The Gophers return only four defensemen from the 2009-2010 squad. Two seniors (Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs), one Junior (Aaron Ness) and one Sophomore (Seth Helgeson). The blueline took a significant hit last year, sustaining key losses to freshman Nick Leddy (signed with the Chicago Blackhawks), sophomore Sam Lofquist (left the team to play junior hockey in Canada) and seniors David Fischer and Brian Schack (both graduated). The team will have an influx of new talent this year, with four freshmen manning the defensive blue line. Let's take a look at the upperclassmen and the underclassmen before evaluating the unit as a whole.
Senior Cade Fairchild: Fairchild was the top scoring defenseman on the team last year with 4 goals and 17 assists for 21 total points. That output, however, was far lower than expected and a significant drop from his 9 goal, 33 point sophomore campaign. Always offensive minded, Fairchild should again lead the Maroon and Gold in points from the blue line - the question is, will Fairchild's production lead the team to victories, or will the Gophers' anemic team production result in another stifled effort for the senior?
Senior Kevin Wehrs: His first two years in the Maroon and Gold, Wehrs was looked at as the sixth or seventh defenseman option for the team. Wehrs actually played in the majority of the team's games throughout his career, though he was not the stiffest presence at the back for the team. He notched 13 assists his first two campaigns, before finally breaking through with that all-important first goal his junior season, adding another for good measure as well as seven assists. The biggest improvement in Wehrs' game last year, though, was his defensive zone play with the puck. Wehrs, long causing Gopher fans to cringe whenever he handled the puck in the defensive zone, turned into a stalwart in the Gopher zone, surrendering few opportunities and making solid outlet passes to start the offense. That is what the Gophers will need from Wehrs this year- solid defensive zone play. This becomes all the more important when realizing that the Gophers return such little experience on the blue line.
Junior Aaron Ness: Minnesota's Mr. Hockey in his final year at Roseau High School, Ness has struggled to get up to the collegiate level his past two years at the U. Ness has always been an excellent offensive player - his best attributes are his skating abilities and his great hands. However, Ness has faltered when it comes to defensive positioning. Known for not being engaging enough when an opposing player is bearing down in the Gopher zone, opposing teams' chances were often a stride or two closer to the goalie than they would have been if Ness had played the body instead of continuing to backpedal. The offense will come, but will Ness finally learn to use his body and his skating to become a pest in the defensive zone?
The underclassmen are somewhat of a mystery. Consisting of four freshmen and a sophomore, the group will be asked to shoulder much of the load on the blue line this season.
Sophomore Seth Helgeson: Big, strong player who plays a solid brand of stay-at-home defense. Helgeson is more of a "what you see is what you get" type of player. He won't help out much on the offense (only one point on the year last year - a HUGE goal in the WCHA playoffs) but Helgeson will give the Gophers solid minutes on the blue line.
Freshman Mark Alt: Alt, a blue-chip prospect from Cretin-Derham Hall, also quarterbacked his high school football team to a state title. He considered a football scholarship offer from Iowa before deciding to lace up the skates for the Maroon and Gold. Alt is another big guy at 6'3", 194 lbs., and should provide some of the physicality of Helgeson mixed in with the offensive potential of Cade Fairchild. It appears that the sky is the limit for this kid.
Freshman Justin Holl: Holl played in the state championship game for Minnetonka just this spring, and will now be donning the "M" for the Gophers. His overall game reminds me a lot of Nick Leddy - Holl is extremely poised with the puck in the defensive zone, he can skate with the best of them and isn't afraid to join the rush or create offense of his own. While it may take a little longer for Holl to accelerate to the pace of the game than it did Leddy, don't be surprised if you confuse this year's number 12 (Holl) for last year's number 5 (Leddy) by the end of the season.
Freshman Jake Parenteau: Parenteau is an older freshman who has some offensive upside. He scored 16 goals and added 31 assists in the NAHL last season. Parenteau should be fighting for ice time along with Holl, Alt and Nate Schmidt. Expect to see Parenteau in less than half of the team's games, if only because Coach Lucia wants to see more competition for playing time this year.
Freshman Nate Schmidt: another offensive-minded defenseman, Schmidt's slapshot should be the fastest one on the team this year. Schmidt notched 14 goals and 23 assists in 57 games last year for the USHL's Fargo Force, which means that the kid is not afraid to launch the puck at opposing netminders. Schmidt should add something to the Gopher blue line that we haven't seen in quite a while - a slapshot from the point. I would guess that Schmidt, when in the lineup, will be featured somewhere on the Gopher power play, since his shot could change the team's fortunes on the man advantage.
Overall, the defenseman's job is to play defense. I think that will be the big question mark on these defenders and perhaps the key to the whole team's play this season. Can the defensemen limit the number of Grade "A" opportunities that they give the opposing teams this season? I don't think we have to worry about offensive production from the D. As long as the team is scoring goals, the defensemen will have a say in the points. Look for Fairchild, Ness, Alt, Holl, Schmidt and Parenteau to factor into the scoring. I see the defensive play coming down to several important factors: 1) can Fairchild and Ness improve enough on defense to keep the puck out of their own net? and 2) can the freshmen step up and provide solid minutes on the blue line?
I think the answer to both of these questions is "yes" but we'll see how it all shakes out on the ice.
The forwards are up next, followed by a game recap of the game on Sunday versus the University of British Columbia!