Sam Jardine leaves school early to pursue opportunity with Blackhawks

Sam Jardine was all set to return to Ohio State for his senior season as of a month ago.

Jardine, a sixth-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011, went into the Blackhawks’ prospect camp last month hoping to impress people, but he wasn’t expecting anything more. His goal was to receive some positive feedback and build off that in his final season with the Buckeyes.

Jardine did more than that. He was among the camp’s top defensemen and played well enough for the Blackhawks to offer him an AHL deal with the Rockford IceHogs. After thoroughly weighing whether to return to school or sign professionally, Jardine chose the latter and his one-year deal with the IceHogs was announced Wednesday.

“As that week went along [at camp], I thought I was getting better every day there,” the 21-year-old Jardine said by phone Wednesday. “Obviously I impressed management enough to earn a contract in the AHL. Obviously it was still a very, very difficult decision and had to talk it over with my family. I decided it was the best decision for my hockey career and a challenge I’m really looking forward to.”

What the decision came down to was the opportunity currently available in the Blackhawks’ system. The Blackhawks were stacked with defenseman prospects a year ago, but that’s no longer the case. They have traded Adam Clendening, Klas Dahlbeck, Stephen Johns and Mike Paliotta in the last year. All four players were considered potential NHL defensemen with the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks have six NHL defensemen set for the upcoming season. Erik Gustaffson, Ville Pokka and Viktor Svedberg will likely compete for a seventh spot at training camp. Beyond them, the Blackhawks have a number of defensemen signed to NHL and AHL contracts who will be given the chance to prove themselves in Rockford.

“The biggest thing is just the opportunity is there in Rockford,” said Jardine, who is 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds. “There have been a couple of trades that has made some things available on defense. I want to take that opportunity before someone else does quite simply. If it’s not me knocking on that door, it’s going to be someone else.”

Jardine does understand he is gambling by signing an AHL contract. The deal is just for one year, and there are no guarantees he’ll eventually be given an NHL contract. He’s betting on himself.

“That’s what made it really difficult to be honest with the decision,” Jardine said. “The decision obviously comes with a little bit of risk on my part. It is the one-year contract. It doesn’t have the NHL association. I think it’s a risk worth taking.

“I’m just looking forward to that opportunity, looking to get my foot in the door. The Blackhawks have always been an organization that rewards hard work and perseverance. That’s what I try to do with my game -- put the work in and hope the results will follow.”

Jardine will get back to putting in that work this week. He plans to return to Chicago on Thursday and continue his training with Blackhawks skating and skill development coach Kevin Delaney. From there, he’ll play for the Blackhawks in the rookie tournament in Michigan in September and attend training camp.

“It’s been four years since I was drafted,” Jardine said. “It had kind of been a long time coming. It’s something I had envisioned and been working toward for a long time. It’s a lot of fun to finally come here. I enjoyed it with my family in the moment. Now it’s all about getting back to work, getting back to the grind and make sure I’m one of the most physically fit guy coming to camp.”