Kent, Wash. – Back in August, Dawson Leedahl was preparing to pursue a post-secondary education after his final season of junior hockey. He thought his shot at professional hockey had come to pass. He was ready to move on to the next chapter.
Now, everything has changed.
Monday, May 8, Leedahl’s dreams of pro hockey were revived as he signed an entry-level contract with the NHL’s New York Rangers – a much-deserved reward following a career campaign with the Regina Pats.
“It’s really exciting – especially being a free-agent guy, not drafted or anything – getting to be a part of such a great organization like New York,” the 21-year-old forward said following Monday morning skate at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
“Going into the season, I wasn’t really expecting to get a pro contract. I was thinking more about school, but it’s awesome to be able to keep playing the game you love and make some money doing it.”
Passed over in the NHL Draft, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound product of Saskatoon had his fortunes change on July 22, 2016, when he was shipped to Regina from the Everett Silvertips, along with the rights to forward Tyson Jost, in exchange for forward Sean Richards, a fourth-round pick at the 2017 WHL Bantam Draft and other conditional draft picks.
From there, the prairie boy thrived back in the Land of Living Skies as he racked up career highs in all major offensive categories, including goals (35), assists (54), points (89), power-play goals (10), shorthanded goals (2) and game-winning goals (4). Lining up for most of the season alongside Sam Steel – who went on to be the leading scorer in the entire Canadian Hockey League – certainly did not do anything to hurt Leedahl’s explosive performance in 2016-17.
John Paddock, head coach and general manager of the Pats, broke the news to his regiment following Monday’s skate. The announcement brought a resounding and telling eruption of cheers from the boys in blue.
“He was an extremely valuable player for us and in some ways, you might be able to say Dawson Leedahl was an MVP for us,” Paddock said following Monday morning skate at the ShoWare Center in Kent.
“He completely trusted us that it was going to be how we said it would be. He did the rest. When you get a chance to play with Sam Steel and you get a chance to play on the power play with the guys we have, you’re going to contribute. But he found a way to add to that because playing with a player like Sam isn’t an easy thing to do. He has certain expectations of where players need to go and play to produce. Dawson filled a role with [Steel] and [Nick] Henry to a tee.”
— #JoinTheRegiment (@WHLPats) May 8, 2017
Selected by the Everett Silvertips in the second round (40th) of the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft, Leedahl played 226 WHL regular-season games over the course of four seasons in the Pacific Northwest, collecting 37 goals, 64 assists and 101 points. He nearly matched each of those marks during his overage campaign in the Queen City.
“The coaching for sure [factored into my success],” Leedahl said. “I really get along great with John and Dave [Struch, assistant coach] and Brad [Herauf, assistant coach]. They really let you play the game you want to play – take chances and play a more offensive game.
“It’s a little different style of play in the east. Different coaches, a more offensive game and I got to play with some really good players here. Not saying I didn’t in Everett, but playing with Sam [Steel] and Hank [Nick Henry] doesn’t hurt.”
Under the tutelage of former Silvertips head coach Kevin Constantine, Leedahl refined the defensive side of his game. The move to Regina allowed his offensive instincts to flourish. Playing under a coach like Paddock – who has 12 years experience as an AHL head coach and five years experience as an NHL head coach, not to mention AHL Coach of the Year (1987-88) and WHL Coach of the Year (2014-15, 2016-17) honours – provided Leedahl the opportunity to learn from a man with a deep well of experience in essentially every level of hockey in North America.
“He fit like a glove with our group,” Paddock said. “He brought an ingredient of hardness, of experience that was necessary for our team. It was like a bonus – though it’s not a bonus anymore because we’ve come to expect it – he’s been on Sam’s [Steel] left wing for, probably, 99 per cent of the time this year and he’s been able to contribute offensively. He’s been a terrific player for us.”
“He’s a warrior-type player. He was taught the defensive side of the game in Everett and the paying-the-price part of the game. He probably had that in him to start, but to block shots and stuff like that. He understands now that there is something he can do with the puck, hang around the net… As you do things right regularly, you feel more confident.”
That confidence has gone a long way for Leedahl this season and he will need to utilize that while employing a new level of dedication to training as he readies to make the jump to pro hockey upon graduating from the Western Hockey League at the conclusion of this season – whenever that may be.
OFFICIAL: The #Blueshirts have agreed to terms with free agent forward Dawson Leedahl.
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) May 8, 2017
Leedahl, 21, skated in 71 regular season games with the Regina Pats this season, with 35-54–89, along with a +45 rating and 121 PIMs. https://t.co/Ymb8Z32L3M
— New York Rangers (@NYRangers) May 8, 2017
For a man like Paddock, he’s seen players off to the pro ranks and he’s been a pro coach tasked with helping youngsters transition into the pro game. There really isn’t a more qualified person when it comes to analyzing what a player needs to do in order to maximize his opportunity and continue growing and developing with sights set on the National Hockey League.
“The jump from junior hockey to the American League… is the biggest jump he can have,” Paddock said. “It’s bigger than going from the American League to the NHL. He does understand that this is now an 11-month job. Whenever our season is done, he needs to take a couple weeks off and he needs to get training. I don’t think there was a lot of that done before. That’s the really exciting thing for him and for the Rangers – there’s some growth and some improvement in strength and quickness that he can do. That may be the biggest thing that gives him a chance to progress up those two levels of pro hockey.”
Leedahl’s brand of hard-nosed hockey with an offensive flair not only made him an effective and fearless leader during the regular season, it has carried forward into the post-season where he has played a vital role – particularly with captain Adam Brooks having missed a handful of games throughout. In 19 playoff tilts, the veteran winger has notched 23 points (11G-12A) – good enough for second on the Pats and fifth in the WHL Playoffs scoring race.
Interestingly enough, Leedahl is skating alongside another Rangers prospect – Pats defenceman Sergey Zborovskiy was a third-round selection (79th) of the Blueshirts at the 2015 NHL Draft. In the same breath, he is skating opposite another Rangers prospect – Thunderbirds forward Ryan Gropp was a second-round pick (41st) of the Rangers at the 2015 NHL Draft.
Now, with the Regina Pats and Seattle Thunderbirds deadlocked through the opening two games of the 2017 WHL Championship Series presented by Rogers, Leedahl’s presence is needed more than ever as his Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy-winning Pats look to back up their regular season title with an Ed Chynoweth Cup crown.
Game 3 of the 2017 WHL Championship Series presented by Rogers goes Tuesday, May 9 (7:05 p.m. PT) at the ShoWare Center in Kent, Wash.