By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Before he signed his first pro contract with the Rangers, 22-year-old defenseman Lee Baldwin
already felt a special connection to the Blueshirts.
A towering 6-foot-4, 205-pounder who spent last season as a freshman at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, Baldwin hails from Victoria, British Columbia, where one of his hockey mentors was former NHL player Geoff Courtnall, a fellow Victoria native.
Geoff Courtnall's younger brother Russ, another longtime NHL regular, was also friendly with Baldwin, and the young player often turned to the Courtnall brothers for career advice. As one of the top undrafted college free-agent prospects in 2009-10, Baldwin had already started to think about turning pro in the summer after his freshman year, wanting to make the best decision for his hockey future.Russ Courtnall
was a great source of information. He had spent 15 years in the NHL, playing for six teams and scoring nearly 300 goals. He also played for the Rangers during a three-month period that included a run to the 1997 Eastern Conference finals. Although Russ Courtnall's time in New York was short, it left a strong impression that he conveyed to Baldwin.
"He (Russ Courtnall) really helped me make the decision (to sign with the Rangers)," Baldwin said. "He said it was a great organization and a great city -- one of the best places he had ever played. That really helped me, I think."
|Defenseman Lee Baldwin signed with the Rangers on March 22 and finished his 2009-10 season by playing seven games for the Hartford Wolf Pack. |
A self-described "late bloomer", Baldwin was still playing Junior B hockey with the Victoria-based Saanich Braves when his draft year rolled around in 2005-06. Playing in a low-profile league, he wasn't ranked by NHL Central Scouting on its list of prospects for the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, and no team called his name on draft day at Vancouver.
"I think it was disappointing at first when I didn't get drafted in my draft year, but then I realized I might one day have 30 teams to pick from, instead of just one," said Baldwin.
Baldwin dreamed of playing in the NHL, and he had earlier tried the major-junior route as a means of raising his odds of making it. Unfortunately, he was unable to catch on with either the Everett Silvertips or the Portland Winterhawks after attending those Western Hockey League teams' training camps in 2003 and 2004.
To retain his NCAA eligibility, Baldwin instead entered the BCHL with the Burnaby Express. He spent two seasons in Burnaby, scoring seven goals and 40 points over 94 games before being traded to the Victoria Grizzlies on Aug. 22, 2008.
The trade was a homecoming for Baldwin, and it was there under head coach Geoff Courtnall that Baldwin came into his own -- earning a college scholarship and establishing himself as a pro hockey prospect.
With the Grizzlies in 2008-09, Baldwin was named to the BCHL postseason All-Star team, leading all of his league's defensemen in scoring with 13 goals and 54 points, while skating an average of over 25 minutes in 56 games. Also Victoria's team MVP and Top Defenseman award winner that season, Baldwin added another eight points in 14 playoff games.
He continued his development last season at Anchorage, where he had a goal and nine assists in 32 games.
|Rangers prospect Lee Baldwin showed strong progress during his lone year of college hockey with the University of Alaska at Anchorage in 2009-10. |
"The jump to college was pretty big from junior," said Baldwin. "The speed was a lot quicker and everything happened a lot faster. I think it (college hockey) really helps you prepare for the next level. I think the coaches really helped me out. They worked with me a lot and gave me a lot of opportunity to play and show my stuff."
Ernie Gare, a Rangers amateur scout who focuses on Western regions of Canada and the U.S., began watching Baldwin when he entered the BCHL. After seeing how well Baldwin performed with his hometown Grizzlies, Gare was convinced that the Rangers should keep an eye on him.
Both Gare and Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel, paid close attention to the defenseman's season at Anchorage in 2009-10, and they felt he could be a factor at the next level based on the way he had progressed in college hockey.
When Baldwin elected to turn pro after his freshman season, the Rangers were happy to be his team of choice.
"You never know how long anyone is going to stay in college, but he made the decision that he didn't want to go to school anymore and he wanted to be a pro," said Clark. "That's a decision that only the player himself can make, but once he made that decision, we had to decide if we wanted to make an offer, which we did."
On March 22, Baldwin agreed to terms on a contract with the Rangers. The following day, he signed a tryout deal to finish the season with the Hartford Wolf Pack.
"(Hartford) was great," said Baldwin, "Just like in Alaska, the Hartford coaches (Head coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller) gave me a lot of opportunity. The speed and everything else in the game was a lot better. It was tough the first two games, but I think I got my feet wet a little bit and felt pretty good out there for the games that I played."
Baldwin made his AHL debut on March 31 vs. Worcester. The Pack lost that game, but Baldwin was a plus-1. Three nights later, in his third AHL game, Baldwin fired three shots on net and scored the opening goal in a 6-1 Wolf Pack rout at Springfield. The goal was assisted by Evgeny Grachev and Paul Crowder, another former Alaska-Anchorage player whom Baldwin has known since childhood in Victoria.
"I'd say I'm a good all-around defenseman," Baldwin answered when asked to describe his game. "I got a little bit of offense and lot of defense in me. I've also got some size. I need to put on a little bit more weight, but I think I can handle myself out there pretty well."
Clark said Baldwin was effective at both ends of the ice in the AHL, but the most noticeable parts of his game weren't always so easily detected on a stat sheet.
"He shocked the Hartford coaches with a couple of out-and-out, open-ice hits," said Clark. "He's just really a year of training as a pro away from being a top, top prospect in Hartford."
Baldwin finished the season playing seven games for the Wolf Pack. His journey to the pro game is just the latest example of the Rangers landing undrafted defensemen with great NHL potential.
Like Baldwin, two blueliners on the Blueshirts' current roster, Dan Girardi
and Matt Gilroy, began their pro careers in the Rangers organization after both slipped through the NHL Entry Draft and then emerged as top prospects in their early twenties with a chance to choose their own NHL destination.
The opportunity to attend his first Rangers training camp this fall is a thrill in and of itself for Baldwin, particularly when he thinks back on those early conversations with Russ Courtnall.
"I'm very excited, obviously," he said of what lies ahead. "My goals are just to do my best out there and show my stuff. I've been working out a lot this summer to do that and be dominant in camp and hopefully be one of the best players out there so I can crack the squad."