Young Ladd's matured

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

In the midst of a breakout junior season with the Calgary Hitmen five years ago, Andrew Ladd was asked to describe his game.

After pointing out that his size and work ethic made him a tenacious sort who liked to drive the net, work the corners and score, he admitted he had a weakness:

"My defence could be picked up at times," he said.

Fast forward to his fourth year in the NHL where even the staunchest Hitmen lover would likely be shocked to see his biggest deficiency as a youth may now be his largest strength.

In the midst of a breakthrough NHL season that has him on pace to almost triple his career high for points, Ladd also happens to find himself in the oddest of company. Not only does his plus-20 rank him amongst the league's top plus players, he's also a fixture on Chicago's second line, which has been designated as the unit charged with shutting down the opposition's top trio.

Last night in the building he used to dominate in as a junior, he dominated at the highest level by scoring once, adding two assists and shutting down Jarome Iginla's line.

"I guess I've found my grove and my confidence," laughed the 23-year-old Maple Ridge, B.C. native after last night's 5-2 win over Calgary.

"My first three years were kind of frustrating -- it seemed I was always injured. When I came to Chicago (via a trade from Carolina late last season), they gave me a role and I seem to have fit it real well. It gave me a fresh start and confidence."

And a chance to shine alongside one of the game's most underrated players: Martin Havlat. With Dave Bolland placed between the two a few dozen games ago, the trio has done virtually everything for the resurgent Hawks.

"Our line plays well together -- it's a good mix of grit and skill," said the 6-ft-2, 200-lb power forward who won a Stanley Cup with Carolina in his first NHL season.

"Havlat is one of the most skilled guys in the league and that makes Bollie and I look better. Our line is on to be good defensively and chip in offensively and, offensively, we've been good of late."

Picking up his seventh multi-point effort of the year, Ladd now has nine goals and 23 assists in 50 games. In his first three years in Carolina, his best season saw him rack up just 21 points, which was considered a major disappointment given he was taken fourth overall in 2004.

"Defence is one of the things I got better at my first three years -- they harped on that in Carolina to be good in your own end," said Ladd.

So does winning all four games against a team like Calgary as part of an 11-0 run against Canadian squads.

"It's easy to get motivated when you come back to a place like this," said Ladd, who just played his 200th NHL game.

Piecing together a six-game scoring streak before Christmas while being counted on as the team's top shut-down winger, Ladd is finally reaching his potential.

Not bad for a kid who was cut as a 16-year-old by Dean Evason's Vancouver Giants, forced to spend a year with the Coquitlam Express as a 17 year old only to resurface under Evason in Calgary where the Hitmen stud led all WHL rookies.

"My game is all sorts of different things -- not just scoring."

The Flames and all his Hitmen fans got major league proof of that first hand last night.


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