Last season, the defensive corps, along with a goaltender Adam Wilcox (who will be discussed in a later post), was a great contributor to the Golden Gophers success in the regular season and in the post season. That unit will remain largely intact for this year, as the Gophers graduated only two of the seven-man unit, Justin Holl and Jake Parenteau.
Parenteau (pictured above) was a solid defender for the Gophers who made 31 appearances last season and missed a few weeks. That's quite the feat, considering he broke his leg in that concrete box Michigan State calls a hockey rink. He wasn't anything flashy, but he was a nice steady presence on the blue line.
Justin Holl... huh, I'm having a hard time remembering Justin Holl. To the internet!
*Googles Justin Holl; waits momentarily*
Oh yeah, that! He scored what is arguably the most memorable Golden Gopher goal since Blake Wheeler's diving winner over North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five. Let's not forget, however, that he was an excellent defensive defenseman, much like Parenteau. Right after the season last year, the Chicago Blackhawks inked Holl to a one year deal with the organization.
What Holl and Parenteau gave the Gophers was exactly what you want out of two senior defensemen, steady play with limited mistakes. What that type of play doesn't give you, however, is a ton of offense. Holl scored one goal last year, and the specifics of the situation escape me (I seem to remember running out of my house and half way down my block before recovering my senses), and tallied twelve assists, which is respectable for a defensive defenseman. Parenteau scored no goals last year (and only four in a college career spanning more than 100 appearances) and only had five assists. Still, their defensive capabilities are what earned them so much ice time, and they will be missed.
Gopher Hockey Preseason
Holl and Parenteau were two of the three lowest scoring defensemen on the Roster last year. Impressively, the defenders scored 28 goals and 75 assists in 41 games. Similar to the forwards, the defensemen will return a huge majority of goals scored last year, 96.4% to be precise. They also return 77.3% of their assists from last year. I think we can expect that group total assist number to be around 75 again this year due to the talented forwards, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to see the goal total climb over thirty as a couple of the young scoring defensemen begin to mature. More on them in a bit.
That type of offensive production is a wonderful asset for a hockey team, especially considering what they managed to do as a group defensively. The Gophers finished with the third-best defense in the nation (behind UMass-Lowell and Quinnipiac) by goals allowed per game, averaging 2.10. That's a remarkable combination of defensive prowess and scoring ability that I think any coach would kill to have.
The departure of the seniors will make maintaining that excellent 2.10 goals against average tough to repeat. However, the overall skill level of the defenders might be higher in the coming year than last season. Here's the breakdown on the returning defensemen. For consistency, we'll go in descending order by points scored last year.
Mike Reilly, Junior, 9 Goals, 24 Assists
Reilly represents a third of the goals scored, and assists by the defenders last year. He was named a first-team All-American. There's an argument to be made that he's the best player on the team. There's no argument amongst reasoned observers that he's by far the best skater on the team. At most schools, he might be first line winger. However, since Minnesota is so loaded at forward, he's used as the Gophers' point guard on the breakout, especially in power play situations. His puck handling and decision making look everyone else look like they're playing at a slower speed setting. Look for his offensive production to increase even more this year.
Ben Marshall, Senior, 3 Goals, 15 Assists
Marshall was selected to be a Captain for this year's squad. He's not a flashy offensive minded defender like Reilly, so he'll earn his ice time by filling the defensive role that Holl and Parenteau played last year. Don't mistake that as an implication that he won't be involved in the offense. He will be. His 18 points were good for 10th on the team last season. He'll likely see lots of time on the power play this year, and he could realistically reach 20 points this year.
Brady Skjei, Junior, 6 Goals, 8 Assists
Skjei is a prototypical defenseman, and a very solid one at that. I expect he'll see a bulk of his minutes matched up against the first line of the opposing team. He's got a frame that matches up well against big forwards, and skates well enough to avoid being beaten by speed. He will be the cornerstone of the defensive unit. He has a knack for scoring from the point, and if he can add a couple of assists to his total from last year, he'll be pushing 20 points as well. When your best defensive defender puts up 20 points over the course of 40 games, you're doing OK.
Michael Brodzinski, Sophomore, 6 Goals, 7 Assists
Brodzinski's point total comes in just one assist short of Skjei's, but accumulated those points in fourteen fewer appearances. He has a real talent for offense, and could be poised for a breakout year as he's sure to see increased ice time. He's closer to Mike Reilly in style than Marshall and Skjei, and I expect him to see lots of time on the ice during power plays running Reilly's point guard position on the second unit. He'll add a lot of pressure to the opposition's second penalty kill unit. Last year, two of his six goals came on the power play.
Jake Bischoff, Sophomore, 3 Goals, 4 Assists
Bischoff appeared in 28 games last year and played pretty well on the third pairing. He's what I would call a depth player at this point, but he could quickly expand his role by playing well in his own zone and making good decisions with the puck. He'll probably see plenty of time early in the season, but will have to fend off three young and talented freshmen for playing time as the year wears on. Bischoff does have the ability to score goals, given the right opportunity, but look for him to stay back and let some of the other defensemen push the play up ice.
Those are your returning defensemen. They're a solid group with a good group of players who will be looking to press the attack. If they do a good job of identifying the right time to press, they'll be a very successful group. Choosing to attack at the wrong moment can hang a goaltender out to dry. Based on the results last year, I'd say that have a pretty firm grasp on when to roll the dice.