clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Checking out John-Michael Liles

 Welcome to a new article series here at MHH: Checking Out. The articles will feature different players, taking a look at their careers and what got them to where they are today. Generally, I will pick a player of recent buzz, just to keep things current.  Our inaugural player is, of course, Johnny Hot Pocket.  And yes, the name of the series is intentional…like you would expect anything else from me.

 John-Michael Liles has had an incredible start to this season. His name is already being thrown in the mix of top candidates for the Norris Trophy, and rightly so. He’s currently boasting 23-points (4 G, 19 A), placing him 2nd among defensemen and 26th for all players—ahead of such names as Bobby Ryan (22 pts), Henrik Zetterberg (20 pts) and Niklas Lidstrom (20 pts). He is on pace to obliterate his career-average point production of 36 per regular season, as well as his most successful campaign to date of 49 points during 2004-2005.  Last year, he put up 31 points in 59 games; at this pace, he should match that in half the time.

Liles was born on November 25, 1980 in Indianapolis, Indiana. In 7th grade, his family moved to Zionsville, a small city of approximately 10,000 residents, located 20 minutes outside of Indianapolis. Neither of his parents—John nor Janie—had a background in hockey.  In fact, no one in his family did. And yet, while his friends all focused their attention on football and baseball, Liles chose to sacrifice early mornings and long weekends to play hockey in larger hockey communities like Michigan and Canada. Unlike many NHL-caliber players, however, he didn’t stand out as a star early on. “John was a good player and a good kid who worked hard,” remembers his youth hockey coach, Greg Deitsch. “But could I tell you I knew he was on his way to the NHL? No.” That didn’t stop him from dedicating himself 100% in order to improve his play every time he hit the ice.

Once Liles got to Culver Military Academy, he began to show his true talent by using his speed to become an offensive threat. As a sophomore, he played on the varsity A team and also earned honors as the B team’s MVP. He was then selected to skate for the U.S. National Team Development Program, which played a large role in Michigan State University’s recruitment of the defenseman. He immediately made an impact, earning 28 points in 40 games during his freshman year, tops of the Spartans’ blueline. That effort gained the attention of the Colorado Avalanche, who drafted him in the 5th round in 2000. He continued to show his skill his sophomore year by putting up 25 points and being named to the All-CCHA Second Team. Liles bested that performance in his junior year with 35 points, participation in the All-CCHA First Team and Second All-American Team, and earning the CCHA Best Offensive Defensemen Award. By the time his senior year ended, he left little doubt of his talent: 50 points, another CCHA Best Offensive Defensemen Award, and a finalist for the Hobey Baker.

In March of 2003, John-Michael Liles signed a 2-year, entry-level contract with the Avalanche and played his first 10 professional games with the Hershey Bears, Colorado’s AHL affiliate at the time. The experience in Hershey gave him the confidence to make a stand for a roster spot with the Avs the following season.  Liles made the team straight out of training camp, joining a strong blue line with players like Rob Blake and Adam Foote. Of his entry into the NHL, Liles said, “I guess I didn't realize I'd made it until that first home game, when they were raising the banner for their ninth division championship, [the Pepsi Center] was packed and the crowd was going crazy. Then it was like, 'Wow, I'm here. I am really here.’” He didn’t disappoint. He scored his first 2 NHL points, including a game-winning-goal, against the Minnesota Wild on October 16, 2003. He went on to score 10 goals and 24 assists that season, leading all rookie defensemen and being named to the NHL All-Rookie Team. That year, he also played for the USA in the World Cup; his international play continued the following season with a stint on Team USA in the World Championships and in 2006 with a spot on the United States' Olympic team.

After the NHL lockout, Liles posted his best season, sharing the number one spot for goals with Rob Blake and setting a franchise record for the most points by a d-man in October. In 2006-2007, he ranked 10th in the NHL for goals by a defenseman and became the first defenseman since Steve Duchesne to score 10 or more goals in each of his first three years in the league. That year, he also gave up his number, 26, to Paul Stastny so that Paul could honor his father who played for the franchise when the team was in Quebec. Liles took on the number 4 after having asked Rob Blake, who previously wore the number in Colorado, if he minded. That kind of respect for others is an inherent part of Liles’ character. In 2007-2008, Liles helped the Avs make it to the 2nd round of playoffs, beating the Wild 4 games to 2 in the first round. He also scored his 100th career assist, a feat accomplished in only 4 seasons. That summer, he signed a $16.8 million contract, keeping him in Denver for four more years. He also became a minority owner in the USHL Indiana Ice. “What a great avenue we have in place now for local players to pursue their academic and athletic goals at the highest level in the USA,” Liles said of the investment. “My family and I are very excited to partner in this long term venture.”

The following season was a dismal one for the Avalanche, placing last in the Western Conference. Yet Liles was a bright spot as he still continued to put up points. He scored 12 goals and 39 points that year, his second-best since joining the NHL. He also reached the 50 goal mark that season. Still, the poor showing of the team prompted an organization-wide rebuild starting in 2009-2010. John-Michael Liles fell out of favor with the new coach and spent a great deal of time as a healthy scratch. He only played 59 games; nonetheless, he still put up 31 points. Many of those came after the Olympic break when Liles seemed to find himself again. "It was definitely a wake-up call," he said. "It's tough to even suggest you're almost glad it happened, being a healthy scratch those nights, because you always want to be playing, but sometimes it takes that wake-up call, that realization, to understand that maybe you need to take a step back.” That step back meant returning to where he began: using his speed to create offense. He spent the Olympic break training with and getting advice from people in his past. It paid off. He ended the season as one of the stronger defensemen for the Avs as they secured a playoff spot and put up a good showing against the heavily-favored San Jose Sharks.

Over the summer, Liles focused even more on improving his game. He had a couple of surgeries to fix some nagging problems from previous injuries, and he got into the best shape of his career by dropping fat, adding muscle, and eating well. The changes became immediately apparent as he set an NHL record for a defenseman by getting an assist in each of his first nine games. He’s maintained his position as a top-scorer for both defensemen and forwards in the league and is arguably one of the best players for the Avalanche this season. His speed, decision making, and leadership have all worked together to make Liles a threat on the ice. In fact, he recently was named the Second Star of the Week by Like always, though, Liles is humble about the recognition and gives credit to his teammates. “It’s a nice honor, but the bottom line is I wouldn’t be in that position and wouldn’t have the opportunity to win that if we weren’t winning games,” Liles said. “Everybody’s playing well right now, and I’ve been the recipient of getting the puck to the right guys.” The team always comes first with him, and his never-failing support can be seen at the end of every game as he is always the last to leave the ice, being sure to give his teammates a word or two of appreciation on their way to the locker room.

It’s shaping up to be a career season for John-Michael Liles despite being part of a defensive corps riddled with injuries. Rather than having to compensate for the rookies with whom he’s been paired, he’s given them a chance to elevate their game while continuing to play spectacular hockey himself. The most remarkable thing about him, however, is that he is only 30. With all that he’s accomplished, it’s hard to believe he has so much time in the NHL ahead of him. More points, more records, and more accolades. But never expect Liles to take it for granted again. “Sometimes, I take a step back and look at where I am…I know how lucky I am every day.