New York Islanders coach Doug Weight said he recently read an article that listed the top 12 candidates for the Norris Trophy at the quarter mark of this season and was stunned by the absence of one name.
“How can Nick Leddy not be on that list?” Weight asked. “He deserves to be in the top three right now. I’m not being a promoter. I’m being honest.”
Weight said his No. 1 defenseman has been the fire-starter of the team’s 16-9-2 record and a primary reason why the Islanders are viewed as one of the most improved teams. The Islanders finished 41-29-12 last season and missed the playoffs.
Leddy’s slick skating and puck magic have allowed him to register six goals and 17 assists for 23 points, making him the league’s second-highest scoring defenseman. He is the quarterback on an Islanders offense that ranks second with a 3.67 goals-per-game average.
“Wanting to be great is something that has to click inside you,” Weight told USA TODAY Sports. “He has that over the last 12 months.”
The Leddy advantage is speed and acceleration.
“All you need to do to know how fast Leddy is is to watch the overtime of our game with Edmonton a few weeks ago and watch Leddy’s ability to catch Connor McDavid from behind,” Islanders captain John Tavares said.
Leon Draisaitl and McDavid combined on the game-winning goal, but Leddy rocketed up ice stride-per-stride with McDavid, whose powerful skating style gives him the edge in the majority of races.
Weight is a former Oilers player and has respect for McDavid’s ability, but he believes Leddy is in McDavid’s league as a speedster.
“I don’t know who I would put money on in a race, but I think I would put it on Nick and I think I would be comfortable doing it,” Weight said.
Weight said Leddy skates like no one he has ever seen.
“I’m talking (Pavel) Bure, or any name you can put out there,” Weight said.
According to Weight, Leddy is shooting more and becoming more of “a deceptive player.” Leddy has 70 shots in 27 games, for a career-high 2.59 shots per game.
“A year ago I would have said that he doesn’t have any Erik Karlsson in him,” Weight said. “Now, he’s ripping across the blue line and darting across the ice.”
Tavares said what makes Leddy special is an ability to aggressively join the rush and still be a factor defensively if the puck turns the other way.
“It’s amazing how he can get back (on defense) when he has three or four strides to make up,” Tavares said.
The real change in Leddy may be his transformation into a high-grade defender.
“He plays against the best players in the world every game,” Weight said. “He’s forcing (assistant coach) Luke Richardson or me to say, ‘Who do I want against (Nikita) Kucherov?’ It’s him. That’s the level he’s been playing at. He is playing physical. He’s learned he can play with an edge and be better.”
Leddy is a soft-spoken leader, a humble guy who is flashier on the ice than off the ice.
“I’m just trying to improve every year,” Leddy, 26, said, adding that his defensive improvement is about experience.
“It comes with games played and experiences you’ve had,” Leddy said. “It’s about learning through reading and reacting. The hardest thing about the NHL is everything happens so fast.”
Tavares saw this Leddy leap coming last season. He told USA TODAY Sports before the 2016-17 season that he viewed Leddy as a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman.
“Playing against him in practice every day, I could see the skill set and instincts,” Tavares said. “You could see his game grow and grow and now he’s a horse for us.”
Tavares said Leddy makes him better because he can play with him in games and against him in practice.
When Weight took over as head coach last season, the first player he talked to one-on-one was Leddy. He wanted to tell him that he believed that Leddy could be, or should be, a greater difference-maker than he was.
Weight said Leddy accepted that challenge.
“The maturity in a player isn’t just about becoming a father, coming to the rink early to stretch and taking care of your body,” Weight said. “Sometimes maturity is accepting coaching and becoming more competitive and more prepared. Sometimes it’s wanting to be the best.”