Two years ago, Nick Leddy was skating at the Xcel Energy Center with his high school team, the Eden Prairie Eagles, in the state hockey tournament.
He was back in a familiar building Monday âÄî as a starting NHL defenseman for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Though Leddy may feel comfortable skating among the NHLâÄôs elite, it was a strangely uncomfortable scene Monday, like something from a parallel universe.
After all, until late last summer, Leddy was preparing for his sophomore season with the Gophers.
âÄúBeing out there again definitely [brought] a weird feeling in my stomach, but you get over it quick,âÄù Leddy said, adding, âÄúIt was pretty fun to be back in Minnesota. It brought back some memories to play here, but this is a different level.âÄù
Leddy was always a top prospect, but some scouts considered the 5-foot-11-inch Leddy undersized for a defenseman.
He was drafted in the NHL Entry Draft on June 26, 2009, by the Minnesota Wild with the 16th overall pick, the first American-born player selected that year.
As a freshman at Minnesota, he shored up a defensive line that has been in flux the last few years because many players have left early to pursue professional careers.
He led the team in plus/minus rating with a plus-6, and although he missed eight games with a broken jaw, his steady performance earned him team Rookie of the Year.
In the middle of his freshman season âÄî Feb. 12, 2010 âÄî LeddyâÄôs rights were traded from the Wild to the Chicago Blackhawks.
âÄúIt was definitely a shock and a little disappointment,âÄù Leddy said, âÄúbut how can you argue with coming to such a good team with such great players here [in Chicago]?âÄù
Leddy finished out the 2010 season with the Gophers and went to the Blackhawks development camp in July. The Gophers knew he was attending the camp but fully expected him to return for his sophomore season.
At the camp, however, he impressed the Blackhawks so much that they opted to give him a shot to join the team. The Stanley Cup champions would have been well above the NHL salary cap if they had kept all the players from last yearâÄôs roster, so Leddy, as a rookie, was an inexpensive cog in the reassembled team.
And so, after just one season, MinnesotaâÄôs Rookie of the Year became another statistic in a program rife with high turnover.
While happy for Leddy, the Gophers were left reeling because they didnâÄôt expect to lose the talented defenseman so soon.
âÄúThat was the hard part. That we did not anticipate when last year began that weâÄôd only have Nick for one year,âÄù Gophers head coach Don Lucia said in August. âÄúEven after he was traded to Chicago, our talks with Chicago were that weâÄôd have him for two or three years and certainly that all changed this summer, and they saw where he was strength-wise, where his skating ability [was and] how he outshined their other top prospects.
âÄúThey were blown away by him developmentally.âÄù
Leddy added strength and weight in his time with the Gophers to complement his already elite skating and playmaking ability, and his professional career has blossomed.
This winter, as a member of the U.S. bronze medal World Junior Championships team, Leddy was a teammate of current Gophers center Nick Bjugstad.
Bjugstad also has NHL aspirations; he was drafted 19th overall this year by the Florida Panthers.
Leddy has been through an up-and-down year in his rookie season with the Blackhawks âÄî quite literally.
As part of salary cap negotiations, the team has moved him up and down between the NHL club and the AHL Rockford Ice Hogs. Though his play may be part of the reason, it is estimated the team saved $200,000 because of the maneuvering.
He started MondayâÄôs game along with his usual defensive partner Duncan Keith, last yearâÄôs Norris Trophy winner as the NHLâÄôs top defenseman. He logged nearly 18 minutes and 30 seconds, including time on both the penalty kill and power play.
âÄúItâÄôs awesome getting to play with some of these guys and the best players in the world ... ItâÄôs always been a dream of mine, and IâÄôve just got to keep having fun and keep playing hockey,âÄù Leddy said.
âÄúItâÄôs unbelievable. Especially getting to play with Duncan and having him be such a good teacher to me.âÄù
Now that the NHL trade deadline has passed, Leddy feels like the maneuvering is in his past and that he has the staying power to stick with the suddenly scorching Blackhawks, winners of six of their last seven.
âÄúYou kind of get in a rhythm and feel comfortable,âÄù Leddy said.
âÄúAs a player, youâÄôre always trying to get better, and thereâÄôs always that next step that youâÄôre working towards. Until you get to this level [the NHL] and then you just want to be the best player you can and be a well-known player.âÄù