Tom Musick: Hawks prospect adjusts to life in AHL
ROCKFORD – Drew LeBlanc kept his stick on the ice and his eyes on the puck.
In a flash, Rockford IceHogs defenseman Adam Clendening snapped a pass from the blue line toward LeBlanc, who stood to the left of the net. LeBlanc caught the 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 IceHogs practice and prompted no dancing, only another drill.
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 on his left wing and Patrick Kane on his right wing.
"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 two 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.
The Rockford-to-Chicago blueprint has included more than a dozen players in the past few seasons, including Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Bryan Bickell and Corey Crawford.
An added bonus: playing in the same organization as Jonathan Toews.
"He's like the model of what a centerman should do and be," LeBlanc said. "So you watch him, try to put yourself in his shoes, and try to think like he's thinking."
LeBlanc, who majored in math education, is thoughtful and measured with his answers. Teammates admire how he is one of the last players to leave the ice after practice.
"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 works really hard both on and off the ice. He spends a lot of hours in the gym and stays on the ice after practice to work on small details. He's certainly knows what it takes to have a good career."
But LeBlanc is not there yet, as he'd be the first to 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."
• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.