Why 2014-15 Is a Make-or-Break Season for Chicago Blackhawks' Nick Leddy

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2014

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 28: Nick Leddy #8 of the Chicago Blackhawks hits the puck past Kyle Clifford #13 of the Los Angeles Kings in Game Five of the Western Conference Final during the 2014 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the United Center on May 28, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bill Smith/Getty Images

Joel Quenneville understands that young players are not always going to be consistent in terms of their production.

But one thing he does not understand is a player who is not providing maximum effort every time he steps on the ice. When the Chicago Blackhawks coach looks at Nick Leddy, he sees a 23-year-old defenseman who is capable of taking the puck and skating with it on an end-to-end basis. His overall talent fits the Chicago scheme beautifully.

The Blackhawks want players who can get and keep possession of the puck and then create scoring opportunities. Leddy can do that, but he has not always played with the type of effort that Quenneville requires.

Leddy is a high-level skater who is capable of flying through the opposition and carrying the puck into the opponent's zone. Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw explained to Brian Hedger of NHL.com in 2013 what makes Leddy a player with special characteristics:

He's good at both ends of the rink and I don't think there's anyone in the league who can chase him from behind the net and keep up with him, ... Whenever I'm on the ice with him, I just give it to him and yell, 'Skate!' ... because why should I have to skate with it when he can easily go through three guys?

Unlike some of the more subtle talents that a hockey player must have, it's easy to observe when one player has superior skating talent. You can see him pull away from opponents as he races back into the defensive zone or moves aggressively into the scoring areas.

The most explosive skaters are often the game's most dynamic performers. The Blackhawks have waited patiently for Leddy to grow his game so that he can perform like one of their most effective defensemen. That has not happened as Leddy prepares to start his fifth season with the team.

After playing in 46 Blackhawks games in 2010-11, he has not missed a regular-season game in the three seasons that have followed.

Nevertheless, Quenneville benched Leddy during last year's conference semifinal series against the Minnesota Wild. After playing poorly in the second game of that series, Quenneville decided not to dress Leddy in Game 3 when the series moved to Minnesota for Game 3.

A postseason benching would hurt any player, but it had to sting Leddy even more since he grew up in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and his friends and relatives wanted to see him play in the key game in person.

But Leddy had a lot more to be concerned about besides embarrassment. Quenneville told media members that he needed to see more pace to Leddy's game, and that was clearly an indictment on the defenseman's effort.

Leddy knew that he had not been playing well prior to Game 3, so he was not completely shocked by the benching. He knew he would have to make a change when Quenneville returned him to the lineup for Game 4.

"You kind of know and you have a feeling (when you're not playing well)," Leddy told Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune. "You've been playing the sport long enough to where you know if you're playing a good game or a bad game. If it's not your night, you just have to simplify."

Basically, Quenneville was telling Leddy that he needed to play with more effort. The defenseman remained in the lineup throughout the rest of the postseason.

There are heavy financial implications to Leddy's play in the upcoming season.

Leddy is scheduled to earn $2.7 million in 2014-15, according to CapGeek.com, and then he becomes a restricted free agent. The Blackhawks are going to have to make a decision on what they will do with Leddy after this season.

While they really don't have to worry about losing him to another franchise—restricted free agents rarely change teams—they do have to decide if they want to make a long-term commitment to him.

Giving Leddy a big contract would require major improvement in his game since the Blackhawks have so many well-paid superstars on their roster. They gave long-term extensions to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews earlier this summer, while Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Bryan Bickell all previously signed lengthy contracts.

Leddy scored seven goals and 24 assists last year and had a plus-10 rating. He had scored a career-high 37 points in 2011-12, but he was minus-12 that season. The change in his plus-minus rating indicates some improvement in Leddy's overall game.

Leddy had an on-ice Corsi rating (goals, saves, missed shots and blocks) of 14.86 last season, according to Behind The Net. That figure ranked 10th on the Blackhawks among players who were on the ice for 40 or more games last season.

The Blackhawks need Leddy to step up in his production this year. They are going to have salary-cap issues in 2015-16 and will likely have to part with several key players in order to meet cap requirements. 

A strong, dynamic performance by Leddy would allow them to make one or two of those moves with confidence. However, if Leddy can't improve his game and play with more consistency, he may not get the lucrative, long-term contract that would secure his future.