As part of our ongoing preview of the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks season, we will be counting down the 10 players who will be most important to the team as they try to win their third Stanley Cup championship in six seasons.
We keep the countdown going today by profiling a player whose jersey numbers matches his spot on this list, as defenseman Nick Leddy checks in at number eight.
The Blackhawks have plenty of defensemen who make headlines, whether it’s Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith or shot-blocker extraordinaire (and Mad Hatter enthusiast) Niklas Hjalmarson, but Leddy is a special breed of player that could prove critical to the team’s success in the coming year.
Before we get to the why part of that equation, we have to add a bit of a caveat to the proceedings. The Blackhawks are currently $2.2 million over the salary cap, and Leddy’s name has been mentioned as one of several trade possibilities. His replacement might already be in the system, with Adam Clendening potentially stepping into his role, but since Leddy is still a part of the roster, we’re going to assume that he’ll still be on the team when the season begins.
With that assumption in mind, Leddy’s presence in the lineup guarantees one thing for the Hawks: a lightning fast transition game. Leddy started 63% of his shifts in the offensive zone last year, but when he was deployed while the puck was in play, he had a good habit of getting to it, grabbing it in the defensive zone, and flying up the ice with it.
While most of the Hawks’ defensemen are content with allowing forwards like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to bring the puck into the offensive zone, Leddy tends to do things a bit differently. Sure, he’s capable of firing stretch passes to create transition offense, but he also has the speed and intelligence to gain zone entry by himself. That puts teams back on their heels defensively, and it allows for plays to develop even while the Hawks are undergoing line changes in the neutral zone.
That change-up that Leddy is capable of throwing makes the Hawks’ offense that much more difficult to defend against, and it’s something that he will need to continue to do in the new season. He will still likely be on the third pairing, at least at the beginning, but even if he transitions to the second line (a possibility if Johnny Oduya is traded), then he still would be the offensive guy on the line with Hjalmarsson hanging back.
What we’d be interested in seeing would be Leddy playing a more prominent role on the team’s power play. He played almost exclusively as the second group point man last season, but a different scenario could see him playing point on the top line with either Duncan Keith or Patrick Sharp taking a step back onto the second grouping. That would ensure that the point man would be not only a great passer, but could also attack open seams in the ice if a forward rotates out to the point. This would be especially beneficial if it was Keith who was on the other side of the blue line, as it would ensure defensive responsibility while Leddy goes on the attack.
Whether Joel Quenneville will explore that option or not with Leddy, the fact remains that this will be a critical season in determining his future with the team. Will he always be the third liner that the team brass can’t trust once the postseason begins, or will he overcome that and become a vital cog in the team’s blue line group?
That is the $2.2 million question.