May 22, 2012 2:07 PM
Nicolas Blanchard has been extremely patient. Why stop now?
After five seasons playing for the Carolina Hurricanes’ top minor-league affiliate, the soon-to-be-25-year-old forward believes he’s never been closer to earning his NHL debut. That’s part of why he agreed to re-sign for two more years with the organization rather than test unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career later this summer.
“I’m very happy and excited,” he said from his home in Montreal on Tuesday. “I love this organization and I still believe I can get called up and make the team. I had a good talk with Carolina and I was really happy that they wanted me, and I decided it would be a good decision to return and keep working for my dream.”
He didn’t know it at the time, but Blanchard, who has served as an alternate captain for each of the last four seasons with the Checkers and the Albany River Rats, would have made his Hurricanes debut already if not for a concussion suffered on March 24. That altered the team’s plans to reward him for his years of service that have come to be defined by hard work, sacrifice and leadership rather than goals and assists.
Even having missed that chance that has eluded him to this point, Blanchard isn’t frustrated. Instead, he seems more determined than ever to make it to the next level, choosing to stick with the team that drafted him in the sixth round back in 2006 rather than jump at his first chance to look elsewhere.
“(Going to free agency) was tempting, but I still believe the Canes will call me up,” he reiterated. “I think that age 24, 25, 26 is my range, because I’m going to work hard this summer to gain weight so I can be physical and play on the third or fourth line in the NHL. I want to be able to do the same things there that I do in the AHL.”
Those things include being one of the most important pieces of a penalty-killing unit that was one of the league’s best throughout the season. He’s also one of the team’s most physical players, as he uses his 6-foot-3, 206-pound frame to win battles along the boards and stick up for his teammates, as evidenced by his fourth straight season with over 100 penalty minutes.
Add those attributes together with his leadership, and it’s easy to see why he earns so much respect from his teammates, coaches and management.
“This was my fourth year as an assistant captain, and I tried to help the kids when they came in and put the team as a family,” he said. “I think that the closer you become, the farther you can go.”
At face value, Blanchard’s offensive statistics are as consistent as they come. He’s posted between 18 and 23 points in each of his five AHL seasons, though this season’s total of 21 came entirely at even strength – a career first.
“The coaches told me it was my best year offensively,” said Blanchard. “Obviously I’m not a 40-point guy, but I think I’ve improved my offensive game with keeping the puck on my blade and looking for my teammates instead of throwing it away.”
Even with new contract in hand and a wedding coming up in late July, Blanchard aims to spend the summer trying to continue that improvement. He uses Montreal Canadiens center David Deharnais, a friend of his who just posted 60 points playing alongside former Hurricane Erik Cole in his first full NHL season at age 25, as an example of someone who made good after paying his dues in the minors.
“It took a while for him, but you have to improve year after year,” said Blanchard. “If you get the opportunity, you have to grab it and build on it because once you stop improving, it’s looking bad because there are always good players in the lineup.”
Desharnais was also able to share a little insight about former Montreal assistant and current Carolina head coach Kirk Muller, who will get his first good look at Blanchard at training camp this fall.
“He knows Kirk, and he told me that he likes my kind of player,” said Blanchard. “It’s always good to show your assets and your strengths to a person you haven’t seen.”
It could be that the combination of an ever-improving Blanchard and a new audience in Muller, who has openly talked about wanting to re-tool his fourth line for next season, could result in the break he’s been looking for. If not, he’ll return to Charlotte and be the same reliable presence he’s always been, perhaps even serving as team captain for the first time depending on other organizational moves.
“I don’t know how it will turn out, but right now I think both sides are happy,” he said.