To say that 2015 has been a busy year for defenseman Michael Paliotta would be the epitome of understatement. He completed his college career at the University of Vermont in style -- serving as Captain of the team, ranking 2nd nationally among defensemen in assists, 4th in the country in scoring, and earning a passel of All-American, conference and academic team honors. In late March, he signed a two-year deal with the Chicago Blackhawks, reported directly to the big club, and played in his first NHL game -- earning an assist. He then graduated with his degree in Entrepreneurship, and capped his June by being traded to Columbus as part of the biggest trade of the NHL off-season. That was followed shortly by Prospects Camp in Columbus. As this piece appears, he is an integral part of the club Columbus is fielding at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament, and notched a power play goal and an assist in an 8 - 5 win over Minnesota. He'll get a few days of rest before Training Camp begins in earnest. Whew . . .I'm tired just thinking about it, let alone doing it.
Before digging in a little deeper into his background, let's look at Paliotta's tale of the tape.
Hometown: Westport, Connecticut
Height: 6' 3"
Weight: 207 lbs.
Draft History: Selected in 3rd Round (#70)by Chicago in 2011 Entry Draft
Cap Hit: $925K
Michael's background is a testament to family devotion, overcoming adversity and leadership. The eldest of four children, he is the first to venture into the world of hockey. At age 16, just as he was heading off from his home in Connecticut to become part of the United States National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Michael learned that his mother had been diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. While she is now cancer free (and is very active in cancer-related support and charitable enterprises), it was a lot for a youngster to handle, needing to focus on his hockey while also supporting his younger siblings. He credits his mother's perseverance as an example for him to follow, and believes he emerged much stronger by virtue of the experience.
Although he was drafted by Saint John in the Canadian Junior draft, college was always in the cards. Vermont showed interest in him, and it also met his goal of being relatively close to home. His parents and siblings saw most of his games during his four-year career, a fact Paliotta refers to with obvious pride, as he does with his college degree. However, the experience proved to be yet another exercise in overcoming adversity. After coming from gold medal teams in the WHC-17 and WJC-18 tournaments, Paliotta entered a hockey program in disarray. The club notched single digit wins for the season, and Paliotta describes the experience as follows:
It was definitely tough . . . we just had a really down year, with a lot of negativity about the program. . . But at the end of the day, now that I look back at it, I think the guys took a lot from all of the negativity and were able to turn it into positives. I think we learned a ton about ourselves.
Due in no small part to Paliotta's efforts, the Catamounts improved each season, earning a slot in the NCAA Tournament his junior year. At the same time, Paliotta himself transformed his game. Early in his college career, Paliotta was known as a stay-at-home blue liner, focused more on dominating the game physically than developing the other aspects of his game. Then, in the second half of his college career, he developed a potent offensive game and became a more complete player on the ice. Characteristically, Paliotta deflects credit for the transformation, attributing much of his success to some deft coaching:
The D coach was a guy named Kevin Patrick. We developed a great relationship over the three years he was there. I learned a ton from him, just really small details, working one on one with him separately. We would go out in the morning at 8:00 AM and work on some small details of the game that made a huge impact on my game. Honestly, I think the biggest thing was the confidence I was able to develop, playing in all situations, and having some success.
In March of this year, SI.com ran an article suggesting that Paliotta might not sign with the Blackhawks, his draft club, but might follow the path of MIke Reilly and others in exploring free agency. As fortune would have it, Paliotta signed his two-year deal with Chicago that day. Paliotta himself is quick to acknowledge that the free agent possibility was discussed with his agent and his parents, but that Chicago was the obvious choice. He credits the Blackhawks organization with being a huge factor in his development, particularly by allowing him to report directly to the NHL club, play in his first NHL game (and earn his first assist), and simply be around a top NHL organization as it geared up for the playoffs. He characterizes that experience as "invaluable" as he heads into his first NHL training camp.
Paliotta has spent the summer working on his game and getting acclimatized to the Columbus area, with significant assistance from the Blue Jackets' Cam Atkinson. The two players share a trainer, and in fact were out having dinner the night before the trade, discussing a mutual acquaintance who had just been traded to Chicago. LIttle did Paliotta realize that he would be heading out of Chicago in under 24 hours.
Paliotta is excited at the opportunity presented in Columbus, and has gained significant confidence and encouragement from GM Jarmo Kekäläinen's statements that Paliotta was a key element of the deal, and that he had been trying to acquire the defenseman for some time. A deferential, soft-spoken guy, Paliotta makes it clear that he has definite goals as he approaches camp later this week:
My goal heading into camp is certainly to make the team out of camp. It was my goal when I was with Chicago. When we were doing the contract negotiations, we wanted to put ourselves in the best position to play in the NHL this season. I don't think that should change now that I am in Columbus. I just want to put my best foot forward in Columbus and have a great training camp.
Michael Paliotta came into town in the shadow of Brandon Saad, and has escaped the spotlight while speculation over Christian Ehrhoff, Cody Franson and others has run rampant. However, Paliotta brings size, speed, skill, intelligence and leadership -- together with a right-handed shot -- to a blue line that should have ample opportunity for competition. He could very well be one of the reasons that some of those other defenseman deals did not materialize. With the adversity he has overcome in the past, betting against Paliotta making the squad would be a perilous wager.