Friday, October 03, 2008

2008-09 Season Preview: The Defense

Losses: Chris Summers (to forward)
Incoming Players: Greg Pateryn, Brandon Burlon

2007-08 Postseason Report Card

I was just about to write that the defense corps last year was one of the most pleasant surprises on the roster, but, quite frankly, the whole team was a pleasant surprise. Despite dressing three freshman defenders on nearly every night, the team defense was as good as it has been in recent memory. The constant breakaways and odd-man rushes that had plagued Michigan were cut dramatically. One other change was that Michigan didn't get nearly the amount of goals from their blue-liners as we've been accustomed to seeing. Last year, the Wolverine rear-guards combined for just 8 goals, well down from the 26 they scored the year before (thank you Jack Johnson).

But on a team with as much offensive firepower as Michigan had last year, it was far more important that the defensemen play good solid defense, and they succeeded in that regard. Michigan gave up 30 fewer goals than the previous season, despite playing two additional games.

Heading into last season, we had just 145 games of experience on the blueline. This year, we'll ice 311 games (not including Chris Summers and his 69-or-so games as a defenseman). It's reasonable to think that all the youngsters will improve, and if they can take a similar step forward to the one Steve Kampfer took between his freshman and sophomore seasons, we'll be in good hands.

Expectations are so high, in fact, that the Wolverines made the decision to take arguably their most consistent defenseman and move him to forward. Anyone who has read this site for any length of time knows how excited I am to see Chris Summers back up front. We'll get to him in the preview of the forwards, but I do think that it speaks to the respect the coaches have for the returning players (and the talent of the incoming freshmen) that they went ahead and moved him. Another plus is that if we ever have a defenseman go down mid-game, the coaches will have the flexibility to move Summers back to defense if they need to.

Headlining the current group is captain Mark Mitera, who was named Inside College Hockey's Defenseman of the Year last season. He was pretty much nails the entire year. The man wasn't a "minus" until the 27th game of the season. He also broke out offensively late in the year. Over a six-game stretch at one point, Mitera recorded 12 points and was +13. He had 14 points in the last 10 games of the season. Unfortunately, like Billy Sauer (and Kevin Porter actually) he had his worst game of the year at the worst possible time. He was -3 in the season-ending loss to Notre Dame. Also like Sauer, however, that game shouldn't cast a shadow over what was a pretty amazing season.

Scooter Vaughan returns, likely as Mitera's full-time defense partner. I thought he was really impressive as a freshman. He never really hurt us, was physical when he needed to be, blocked shots, and showed some toughness in playing with a broken jaw late in the year.

Chad Langlais stepped in as an older freshman and played like a vet. For a guy with the reputation as an Eric Werner-type, it was impressive that he was a minus on just three occasions. He got better as the season went on, cutting out some of the bad turnovers that were the only knock on him in the early-going. He wasn't a minus in our last 15 games, though he did cool off offensively. He still ended the year 4th on the all-time freshman defenseman assists list. He also was the lone defenseman on the very effective top power play unit. I don't expect a huge improvement, but I expect 20-25 points and solid defensive play, which is just fine.

Tristin Llewellyn was part of the 2-in-1-out freshman defense shuffle until Quick got the boot. He struggled somewhat in the early going but I thought he was pretty solid down the stretch. He took skating lessons on his own time in an effort to improve in that regard, and I love seeing that kind of commitment. He'll likely be in a battle with Greg Pateryn for the 6th defense slot. I like Llewellyn. I think it says a lot for the quality of our group that he probably won't play every night because I do think he's a good player.

Steve Kampfer's improvement was kind of lost in the transformation of Billy Sauer, the ridiculousness of Porter and Kolarik, and the play of the freshmen. After a shaky freshman year, he was as good as anyone in his sophomore campaign. I'd probably give him the Most Improved award amongst our skaters. His +/- improved by 24 (leaping him from 2nd worst on the team to 5th best) and he showed some offensive punch, dishing 15 assists and scoring a pair of goals. He also blocked a ton of shots. I wasn't a fan as a freshman, but I thought he was just awesome last year. He should be just fine as our #2 defenseman. Also, reports have been that he had an outstanding offseason in terms of his conditioning. That's encouraging as well.

Eric Elmblad played three games due to some late-season injuries and did an admirable job. He shouldn't play much this year, but for an 8th dman we could do a lot worse.

That brings me to the freshmen. Brandon Burlon was mentioned as a possible first-round draft pick before going 52nd overall to the New Jersey Devils. He'll be an every-night guy and I think he's going to be very good. He pretty much destroyed everyone in the strength tests at the NHL Combine so he should be ready for the physicality of college hockey. He's pretty much the complete package for a blueliner. Offensive skills, good defensively, physical, strong...he's going to be fun to watch.

Greg Pateryn is a monster. He's listed as 6'2" 220, which makes him the heaviest Wolverine. He was a 5th round pick in the NHL Draft after an All-Star season in the USHL. Like Llewellyn last year, penalty minutes are my main concern with him. He took a TON of penalties last year and they weren't majors, they weren't misconducts, and they largely weren't coincedentals. In a competitive situation, taking penalties is probably the quickest way to find a spot on the bench. He's clearly a talented player, though, and I expect we'll see #2 out there plenty of times. It always amuses me that we can have NHL draft picks as healthy scratches.

This is a very talented group overall. We've got 5 experienced guys returning from last year, at least 4 of whom will be in the lineup every night. On top of that, we add two skilled freshmen, both of whom were NHL draft picks (not that that's the be-all end-all, but by comparison none of the three returning sophomores were picked). In a pinch, they could move Summers back as well and he's an All-CCHA caliber defenseman in addition to likely being an impact forward. We've got incredible depth. The blueline should be a major strength for Michigan this season.

Lastly, here's something about a future defenseman. Thanks to Eugene for passing along this video about Mac Bennett. His coach calls him a future NHLer...that's nice to hear. And Scotty, there are even some high school girls in there, just for you.

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