On Monday, the Florida Panthers signed Portland Winterhawks captain John Ludvig to a three year entry-level contract.
Signing an NHL contract is something John has been “working towards my whole life. The day finally came where I signed, it has been a great day.”
Selected 69th overall in the 2019 NHL Entry Draft, Ludvig heard his name called in his second time through the draft.
“When I got passed over in the draft in my first year of eligibility it didn’t bother me too much. I said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to prove everyone wrong.’ That is what I’m doing right now.”
Mike Johnston, Portland’s vice president, general manager, and head coach, called it a great story. “Look at how he came into the league, undrafted, we listed him, went through the first year of the NHL Draft with no interest, last year he gets drafted, this year he goes from being a hard to play against player who is gritty, to one of the top offensive guys in the league. Every step, every challenge he undertakes he seems to meet head on and surpasses everybody’s expectations of what he can do.”
In the fall of 2019 Ludvig was named captain of the Winterhawks after Cody Glass went on to play for the Vegas Golden Knights.
Entering the season with seven goals in 109 games, Ludvig was not known for his ability to generate offense from the blue line. In 60 games this season however, the 6-foot-1, 205 pounds defenseman scored 17 times and registered 45 assists. His 17 goals were fourth best among WHL defensemen.
What type of pro prospect does Johnston see Ludvig project to be? Perhaps it is still up for debate. “It is interesting because I would have said a year ago he will be a shutdown guy. However, after watching him this year run a power play at a top level, and on a top team, I don’t know. I think the sky is the limit for him. If I’m Florida, I want him to continue to develop his offensive game and continue to make good plays and be a threat off the blue line.”
As much as the Kamloops, British Columbia, native’s game improved offensively, Johnston says, “The staple of his game is just being hard to play against. Every day in practice and every game, he was no fun to play against. Top players in our league did not want to play against John Ludvig on a night in and night out basis.”
After getting drafted Ludvig knew work still had to be done if he wanted to make Monday a reality. “My next goal once drafted was to sign a contract with (Florida) and all season I’ve been talking with them. We had a good year in Portland as team, and one of my better years personally. We stayed in touch and Florida reached out to me and wanted to sign me. We did some negotiations and got it done.”
The decision to sign was an easy one for the 19-year-old. “My next step and goal is to make it to the NHL, so I wanted to get it done.”
To read more about Ludvig being drafted last summer, including him sharing about his boxing training, click here.
Old School Training
Ludvig’s journey to a signed contract does not follow the traditional path. In 2016-2017 he was playing Junior B with the Kamloops Storm. Fast forward four years, he is a signed NHL prospect.
How does a player make the jump in such a short period of time? Simple, hard work and dedication.
“Just put your head down and put in the work,” John said when asked about his approach after not hearing his name called in the WHL Bantam Draft.
His training style does not match what many top prospects are utilizing for their training.
Mike Johnston shared a story about when he went to visit Ludvig after his rookie season in the WHL. “I stopped in to see him, his dad, and his mom. His dad and John took me out into the backyard and asked if I wanted to see where John trained. I will describe what I saw as a shed, barn-like structure. In there was a pullup bar, a sawed-off log, and John would work in there almost like a “Rocky” like-program. He was jumping on and off logs, doing pull ups, dong one handed push ups, stickhandling, shooting, and would run through the forest.”
Sure enough, Ludvig echoed what his bench boss said, “Yep, we have this barn or shed in my backyard where I have some weights, tires, and sledgehammers. I’ve got an old school training setup here which is very useful for me. This quarantine hasn’t impacted me too much training wise because of my style of training.”
The runs through the forest are not your everyday run, “We still have four feet of snow up here still. Every morning I get up with my family and we are going on hikes through the mountains in four feet of snow.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” Johnston continued. “I have never seen that in today’s day and age. Everybody is at a gym with high-tech equipment, but here John was old school “Rocky” training like you see at the end of the movie and how he is doing all these things with no fancy equipment. That just shows you with John the type of focus and work ethic he has.”
The old-school mentality does not end with the backyard.
Johnston and the family went back inside the house before departing for dinner. “Do you have internet here,” Johnston asked. John answered, “Nah, not really, it doesn’t really work well out here.”
The Ludvigs live about 15 minutes outside of Kamloops.
Johnston was left thinking, “This guy is a teenage kid, training in a shed, working in the woods, training like he is, old school as they come, and doesn’t have internet. Wow, this is an amazingly focused and determined kid.”
Future in Portland?
Per the current NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, players drafted from the CHL are not eligible for the American Hockey League until they are in their 20-year-old season. With Ludvig signing on Monday after his 19-year-old year, his future in Portland may not be as bright as it was prior to the contract.
When asked, Johnston did not know for sure where his captain would be playing in 2020-2021. “They haven’t indicated that to me. I knew they were going to sign him, but didn’t know when it was going to take place. I’m sure we will have some discussions.”
Portland’s general manager does not see the potential to be very high though. “With signed players in my experience, with our guys it doesn’t happen (returning for his 20-year-old season). He will probably move on, I would think 90% moving on, but it will be up to Florida and the spots they have. He was a late developing player, but has reached a pretty good level in our league already. I will be very interested to see what they decide.”
With Ludvig signed, the Panthers now have 16 defensemen under contract, five of which will be either an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent in 2020-2021. Six more reach free agency in 2021-2022.
With signed players, returning to juniors is not very common; however, Portland only needs to go back a season to see a signed player return.
Joachim Blichfeld was signed by the San Jose Sharks and was returned to the Winterhawks for his overage season. One item of note though, the Sharks do not have an ECHL affiliate, so there were less professional spots available.
Johnston touched on Blichfeld’s situation, “It all depends on the team’s depth chart. With Blichfeld coming back from San Jose, they had a couple of extra forwards on their chart. They weren’t really able to fit him in that year, so they thought one more year of development would be good for him. It turned out to be really good for him. Another year for a late developing player like Ludvig is sometimes good. It depends on if you can fit him into the American League roster and get him great playing time and if he can be knocking on the door of the NHL team. If so, they will probably choose that option.”
Ludvig also is not sure where he will be patrolling the blue line next season. “Only time will tell. I couldn’t say today where I’m going to be, a lot can change. Every year from now my goal is to make it to the NHL, which is what I will try to do. Maybe I will be back next year, maybe not, but thank you to Portland. You have made my time there unforgettable.”
If the Winterhawks and their fans have seen the last of Ludvig, they have witnessed a tremendous player, a great young man, and truly seen what development in the WHL is meant to be.
“It is a story we will tell our players for years to come,” Johnston concluded. “You may be a high pick, you may not be picked in the draft, but it is about what you do with your time in junior hockey and what you do in the summers. You have to be focused, and John Ludvig is the perfect example of someone who is very driven and very focused. He took advantage of the opportunities he was provided.”