ONE thing crucial to Leeds Chiefs’ player-coach Sam Zajac when putting together the club’s first-ever roster was for it to have a core of players with a local connection.
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The arrival of defenceman Lewis Baldwin reinforces that aim, joining Leeds-born Bobby Streetly, from Leeds, and Huddersfield’s Luke Boothroyd.
All three players are products of the Bradford Bulldogs junior system, one that has also produced young talents such as Kieran Brown and Jordan Griffin, both hoping to have a breakthrough season with the Sheffield Steelers in the top-flight Elite League this season.
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Baldwin is the fourth player to make the switch to the Chiefs from Solway Sharks and somebody Zajac is convinced will have a positive impact as he steps up to NIHL National level with the Elland Road club.
“I feel that is really key for us at this level, that we can have a good, local core,” said Zajac. “Lewis certainly adds to that. He is a bundle of energy and will be great in the dressing room.
“We were skating together the other week for the first time and he impressed me on and off the ice. He’s built like the side of a house too and, while he might not be the tallest, he’s as strong as an ox and skates exceptionally well.
“He’s played at this level before, in the old EPL, but maybe not having as big a role as he’ll have with us.”
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Having spent his developing years at Bradford, Billingham-born Baldwin progressed to the old EPL, briefly with Hull Pirates before enjoying a near-full campaign at Manchester Phoenix before that team’s demise before the end of the 2016-17 season.
The EPL’s own subsequent demise, saw Baldwin move to Blackburn Hawks, where he again hooked up with Boothroyd who he had played alongside at Manchester with.
Another summer move saw him head to Scotland with Solway, where he posted 38 points in 44 games, including eight goals.
And it is Baldwin’s obvious potential to contribute more offensively that excites Zajac the most.
“The offensive side of his game is definitely something we’re going to work on too,” added Zajac.
“His skating is fantastic for this level. He is comfortable on the puck, which I think a lot of defencemen in this league maybe aren’t so much.
“If you’ve got a defenceman who moves the puck really well and gets it up to the forwards well then it kind of sets you apart.
“He’s going to carry a lot of the offensive burden from the back-end for us so we’ll probably pair him with more of a stay-at-home defensive guy and giving him the opportunity to join the rush and create plays and get on the end of plays.”
Baldwin admitted he was impressed with the quality of the roster put together by Zajac.
“It’s got the look of a really good team about it and one that could do really well,” said Baldwin.
“I’ve played with or against the majority of that team. I played with Luke (Boothroyd) at both Blackburn and Manchester and that shows we’ve got a good blend of youth and experience.
“There’s plenty of know-how as well as plenty of young guys who are hungry for it and want to prove themselves at this level, such as myself, Ethan Hehir and Joey Poulter - young, gritty players that are desperate to get going at this level.”