the more confidence will come from it," said Leddy, who scored the game-tying goal in Game 5 Saturday night midway through the third period to keep Chicago's season alive. "Look at [Hawks defenseman] Sean O'Donnell. He's played in the League for 20 years and it's unbelievable how smart he is and how great his patience is. I think the more games I play, the more confidence I'll have."
Like O'Donnell, Leddy is pretty even keeled. He's also needed that attitude during a season full of extreme highs and gut-wrenching lows. Despite scoring three goals and tallying 34 assists, Leddy carried a minus-12 rating after finishing with a minus-3 a year ago -- signs that his offensive abilities are still ahead of the defense.
Still, the talent is unquestioned.
"He can do things out there that a lot of guys can't do, as far as some of his skating," said the 40-year old O'Donnell, who signed a one-year contract with Chicago last summer. "Right from the first day of camp I came here and met him, and in talking to each other ... you say something to him once and you see his brain working. He gets it."
Leddy also lets loose his impressive skating ability from time to time, which is when people really start to see what the future might hold. In this playoff series alone, people have already seen both sides of the coin -- and they happened in back-to-back games.
In Game 4, Leddy just barely lost a race for the puck against Mikkel Boedker in overtime and the puck wound up in the back of the net to give the Coyotes a 3-1 series lead. The high point, however, came in Game 5 at Jobing.Com Arena Saturday night -- when Leddy kept the Blackhawks' season alive with his first career playoff goal.
He scored it midway through the third period to pull Chicago even 1-1 and set the stage for captain Jonathan Toews to end it in OT to bring Chicago within a game of the Coyotes.
"I just tried to get in on net and it went in," said Leddy, who led the Hawks with five shots on goal and helped them send a game to OT in the third period for the fourth time in a series that's had all five games go longer than 60 minutes. "We've come back almost every time in the third period. We just had to stay patient and stick to what [Hawks coach Joel Quenneville's] been saying. I need to be more assertive and I think I was."
The goal was Leddy's third point of the series to go with a pair of assists and he now has a plus-3 rating. He also showed more glimpses of his potential by hounding the puck after his goal. He also nearly gave Chicago a late lead on a power play by firing the puck over the net with Coyotes goalie Mike Smith sprawled on the ice.
"As he starts to get more confidence out there and learns situations and what certain players like to do ... you add that with his natural ability and he's going to be a scary player," O'Donnell told NHL.com. "I hear them talk about the nucleus of this team, and I think you need to add Leddy in there, too. He's a guy that's going to be a Hawk for a long time. I think the sky's the limit with him."
Most signs point toward O'Donnell being correct. There's an axiom among some hockey experts that it takes at least 300 NHL games for a defenseman to make his biggest impact and experience almost every situation on the ice. Counting playoff games, Leddy still has 159 games left to reach that benchmark and is already impressing his teammates and coaches.
"He's young and he still gets nervous," O'Donnell told NHL.com earlier this season. "He wants to jump in the play, but at the same time he doesn't want to make that mistake. Those great players realize that mistakes are just going to happen. Guys like [Pavel Datsyuk], [Nicklas Lidstrom] and [Duncan Keith] ... all those guys make mistakes, but they know if they're not out there pushing the envelope good things aren't going to happen."
Leddy is starting to push it more often, and people notice whether it works or not. It's just part of the learning curve for such a talented young player, according to Keith -- to whom Leddy's often compared.
"You've got to expect [some rough plays], especially with a young D-man," Keith told NHL.com earlier this season. "Every defenseman has tough stretches. Every player does ... especially our team throughout the year. We had some times where we allowed a lot of goals and [Leddy] plays a lot. So, you're going to be on for goals and sometimes it's not always your fault."
Of course, sometimes it is -- but Keith said playing the blame game with a talented young blueliner like Leddy just doesn't make sense.
"You look at some of the games, I think he took some heat there, but I mean … it's not all to do with [Leddy]," Keith told NHL.com. "It's everybody. It's a collective group out there while the other team's scoring goals. I think he's been great all year."
Not bad for a would-be junior.