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A Strapping Young Ladi

This is Not Chris Pronger. "Not Chris" is a real ugly name that carries a lot of baggage for an innocent lad, so I prefer to just call him Ladi for short.

The Ladi pictured above was playing his first professional season at age 19, with Portland Pirates of the AHL. After that season the highly-rated Ducks' prospect was one of several assets traded for the real Chris Pronger in a deal that was greeted with collective disappointment and derision by Oiler fans already devastated by a Game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals. The best player to wear Oiler silks since Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr all left town in the fall of ’91, Pronger had delivered on his early promise by leading the Oilers within a bounce of the Holy Grail. Then, just as suddenly as he arrived, he was gone.

Much of that disappointment was refracted on the two actual players that were included in the return, Ladi and Joffrey. The expectations were immense, unrealistic; Joffrey wilted under the pressure. Young Ladi, meanwhile, went about his business of apprenticing in the toughest position in the best league in the world under the microscope of a hockey-mad town.

Over the next two seasons Ladi proved fairly conclusively that he is Not Chris Pronger. However, when he was 20 and 21 Chris Pronger wasn’t exactly Chris Pronger either, at least not the one we’ve grown to love and hate. While the two have little in common, it’s instructive to compare their early career results:

Age 19:
Pronger (Hartford, NHL): 81 GP, 5-25-30
Smid (Portland, AHL): 71 GP, 3-25-28

OK, so Chris was in the NHL and Not Chris was in the Not NHL, but still, not a bad debut for both as teenage pros.

Age 20:
Pronger (Hartford, NHL): 43 GP, 5-9-14
Smid (Edmonton, NHL): 77 GP, 3-7-10

Age 21
Pronger (St. Louis, NHL): 78 GP, 7-18-25
Smid (Edmonton, NHL): 65 GP, 0-4-4

Pronger was clearly emerging as the better offensive player at this point – was there any doubt? But there’s more to the game than offence. Let’s look a little further:

Age 20:
Pronger: +29/-41 = -12 (Hartford = -14)
Smid: +40/-56 = -16 (Edmonton = -53)

Age 21:
Pronger: +57/-75 = -18 (St. Louis = -29)
Smid: +31/-46 = -15 (Edmonton = -27)

Age 20/21 totals:
Pronger: 121 GP, +86/-116 = -30 (Team = -43)
Smid: 142 GP, +71/-102 = -31 (Team = -80)

We don’t know Pronger’s ice time or quality of opposition/teammate, but based as a percentage of team goals he was clearly getting more ice by his first year in St. Loo. Equally clearly, he was still a student in the School of Hard Knocks.

Age 22:
Pronger: +77/-62 = +15
Smid: ?????

This is the point in his career where young Pronger began to assert himself. Ladi might reasonably be expected to do the same, although with 60 fewer games of NHL experience he may yet be a little further down the curve. Indeed, there’s every chance he will always be lower down the curve; Pronger developed into an elite blueliner. My only point is that it’s much too early to declare that Ladi won’t/can’t do the same.

First impressions captured last night were largely positive. On a night I was trying to focus on Oiler newcomers, young Ladi kept catching my eye. A few vignettes:

Ladi pounces on a loose puck at his own blueline, wheels, and fires a perfect tape-to-tape pass hitting a teammate breaking over the Florida line.
Ladi recovers the puck on the defensive LW hash marks, a Florida player coming hard on the forecheck. Ladi eats the puck, takes the check and while rolling off it delivers a crisp 15-footer up the boards to the supporting LW who walks the puck out of the zone.
With his left-winger in a losing battle at the offensive hash marks, Ladi jumps up the boards, grabs the puck, and takes it hard behind the net. He suddenly slams on the brakes, totally losing the guy checking him (#50, officially listed in the program as Some Random Dude, but impressive nonetheless), then takes the puck back out the short side and tries to jam it home. The whistle blows just as Tyler Spurgeon arrives to stuff the rebound. No goal, but a tremendous play all the same.
Walking out of his own zone, Ladi tries an ill-advised D-to-D pass that deflects off a forechecking Panther, resulting in a turnover. Harmless, but "unnecessary" according to the ever-watchful Ray Ferraro.
On the PK Ladi loses his stick in a battle for the puck. He battles his man on the edge of the crease, accepts Robert Nilsson’s offer of an emergency stick, then after a few more nervous seconds puts the borrowed twig to good use, diving to a loose puck and clearing the zone.
Ladi loses his man at the edge of the crease but there is no rebound and no problem. Coming in at the whistle, Ladi grabs the guy by the face and pulls him away from the crease area, then proceeds to do show off his speed bag technique with a few gloved punches. Two minutes for getting burned. That said, the guy definitely paid the price and I didn't entirely mind the penalty.
Ladi "falls asleep" (Ferraro) and lets his man get behind him for a half-scoring chance.
Ladi jumps into the neutral zone and joins the rush, turning it into a 3-on-2. Controlling the puck in the middle of the ice, Ladi walks in and dishes a solid tape-to-tape pass to the LW for a shot that fails.

In other words, no shortage of mistakes, but no shortage of impressive plays either. While the offensive moves were an unexpected and most pleasant surprise, what I was looking for most of all was assertiveness and confidence, and I saw plenty of both. Young Ladi is maturing into a man, a 6'3" 226 lb. mean mofo of a man, and he looks ready and eager to make the next step. Still very much a construction project, he'll be an interesting player to watch in 2008-09.