LeBlanc paying his dues with IceHogs
Drew LeBlanc kept his stick on the ice and his eyes on the puck.
LeBlanc caught a pass and quickly slid the puck across the goal crease to teammate Brad Winchester, who punched in an easy goal.
In a perfect world, LeBlanc would have worn a Blackhawks sweater and prompted a dance party for 20,000 strong in attendance. Instead, LeBlanc’s heads-up assist took place in front of a set of empty bleachers at a recent Rockford IceHogs practice.
Welcome to life in the American Hockey League.
It’s a million miles from last season, when LeBlanc won the Hobey Bakey Award as college hockey’s best player and signed a contract with the Hawks. The view from here is much different than in April, when the former St. Cloud State center made his NHL debut with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane.
“That feels like a long time ago,” LeBlanc said. “We’ve strapped on the skates a lot of times since then. Obviously, the goal is to make it back there. I’m trying to do the best I can to improve down here.”
Yet the adjustment from college to the pros has proved to be difficult.
LeBlanc, 24, has tallied seven goals and 10 assists in 51 games with the IceHogs. He ranks 10th on the team in scoring, and has a minus-2 rating with about 2 months to go in the regular season.
Meanwhile, the Hawks have turned to other young players such as Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri and recent trade acquisition Peter Reign for depth at forward.
IceHogs coach Ted Dent said LeBlanc’s attention to detail could help to set him apart.
“He’s definitely committed to his profession,” Dent said. “He works extremely hard. It’s been an adjustment, for sure. I think he’d be the first to admit that to anybody.
“But he’s not afraid of the challenge, and he’s getting better every day as the season goes on. All first-year players, they progress at different time frames. Drew’s on the right path.”
It’s a path that started in LeBlanc’s hometown of Duluth, Minn., and continued 150 miles south to St. Cloud, where he led the Huskies to their first Frozen Four appearance in school history. Several teams pursued LeBlanc as a free agent, but he signed with the Hawks because of their proven track record of developing NHL talent.
“He’s a great guy,” fellow center Joakim Nordstrom said. “He’s pretty quiet, but he’s very smart, so every time he says something, everybody listens. ... He’s certainly knows what it takes to have a good career.”
But LeBlanc is not there yet, as he would admit.
“Ideally, it would be almost to make it feel like college again – to play at that level with that confidence,” LeBlanc said. “I think confidence is the biggest thing at this level.”