Denver's Joey LaLeggia was one of the first prospects we profiled in our Eye on the Future series when it began back in 2012. Since then, LaLeggia has continued scoring points at an impressive pace for a defenseman, and become of the most respected defenders in college hockey. He turned down an opportunity to sign with the Edmonton Oilers last summer to return to Denver for his senior season. After this season, it's fish-or-cut-bait who will have to sign LaLeggia to a contract, or he will become an unrestricted free agent.
That makes it a good time to take a closer look at how LaLeggia is playing, and what his future might hold, which is what I did last Saturday night, in Minnesota Duluth's 6-1 drubbing of LaLeggia's Denver Pioneers.
It ended up being a short night for LaLeggia. He received a five-minute major penalty and game misconduct penalty for checking from behind with just under four minutes remaining in the second period to end his evening. The good news is that LaLeggia had already logged close to a full game's worth of minutes by that point. I would guess he was around 20 minutes of time on ice when he took the penalty. And after LaLeggia was kicked out, that was basically the end of the game. Denver was already down 2-0 at that point, gave up another goal on the ensuing power play, and any hope of coming back without their top defensemen was pretty much gone.
Overall, this wasn't the best game LaLeggia will ever play. Denver as a whole seemed a little bit flat all night, and LaLeggia was no exception. He was beat down the ice by a UMD forward to cancel out an icing early in the game. He gave up two 2-on-1s on the night. On the first, he mishandled a bouncing puck, and on the second, he just got caught a little bit out of position.
But despite the few negatives on Saturday night, it's pretty easy to see the tremendous talent that he has. As mentioned above, Denver relies on him a lot. He's evolved from just an offensive specialist to become Denver's top option in every situation.
On the defensive end, at 5'10" 185 lbs., his size is always going to be a bit of an issue at the pro level. He, along with other smaller defensemen on Denver's team, struggled to keep UMD forwards from getting second chance opportunities in front of the net. But in other areas of the ice, LaLeggia does an excellent job of letting his skills compensate for his size. Against the rush he plays his gap well 1-on-1, and uses angles to take away space from attacking players.
He does surprisingly well along the boards. Again, he understands angles and positioning very well and uses that to his advantage along the boards. He won a nice 50/50 battle behind his own net by tying up his man, then using his feet to kick the puck to a teammate to start a breakout. He's strong on his stick and does a good job of getting his stick into passing lanes. He also blocked four shots in Saturday's game.
But it's when he has the puck on his stick that he really shines. He can make the solid, safe pass, and is exceptional at skating the puck out of his zone. Numerous times he was able to break the puck out of the zone all by himself or gain offensive zone entry just with his skating and smooth stickhandling. There will always be talk about the puts he can put up, but it's his abilities with the puck between the top of the defensive zone face-off circles and opposition's blue line that make him a really valuable player.
He didn't have a whole lot to do on the offensive end on Saturday, though with 93 career points as a defenseman, there's obviously no worries about that. He made a very nice quick lateral move at the blue line to get a shot off around an attacking defender and to the net. He has a nice, low heavy shot that creates second chance opportunities for teammates if it doesn't go in.
Two years ago, I pegged LaLeggia as a high-risk, high-reward power play specialist if he made it to the NHL. There's no doubt that he's become a much more mature, well-rounded defenseman over the past two years. He'll still likely be an offensive specialist at the pro level, and he'll still likely be a bit of a liability in his own end, but he's shown enough positive development in his own end over the course of his career at Denver that he should manage to be a decent NHL player.