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IN DEPTH: LaLeggia ready for next step

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

EDMONTON, AB - Hockey has always come first for Joey LaLeggia.

When the University of Denver was courting him to play for the Pioneers, academic studies were not at the top of his list of worries. LaLeggia was more interested in allowing himself the best opportunity to play the sport he loves.

“It has always been hockey,” said LaLeggia. “When I came here, they offered so many different majors but I figured that if I was going to be spending four years here then I might as well make it worthwhile with my academics.”

So LaLeggia chose business and began his career as a student-athlete. It is not the easiest path, and not one that came naturally for the Burnaby, B.C. native.

“Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not exactly the most studious person,” he said. “My grades are fine, but my heart is in hockey. With the school end of it, you think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel whenever you’re doing homework and all that stuff. I was lucky enough to get my degree and make it all worth it. In the end, you’ve got to do your school work if you want to play. That was the real motivation for me.”

LaLeggia looks back now, having graduated with his business degree, and is happy to have taken the NCAA route. But the use of his business degree is not in his immediate future. The defenceman agreed to terms on a two-year entry level contract with the Oilers on Tuesday, shortly following the end of his senior season. He also confirmed that he is heading to Oklahoma City soon to join the Barons on an ATO.

LaLeggia leaves behind an impressive resume at Denver to take the next step in his career, ultimately shooting for a spot with the Oilers in the future. But it is that impressive career with the Pioneers that has made LaLeggia the player he is today.

RUNAWAY ROOKIE

LaLeggia entered the college ranks after 114 games with the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. He was a freshman eager to contribute immediately, and he was given that opportunity.

The blueliner played 43 games in his first season with the Pioneers, netting 11 goals and 27 assists for 38 points. He was mostly utilized in offensive situations, as he was raw on the defensive side of his game. Long-time Denver Head Coach George Gwozdecky gave him an opportunity to flourish offensively as a young player.

Denver defenseman Joey LaLeggia (21) took the spotlight following his goal on the power play in the first period Friday night. The University of Denver hockey team hosted Niagara at Magness Arena Friday night, October 25, 2013. Photo By Karl Gehring/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“My freshman year was a special season,” said LaLeggia. “I came in and got an opportunity from George Gwozdecky to play a lot more than probably the majority of other college hockey coaches would have played me. I got to play on the power play with Drew Shore, Beau Bennett and Nick Shore who are all in the NHL now. That just really helped me to bring my game to the next level offensively and it also gave me the confidence to know that I could play with players like that and be successful.”

The defenceman earned WCHA Rookie of the Year honours, along with being named to the All-WCHA First Team and the All-WCHA Rookie Team. He received more recognition from Inside College Hockey and College Hockey News as their choice for Rookie of the Year.

It was a great start to his time at Denver, but the fun was just getting started. LaLeggia was selected by the Oilers 123rd overall in the fifth round of the 2012 Draft at the end of his freshman year.

Although it was a great moment for LaLeggia to be drafted, there was still much work to be done in his game. He knew, even entering his rookie season, that he would have to work on his defensive game if he wanted to make his NHL dreams a reality.

“When I came (to Denver) as a freshman, I was very one dimensional and throughout that whole freshman year I was really only used in offensive situations,” said LaLeggia. “That was something I knew I needed to improve on because I wouldn’t have been able to take the next step to pro hockey if I was just a one-dimensional player.

The real upswing in his development on that side of things came in his junior year. Gwozdecky left Denver after a fifth early exit from the NCAA tournament, following LaLeggia’s sophomore season. He joined the Tampa Bay Lightning as an assistant coach.

In came Jim Montgomery as his new bench boss and LaLeggia feels that change made all the difference in helping him finish the second half of his Pioneers career even stronger than the first.

DEFENSIVE DEVELOPMENT

Montgomery had spent the previous three years with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. In two of those three seasons, Montgomery led Dubuque to the Clark Cup championship.

Joey Laleggia (21) of the Denver steals the puck from Garrett Milan (18) of the St. Cloud St. during the first period of action. The University of Denver hosted St. Cloud State on Saturday, January 17, 2015. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

When he took over the reins at the University of Denver, Montgomery began to throw LaLeggia on the ice against some staunch opposition.

“Jim Montgomery has done a great job the last two years with me, helping me defensively,” said LaLeggia. “He’s very detail oriented and it has taught me so much. He trusted me to play against the best players in the nation this year. I would be matched up against first lines. That was all attributed to him and all the work he has done with me and the confidence he has in me. That has really helped me improve.”

In Montgomery’s first season at Denver, the Pioneers became members of the NCHC. The conference boasts some of the strongest teams in NCAA hockey. LaLeggia became a weapon to use against those opponents.

“That was huge between me and Monty. We had a good relationship. There was a lot of trust on both sides and that’s something that is very important with a coach,” said LaLeggia.

LaLeggia says matching up with the teams in the NCHC provided stimulation for growth in his game.

“It’s the best conference in college hockey and it has done wonders for me this year. It has made me a better player all around because it is harder to score on those teams and it is also harder to defend against the great players on those teams. I just loved to have been a part of the NCHC and I’ll be forever indebted to the conference.”

Coming out of his junior season, LaLeggia received more personal accolades. He was named the NCHC Defenceman of the Year and Offensive Defenceman of the Year. He finished his junior year with 12 goals and 13 assists for 25 points in 37 games.

“He’s the most dominant player in the best conference in college hockey,” Montgomery is quoted as saying.

University of Denver Pioneers defenseman Joey LaLeggia (21) checks Wisconsin Badgers right wing Tyler Barnes (7) during the second period on Sunday, March 11, 2012. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post (Photo By AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

LaLeggia did his best to live up to those lofty words in his senior season.

The 22-year-old defenceman was a force in the NCHC, finishing with 40 points, including a career-high 15 goals, in 37 games. He easily captured the NCHC Defensive Scoring Title by a 13-point margin.

He was named Player of the Year, Defenceman of the Year and Offensive Defenceman of the Year for his conference. Nationally, he was recognized as a Hobey Baker Award Top 10 Finalist.

In season, he was a two-time winner of the NCHC Player of the Month (January and February) and five-time winner of the NCHC Defenceman of the Week Award.

It was an incredible four-year run for LaLeggia, who unfortunately saw his senior career end in a 4-1 loss to Providence in the NCAA Quarterfinals.

“It’s kind of hard to sum it up, but I’m so thankful that I got the opportunity to come here,” said LaLeggia. “It was really everything I could have asked for. They gave me the opportunity to get a degree and gave me an opportunity to play in the NHL. That’s exactly what I wanted when I came down here to Denver to play college hockey and I’m just very excited and happy I made the decision to come here four years ago.”

THE NEXT STEP

LaLeggia now sets his sights on joining the Oklahoma City Barons in the American Hockey League. Shortly after it was announced by the Oilers that they agreed to terms with the defenceman on his ELC, LaLeggia announced that he’d be joining OKC in hopes of adding a piece to their playoff run.

“I am very excited to go down to Oklahoma City,” LaLeggia said. “I can test myself against players in a great league like the AHL. That is a step towards the NHL. I’m going in with a lot of confidence and I know quite a few of the guys that are down there so I’m sure I’ll have a great time in the process.”

This will be LaLeggia’s first taste of professional hockey. He says he is eager to match up against professional players, just one step away from the NHL.

Joey LaLeggia #21 of the Denver Pioneers skates against the Providence College Friars during the NCAA Division I Men's Ice Hockey East Regional Championship Final at the Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 29, 2015 in Providence, Rhode Island. LaLeggia scored a goal and also was ejected for a major contact to the head penalty. (Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images)

Growing up, LaLeggia says he idolized Duncan Keith. The now Chicago Blackhawks defenceman also played in Penticton and LaLeggia has followed his career closely.

But LaLeggia feels his own game compares more to the similar, smaller defencemen around the league today.

“Lately, a lot of people have told me I play like Jared Spurgeon, Torey Krug and Tyson Barrie type players,” he said. “They’re smaller guys who can help offensively but are also good in their own zone. That’s just what I aspire to be and what I’m really going to work for this spring and summer.”

The 5-foot-10, 185-pound blueliner has to find ways on the ice to matchup with bigger opponents, especially if he expects to join the Oilers and compete in the NHL’s Western Conference. But it is something he has worked on throughout his collegiate career.

“I’ve been told that I think the game at a pretty high level,” said LaLeggia. “I think the mental aspects of the game are what have helped me become successful. Being able to move the puck up the ice is also very helpful and it just helps the breakout move a little easier. I’ve been working on my skating my whole life. I think that’s one of my strong points and I also think that helps to bridge the gap between my size and other players.”

He’ll get his first opportunity to show he can do that and be the same player at the professional level when he joins the Barons. He’s hopeful that he can avenge his Pioneers season being cut short by extending the Barons.

“It would be unbelievable,” LaLeggia said of potentially competing for a Calder Cup. “I’m sure that’s the goal of everyone on that team. I’m just hoping to go in with a hard-working attitude and just hope to do everything I can to help the team win.”

His next stop may be OKC, but he is hopeful the ultimate desired destination is in Edmonton.

“Hopefully, that moment comes at some point in my career,” said LaLeggia. “That’s something I have been working towards my entire life. Even just the thought of that being a possibility now is very exciting. I’m really going to be working towards that this spring and summer to get ready.”

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