Minnesota Gopher Hockey 2013 Preview: Defensemen

Bruce Bennett

With three good defensemen off to the pros and Tommy Vannelli no longer with the team, it's down to seven guys for six spots.

Tommy Vannelli's sudden departure from the U before ever playing a game in Maroon and Gold leaves Minnesota perhaps a little short on depth on the back end, but they're far from lacking talent. You don't turn away a player with Vannelli's ability and potential obviously, but it's also not like he was going to be your best defenseman this season, and there were no guarantees he would have even cracked the top four. Yes, he unquestionably has that potential, but you could make the case both of the other incoming freshmen D (we'll get to them in a minute) could be just as good not only down the road, but this season.

Head coach Don Lucia was clearly willing to take a flyer on a talented kid who it seems people figured just may not be cut out for college but is a good kid and a fine hockey player. Why not, right? If it works out, great, and if it doesn't, well it perhaps explains why he was bringing in three freshmen D when you already had five coming back. Bottom line, the Gophers will be fine on D moving forward without him, and we wish Vannelli all the best this season with Medicine Hat of the WHL (he's now listed on their official roster. To show how much the landscape of college and junior hockey is changing, he's one of six Americans on that team, which includes two from California and one from Texas. The times, they are a changin') and beyond.

The larger loss will be felt by the absence of three players from last year's squad who won't be back, including two who would have been seniors this season. Nate Schmidt was voted Team MVP and first team All-WCHA as a junior last season, and while his jump to the pros wasn't surprising, it still leaves a gaping hole on the roster where a #1 defenseman would have been. He played- and played well- in all situations, had an absolute howitzer from the point, and seemed poised and confident both with the puck and without. Minnesota has no shortage of potential power-play quarterbacks but none of them have Schmidt's shot, and it's hard to imagine somebody being as effective with the man-advantage as he was.

Mark Alt never lived up to the billing of being a second round draft pick, finishing his junior season with just seven assists. Yet he was still good in his own end as he led the team in blocked shots with 50 and his +18 was second best. He surprised by leaving after his junior season, perhaps frustrated at how he developed, or worried about playing time this season with more talented freshmen coming in. Still, looking at the group of defensemen now who lacks quality defensive d-men, it's hard to believe a solid defensive player like Alt wouldn't have stayed in the top six.

Seth Helgeson was the lone senior on last year's squad, finishing with five assists and 46 shot blocks he not only played in all 40 games but also played a lot, especially killing penalties. That would help explain his -5, as he and Ben Marshall were the D pair Coach Lucia often counted on to face the opposing team's top line, and was always out on the penalty kill. Of course Helgeson was probably best known for his physical play, as his 27 penalties and 62 penalty minutes led the team by a pretty wide margin.

For this season that leaves us with seven defensemen for six spots in the three defensive pairings you'll see every game. There's a nice mix of youth and experience including some vets with something to prove and two really promising freshmen, and it's certainly not a group that's lacking talent. However, what does seem to missing are the traits that each of the departed defensemen would have brought, from Helgeson's toughness and physical presence to Alt's good defensive work to Schmidt's...well, his everything.

Of the seven D-men on the roster this season, there is one candidate with the skill set to be the #1 defenseman this team needs, and it's the gentleman pictured at the top in the Team USA jersey. Sophomore Brady Skjei has the size at 6'3 and 205 lbs, speed (one of the best skaters in college hockey), and experience to replace Schmidt's "everythingness", and we've seen a few encouraging signs he might be ready. After a disappointing freshman season last year when Skjei finished with just three assists and was a healthy scratch in a few games late in the season, Skjei had a very good World Juniors Eval camp in August, and according to a buddy of mine who was at the cagematch/hockey game last Saturday against Lethbridge, he looked much more confident and aggressive than last year.

The Lakeville native was a first round pick of the New York Rangers in 2012 and a graduate of the USA National Development program who, before he came to The U, was on Team USA"s top defensive pairing with uber prospect and 2013 4th overall pick Seth Jones. Last season Skjei played a lot, and mostly with Schmidt, but looked tenative at times and lacked the confidence you'd expect to see from someone as talented as he is. His offensive game is also a long, long way from someone like Schmidt's, or even a few of his current teammates, but to be the #1 defenseman the team needs, Skjei doesn't have to be the best offensive defenseman because he can potentially do everything else so well.

He's arguably the most responsible defenseman in his own zone as he's shown good instincts and hockey IQ, his size and reach give him an advantage to block shots and passing lanes as well as physically move forwards out of the way, and his speed allow him to cut down angles and get to offensive players much easier. He's shown with the USNDP and previous international competition that he can handle top pairing minutes and play a lot in all situations, so we know everything is there for him to be the team's #1 guy. Can he play the point on the power play? Said buddy said head coach Don Lucia had him in just that spot in the exhibition game against Lethbridge and he looked pretty good doing it. Summer eval camps and exhibition games are obviously not the regular season, but I'm cautiously optimistic Skjei can make some big strides in his game this season and start living up to the hype he came into the program with. If he can, he makes everyone else's job much easier.

The other guy Minnesota will look to for leadership on the back end is junior Ben Marshall. The Mahtomedi native has progressed nicely in his Gopher career, and was in the team's top two pairings as a sopohomore, finishing with 19 points (8 goals-11 assists) which included 3 game winning goals and 3 power play goals with the second PP unit, was a solid +8 with 45 blocked shots and 20 penalty minutes. Marshall isn't a big guy at 5'9, but showed in the exhibition game he's plenty feisty and isn't afraid to mix it up, as he was one of two Gopher players who were kindly asked to leave for the night. Marshall was sticking up for teammate Kyle Rau (Rau got under an opponent's skin? Why I never!), and well you don't want to see Marshall getting kicked out of a game, it was still good to see him supporting a teammate and not backing down from Canadian hoser thugs. Marshall's going to play a lot, and play well, this season, and as one of Lucia's most trusted defenseman, it'll be interesting to see who he gets paired with. He played mostly with Helgeson last year, but I could definitely see him playing with one of the freshmen, or perhaps a certain less trusted offensive defenseman...

...like Mike Reilly. The sophomore from Chanhassen is one of the most gifted offensive defensemen in all of college hockey, but is not what you'd call reliable. He's fantastic with the puck on his stick or on a power play, but his decision making last year was shaky and was often scary in his own end- and not in a good way. I'm not sure Reilly will ever be a great defender, or perhaps even good, but with his offensive skills if he can even be ok then he could be really good. Reigning in his free-wheeling style and risk-taking is going to be a challenge, though, and we'll see how well Lucia and defensive coach Mike Guentzel do in handling him this season. He shouldn't fall out of the top six, and with Skjei and Marshall locks for the top four and Lucia likely wanting to split them up to balance his top four, there's definitely room for Reilly to play with one of them.

Two seniors will be fighting the freshmen for spots in the top six and, perhaps, with Skjei and Marshall in the top four. Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl were both moved to the wing last season since there just wasn't room for them in the top six. If memory serves, Holl played exclusively there on the third or fourth line while Parenteau got to play defense when needed, and because of that, I think his spot in the top six is more secure. He's not huge at just 5'10, but is very good defensively (a +15 with 17 blocked shots), plays physical (his 27 penalty minutes were third on the team last year), and set a career high with nine points (2G-7A). He's proven to be very reliable, and when there's as many good offensive d-men on this team, Parenteau's skill set is a valuable one, and I'd be surprised if he's left out of the top six.

Holl was a 2nd round pick of the Chicago Black Hawks back in 2010, but hasn't lived up to that type of billing. He looks to have everything you'd want in a defenseman with good size at 6'3, skates and moves well enough, and proved to be a decent offensive player too as a winger last year. But despite his size he's not very physical and you'd love to see him be more aggressive. He has all the tools to put it together as a senior, but he begins the season in danger of being left out of the top six, and unlike last year, there doesn't look to be room for him to play wing this season and Minnesota will have four very good freshmen trying to fill the shoes of the three big guns who left early for the pros.

Which then brings us to the two freshmen, both of whom bring a ton of potential, it's just a question of how quickly they put it together. Michael Brodzinski was the least heralded of the Gopher defensive recruits intially, but had a really strong season last year in juniors, in the Team USA summer eval camp, and in the exhibition opener last weekend (he scored one of Minnesota's 5 goals). A 5th round pick of the San Jose Sharks in the 2013 draft, it looks like he's going to get a spot in the top six to start the season, and while there's always the chance of hitting the rookie wall or being overwhelmbed by the jump to college hockey, he's handled himself well and seems to have earned Lucia and Guentzel's trust. He also has a strong chance of missing the Mariucci Classic over the Christmas holiday for the World Junior tournament. Yes, having Lucia as the coach of that team probably help, but Brodzinski may prove too good to leave home.

Jake Bischoff of Grand Rapids was a seventh round selection of the New York Islanders, and projects as an offensive defenseman who is still honing his game. It's likely down to him and Holl for the sixth and final spot, and while Bischoff has a lot of upside and should become a very good college hockey defenseman in time, he may spend some time watching games this year more than playing in them. He can obviously earn his way into the lineup (and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it happen), but to start the season, he's probably the most likely of the seven to be left out of what will probably be a fluid situation all season. And of course only having seven d-men on the roster means if there's an injury, it's going to be next man up for the seventh guy.

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