At this point last year, Denver Pioneers' head coach George Gwozdecky and his staff were hesitant about playing defenseman Joey LaLeggia in all situations. The 5'9”, 180-pounder arrived in the Mile-High city with tremendous offensive skills, but due to his smaller frame Gwozdecky and his staff had to be careful not to put the smaller player in a vulnerable position on the ice.
A year later, however, the 2011-12 WCHA Rookie of the Year, who led all NCAA rookie defensemen with 38 points, has erased much doubt from the Pioneer’s coaching staff about his defensive abilities. After being selected by the Edmonton Oilers in the fifth round (123rd overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft, LaLeggia has developed into one of Denver’s top defensemen this year and can now be seen in all portions of the Pioneer lineup.
“He came in with some pretty good offensive credentials and certainly his skill set continues to show itself. That was never in question or in doubt,” Gwozdecky said. “The biggest thing he worked on was his ability to be able to defend from the offensive blue line back to the end boards in our zone. That’s an area where he has made huge, huge strides and improvements.”
LaLeggia, last week’s WCHA Player of the Week, had a huge impact on both blue lines in Denver’s weekend sweep of Colorado College with a goal and two assists. He also helped DU go 7-for-9 on the penalty kill as the Pioneers, ranked second in the nation in both the USCHO and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine college hockey polls, took the upper hand in the state rivals annual “Battle for the Gold Pan”.
“I just try to go out there and play the best for my teammates,” LaLeggia said. “I’m going to get open for them and their going to try and get open for me. It makes it easy when you play with guys like Nick Shore, Chris Knowlton, Dave Makowski and Nolan Zajac out there on the power play.”
There is no questioning LaLeggia’s offensive skills from the blue line. In the second period of Denver’s 6-5 victory over Colorado College on Nov. 16, LaLeggia showcased his speed, agility and quick reflexes when he crashed towards the net and fired a wrist shot past Tiger’s goalie Joe Howe to give the Pioneers a 5-2 lead.
“He anticipates very well; (Joey) knows when to jump into holes offensively,” Gwozdecky said. “He passes the puck as well on his forehand as he does on his backhand. All the things that are necessary for a defenseman to be an offensive threat, he has. Certainly we’re very fortunate to have him a part of our blue line.”
Last year the Pioneer’s coaching staff encouraged LaLeggia to use his speed to his advantage defensively. Therefore, this past summer the sophomore worked on his biomechanics and movement mechanics with Spencer Baker, formerly of Twist Conditioning.
“I am always doing speed training in the summer and am trying to get bigger because I’m not the biggest guy,” LaLeggia said. “Not being the biggest guy, (the Denver coaches) encouraged me to use my feet in the d-zone to make up for my reach, and that seems to be working.”
Kyle Guay, director of athlete training services at Twist Conditioning, worked with LaLeggia some this summer and said that LaLeggia had a “sheer will” to finish his sets and was one of the hardest workers at Twist Conditioning.
“In his situation he needs to be very mobile,” Guay said. “If he is going to have a big 200-plus forward bearing down on him he’s got to be quick in the corners. That way when he is retrieving pucks on dump-ins he is getting out of there quickly.”
“We really focused on his linear acceleration,” he added. “That will translate to him being able to apply force into the ice with greater power production out of it.”
LaLeggia’s off-season conditioning has provided dividends on the ice this season. The Burnaby, British Columbia native is tied for second in scoring among NCAA defensemen through 12 games with five goals and eight assists while playing strong in the defensive zone and on the penalty kill.
One of LaLeggia’s biggest improvements this year in the defensive zone has been his ability to play bigger opponents one-on-one. LaLeggia can not only play opposing forwards in open ice but he can battle for pucks in the tight corners when bigger players try to lean on him and out-muscle him for the puck.
“It’s that strength with big bodies and bigger reaches that can really have a detrimental effect on a smaller guy like Joey, but Joey has learned how to use his leverage,” Gwozdecky said. “He has learned how to use his smarts. He’s not trying to out-muscle a guy. He is using his quickness.”
LaLeggia models his game after Ottawa Senator’s defenseman Erik Karlsson and is striving to develop into a two-way defenseman. After being passed over in two NHL drafts prior to last year LaLeggia arrived in Denver with a solid chip on his shoulder.
Even after finally reaching one of his goals, LaLeggia plans on finishing out his collegiate career at DU before making the next step professionally.
“My goal is to keep doing the right things, keep working hard and hopefully one day skate with the Oilers,” he said. “That’s my goal and that’s where I’m going to keep striving towards.”
Follow Justin Felisko at Twitter via @jfelisko