Jul 282010

— Before we get started, as a reminder, or for those who don’t know, the NHL Network tonight will be airing Game 4 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Final between the Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins at 7pm central time.  This is a continuation in the network’s Raising the Cup series.  At the time, this was the greatest game I had ever seen live and still would rank in my top 3 or 5.  This is the Dirk Graham hat-trick game.  Pittsburgh shut out the Hawks 1-0 in Game 3 at Chicago Stadium two nights prior.  Again, tonight, 7pm, NHL Network.  It replays at 12:30am Thursday, and again at 8am tomorrow morning.

— Look for the next edition of TTMI~Radio with Dieter Kurtenbach and myself late tomorrow.  It appears we’ll be in Antti Niemi/arbitrator waiting mode by that time, but there’s much more for us to discuss.

— Antti Niemi’s arbitration hearing is tomorrow.  No progress, apparently, has been made in talks between the Hawks and his agent to elude this process.  The Hawks can only afford to give Niemi so much under their current salary cap constraints.  Anything more than $2.5M would trigger another trade.  While its true the Hawks will have cheaper options in free agency should the arbitrator’s decision come down in Niemi’s favor, letting your rookie Stanley Cup Champion goaltender walk without receiving any compensation in return is a tough sell to 90% of the fan base.  Its possible a ruling could come as early as Friday, which would mean a decison on whether to accept the arbitration reward would have to come down before the convention closes.  Letting Niemi walk is not a good way to climax John McDonough’s sacred creation.  And for that reason and a few others, I just don’t see it as a real option.

Nick Leddy leaves Gophers, signs contract with Blackhawks

On Tuesday, news broke that Blackhawks prospect Nick Leddy would be leaving the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers as he has signed a professional contract with Chicago.

The contract Leddy signed is a standard three-year, entry-level contract that would pay him at a rate of $900,000 with the Blackhawks, or $67,500 while in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs.

Let’s first be clear on something – just because Leddy has signed this contract does not necessarily mean he’s turning pro.

Young players sign entry-levels all the time and return to their junior teams.  In Leddy’s case, he’s left college and could turn pro if that were his best option.  Well, it shouldn’t be.

I’m sure as you read this, general managers across junior hockey are contacting Leddy’s agent and the Blackhawks pitching their teams as a great place for Leddy to continue his development.

Currently, the Tri-City Americans own Leddy’s WHL rights.

Leddy, 19, posted 3 goals and 8 assists in 30 games in his freshman year with Minnesota in 2009-10.

At the conclusion of this month’s Prospect Camp, general manager Stan Bowman was glowing over Leddy’s performances, touting him as one of the most impressive players in the week-long assessment camp.

“(Leddy) is really smooth out there and I think he’s going to be a Blackhawk for many years,” Bowman told assembled reporters on July 12th.  “This is the first time we’ve seen him here in Chicago.  We saw him perform during the (09-10) season, but boy he’s really smooth out there. I think he’s going to be with the Blackhawks for many years. It’s exciting to see that.”

As a player, Leddy projects long-term as a solid two-way defenseman with a strong offensive upside.  He resembles Duncan Keith in many ways and watching him, it doesn’t surprise you Leddy himself has said (before he was ever traded to the Hawks) he models his game after two Blackhawk blue liners, Keith and Brian Campbell.

There is an agreement in place between the American Hockey League and the CHL (the sanctioning body that overseas major Canadian junior leagues such as the OHL, WHL and QMJHL) that prevents players under the age of 20 from leaving their junior organizations to play in the AHL.  Since Leddy is leaving the NCAA, this rule would not apply to him.  Unless he does at some point, report to a junior team.

However, one would have to question whether or not Canadian junior would be a better fit for the 19-year-old at this time?  While Leddy was one of the better players at the Hawks prospect camp, he was paired with Shawn Lalonde (who is a year older and is ready to make the transition to pro hockey) and Lalonde was distinctly the better of the two.  Dylan Olsen was never paired with anyone near the ability as Leddy or Lalonde, and he was still one of the most consistently impressive defenseman in the camp.  Had Leddy been paired with scrubs or non-organization invitees, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion to begin with.

Another peculiar side-note to the Leddy signing directly relates to Olsen.  Dylan Olsen, 19 (who turns twenty on January 3rd, or 2 1/2 months before Leddy) was selected 28th overall by the Hawks in the same 2009 Draft that Leddy went 16th overall to the Wild.  Olsen is significantly bigger and further developed.  His game is more aggressive and at this point he’s more assertive than Leddy.  Olsen’s size and nastiness would suit the Hawks needs more than anything Leddy could bring at this stage.  And many times we’ve heard Olsen may not be the best student yet the Blackhawks seem to be in no rush to get Olsen away from Minnesota-Duluth and into a Hawks’ sweater.

With Leddy only having skated in 30 games in all of 2009-10, transitioning to a league where he’d be asked to play in 70-plus against players much bigger and faster than he saw in college might be asking a bit much.  While the AHL is a developmental league, teams and coaches are still under significant pressure to put the best possible product on the ice.  Leddy shouldn’t have left Minnesota if there is a good chance he’ll sit a significant amount of Rockford’s games or spend more time in a weight room than he will on the ice.

According to fitness tests completed this month, Leddy is apparently in terrific physical and cardiovascular condition according to the Hawks.  Yet, at the end of scrimmages on the final two days of prospect camp, Leddy was noticeably spent at the end of shifts late and visibly exhausted on the final day.  This, facing suspect competition.

At 19, and not turning 20 until late March, this is a crucial year of development for a young blue liner.  At the same age, Duncan Keith left Michigan State at the half-way point of the collegiate season to get more ice time playing for the Kelowna Rockets, the Western Hockey League team that held his Canadian junior rights.  Keith saw the ice he sought and played in twice the games in Kelowna than he would have in Lansing.  Keith was a dominant player with the Rockets and turned pro the next season, playing for the Norfolk Admirals, the Blackhawks AHL affiliate at the time.  Keith probably would have made the jump to the NHL in 2004-05 had the league not been shut down, unable to come to terms with the NHLPA on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Leddy will report to Blackhawks training camp in September and theoretically be given an opportunity to make the NHL team just like anyone else.  Of course, the trouble with that is Leddy’s cap hit comes in at a little under a million dollars.  As currently assembled, there is very little chance Leddy would get a spot on the Hawks roster even should he cash in on the long odds and earn it.  And even if he did, playing a maximum of 10-12 minutes a night on the Hawks’ third pairing is hardly the best thing for Leddy.  The Blackhawks should be looking for him to become the next Duncan Keith, not the next Jordan Hendry.

As of this writing, the Blackhawks have been mum publicly on the Leddy signing.  This could, as we suspect it to be, a dramatic choreography to get Leddy out of Minnesota and into a better situation for development.  Leddy is not alone as a recent Gopher exiting the program early for greener pastures and there have been plenty of rumblings from amateur scouts questioning the developmental abilities and system that of Gopher head coach Don Lucia.  Transferring collegiate programs would cost Leddy a year on the sidelines.  He could play in the USHL in the meantime, but that’s a step backwards.  By signing his entry-level contract with the Hawks, Leddy and the Hawks have two options.  Throw him into the fire in a professional league, or allow him to experience a full season as someone’s horse in major Canadian junior hockey.

The man who has a lot of influence behind this decision and the acquisition of Leddy is Norm McIver, the Hawks director of player development.  McIver lives in Minnesota and naturally does a lot of scouting in that region.

Ironically, Justin Holl, the defenseman who the Blackhawks selected in the 2nd round (24th overall) of the 2010 Entry Draft, will be joining the Golden Gophers for his freshman season in the fall.

Should yesterday’s move prove to be true as its being presented and Leddy is turning pro and not turning back at the behest of the Blackhawks, this will be the first true barometer of Stan Bowman’s leadership skills.

I’m sure Bowman sees what I, and I’m sure many others, saw at prospect camp, and that’s a young Duncan Keith in Leddy.  Its very accurate to say Leddy is almost a mirror image of Keith – the 19-year old version.

It’s easy to forget the pain in Keith’s progression.  Even two full seasons, logging tons of minutes in the AHL (after a season and a half at Michigan State and another 56 games in that sophomore season in Kelowna) there were still moments in his first two years in the NHL many wondered if Keith would ever put it all together.

Fast-tracking Leddy based on a week up against collection of un-drafted or un-signed college players and expired junior hockey burnouts is either a ballsy move, or the work of an inexperienced GM allowing his emotions to get the best of him.  A short-coming, by the way, you can legitimately criticize Tallon for.

Nick Leddy will always be Stan Bowman’s first significant NHL acquisition.  The Eden Prairie, MN native was the rookie GM’s “baby” so to speak.  Bowman’s first big trade as an NHL general manager came on February 12th when he sent Cam Barker to the Minnesota Wild for defenseman Kim Johnsson and the rights to Leddy.  Although Johnsson was brought in to provide insurance and even-more depth to what was already the league’s best defensive six, Leddy was the golden piece of the deal.  In continuing the model Dale Tallon set, Leddy possesses the same tools as Keith and Campbell and has since that day been touted as a potential replacement for the latter.

So, it was no surprise Bowman was in a rush to heave praise in Leddy’s direction this month.  Leddy made it easier, but its to be expected Bowman would be pushing his “baby” to the front of the pack of prospects and ahead of the lot Tallon left behind.  While the Blackhawks have racked up wins, accolades and a Stanley Cup championship, Bowman has sat aside for months with ears ringing, listening to how great of a team Dale Tallon and Rick Dudley left him.  Who could blame Bowman if he were eager to earn his keep?  He’s inherited a bit of a mess, but its not the Florida Panthers.  And he’s not filling holes and still trimming cap space in Toronto.  Stan Bowman has a really great GM job.  Contrary to popular belief, he’s envied.  Not pitied.  He’s a Stanley Cup Champion but still, his Cup is half empty.  The 2009-10 Blackhawks weren’t his creation.

However, Bowman should tread carefully with Leddy.  A wrong move here could possibly do irreparable damage to the kid’s future, and the Blackhawks’ defense.

I watched Leddy at prospect camp and I have since digested what Stan Bowman has said about his prospect.  While I agree Leddy can become a Blackhawk I disagree with anyone who suggests that time is upon us.  I have vividly recall Duncan Keith in years three and four of his professional career and many nights he couldn’t find the net in his own zone if you led him to it by the hand.  Defenseman need more time to learn the position and adjust from one level to the next than forwards usually do.  Freaks like Drew Doughty come around only once in a great while.  Leddy is no Doughty.

Keith was lucky to be with a bad team with little to no expectations in his first two seasons in Chicago.  Had the Hawks been contenders, Keith would have been ridden out of town or buried in the minors.

If Leddy is in fact a Keith-clone, he should follow a similar path.  And so should Bowman.


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