If you call yourself a hockey fan but aren’t familiar with the town of Laredo, Texas, you’re not alone. The city of roughly 250,000 people is on the border of Mexico. Only the Rio Grande River separates Laredo from its Mexican sister city Nuevo Laredo, in Tampaulipas, Mexico. Laredo is in the central part of Texas but by bordering with Mexico, it is actually further south than a significant portion of Northern Mexico. In American culture, the phrase “the deep south” is often used to describe states like Texas, Louisiana and Alabama. Well, Laredo Texas is just about as deep as it can get. In fact, it is 3, 250 KM or over 2, 000 miles southwest of Lively Ontario, the birth place of 29-year-old Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Desjardins.
For those of you unfamiliar with some (or all) of the many defunct professional hockey leagues, Laredo used to be the home of the Laredo Bucks of the Central Hockey League. It was a league dominated in its final seasons by the Allen Americans, who now play in the ECHL. The CHL lasted from the early 1990s until folding in 2014. Not to be stating the obvious, but the league wasn’t a typical landing place for future NHLers.
Incredible Journey From CHL to Stanley Cup
Don’t tell that to Desjardins though. One of the hardest working, and most underrated forwards in the NHL today spent the entire 2007-08 season with those Bucks. After spending four years in the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, the Canadian center was left with limited options. Known as a checking-line center in junior, it wasn’t shocking that Desjardins went undrafted in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. To continue his hockey career would be a tough journey. The Texas-Mexico border is about as far away from the center of the hockey world as one could ever play competitive hockey in North America.
During the 2007-08 season, Desjardins delivered the best offensive performance of his professional career with 59 points in 64 games. The near point-per-game average was good enough for third on the team as the then 21-year old helped lead the Bucks to the conference finals. Desjardins would add another six points in 11 playoff games and is the only player on the 2007-08 Bucks roster to have ever appeared in the NHL. Not even Desjardins’ then 34-year-old teammate Jeff Bes, drafted in the third round by the Minnesota North Stars in 1992, ever played in the NHL.
NHL Debut January 3, 2011
Desjardins’ success in Laredo earned him a contract with the Worcester Sharks of the AHL the following season. He wasn’t yet property of the NHL Sharks however, until the summer of 2010. A strong second season with Worcester in 2009-10 earned him an NHL contract. Desjardins increased his AHL scoring from 22 points in 2008-09 to 46 points in 2009-10. The following season, Desjardins would make his NHL debut at home in San Jose against the Vancouver Canucks on Jan. 3, 2011.
All told, Desjardins wound up playing 281 minor league games before cementing himself as an NHL regular. Never the prototypical goon who played only to fight, Desjardins has always been a player unafraid to throw down, piling up 412 penalty minutes in the minor leagues. Unlike many other NHL tough guys though, the 6-foot, 200 pound Desjardins actually has some skill attached.
Kudos to the Sharks’ scouting team, led by director Tim Burke for bringing Desjardins into the organization. As much as yours truly is a fan of the advanced stats, Desjardins is a prime example of a key NHL player whom no statistics truly do him justice. He never lit up the minor leagues in scoring, plus his scoring stats and advanced numbers in the NHL leave much to be desired. On paper, Desjardins is just another ho-hum fourth liner. That said, the value he brings is much more present in one’s eye test, something that will always be needed even with advanced stats improving the way we look at the game.
Desjardins will never be an offensive stud but his hockey IQ and puck skills do not get the credit they deserve from either player card nor advanced stats. He often played in San Jose with terrible linemates but when given a chance to play with better players, he almost always delivered.
Remember that four-goal game by Tomas Hertl? Of course you do. You probably don’t remember the awesome set up of Hertl’s first goal though. It was brilliantly set up by none other than Desjardins. In the video below, the very beginning shows Desjardins neatly chip the puck around Ryan McDonagh into the corner. He then takes two strong strides to get puck position on the star defenseman, who then backs off the play. Desjardins then reaches the puck in the corner and looks up to see Hertl open on the weak side crashing the net. In one quick motion, he backhands a pass through Dan Girardi’s legs right onto Hertl’s tape for the tap-in goal.
With just 50 points in 285 career NHL games, Desjardins doesn’t make many offensive plays, but that isn’t his job. His role in San Jose was primarily to provide energy and toughness on a fourth line. That said, had he been given better linemates, Desjardins has the offensive skills to have been a 20-25 point fourth liner. He has underrated hands and almost always makes a flat clean pass back to the points after cycling down low. It may sound small, but kicking the puck back to the point men with a flat pass on the tape versus a rolling puck in the skates can make all the difference in the world in getting off a quality point shot.
Growing up a Sharks fan, it will forever disappoint me that the Sharks never gave Desjardins the kind of consistent linemates that he had with Chicago for the 2015 playoffs. Desjardins finally got to show off the tremendous checking-line skills he developed in the OHL during the Hawks’ most recent playoff run. In San Jose, Desjardins rarely, if ever, skated minutes against top-tier opponents like Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. The Sharks never saw fit to give Desjardins linemates capable of playing a shut-down role, so we never got to see him at his best. With the Blackhawks, though, Desjardins skated with quality depth players in Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger, playing shut-down minutes against aforementioned Ducks Stars Perry and Getzlaf.
Kruger, Desjardins and Shaw
Ask anybody around the game of hockey, and they will tell you that Desjardins, Kruger and Shaw were one of the biggest reasons for the Hawks winning their third Stanley Cup. Having a quality group of two-way fourth-line forwards talented enough to eat up minutes against the other team’s top players is invaluable. Keeping the legs fresh of their star teammates makes all the difference in the world. Rolling four lines and sustaining momentum is a staple of the Hawks’ recent string of Stanley Cups. Desjardins ended up being a perfect fit for Chicago’s four-line formula.
Starting out his professional career basically in Mexico, not exactly a hockey hotbed, to battling through the AHL level, it is hard not to root for Desjardins. He has and will always be overlooked by the masses of hockey fans who aren’t students of the game. They only look at goals and assists. Checking-line forwards in major junior hardly ever make it at the NHL level, but Desjardins stuck with it and managed to go all the way from Laredo to hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head at the United Center. Talk about an awesome journey. To have started out so far away from the NHL only to persevere, break through and be a key contributor for a Stanley Cup winning team? Desjardins is one of the best stories in the NHL and that’s not even mentioning his character. Instead of signing elsewhere for more money, Desjardins elected to stay with Chicago this offseason for a mere $800,000 per year for two years. No. 11 for the Blackhawks is all about the team.