Hockey Preview 2013: Defense Comment Count

Brian October 1st, 2013 at 12:16 PM


Mac Bennett's projected partner: also Mac Bennett

Mac Bennett Sr. Mike Downing Fr.
Kevin Clare Sr. Brennan Serville Jr.
Mike Szuma Jr. Nolan De Jong Fr.

ALSO: Mike Chiasson (Jr), Spencer Hyman (Fr), Kevin Lohan (Fr)

THIS IS WHERE IT GETS STICKY. The simultaneous departures of Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba leave Michigan's blue line in a spot that is icky at best. While they've got a couple of NHL draft picks incoming, there's a major difference between Trouba, a top ten pick who is going to make the Jets this year, and Mike Downing, a fourth-rounder who Billy Powers says is "a bit skin and bones" at the moment.

But let's start with the nice bit. MAC BENNETT returns for his final year in a winged helmet wearing the C. He toned his game down last year when he found himself paired with Trouba, eschewing the puck-rushing style he flashed his first two years so that he could be a more reliable defensive partner for a dynamic player. He still put up points at an encouraging rate until he was hewn down in the disastrous 5-1 loss to Bowling Green that seemed to be the last straw for Red. He returned a month later on the second pairing—Merrill's return bumped him—and performed ably down the stretch. Miraculously, his +/- was zero on the year. Despite all his talent, Trouba did not fare nearly as well in that (admittedly wonky) stat.

This year, Michigan needs him to be Trouba, and all-phases crusher who sucks up shift after shift. If Red is ever going to throw over his policy of relatively even time, this is the year. Bennett should be logging Jack Johnson-in-Columbus time, playing all three phases and attempting to shut down the opposition's best on a nightly basis. Powers provided some Fred Jackson-level reassurance when he talked to the Canadiens' official site:

“Mac Bennett will be a dominant college defenseman [this season]. We expect him to be the most dominant offensive and defensive defenseman in the Big Ten. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” added Powers. “Every night, there will be someone in the building who will say – ‘That No. 37 is special’.”

Powers also said he's an “elite skater with incredible explosion and incredible endurance"; that latter quality should be put to the test.

Expect a resurgence of the offensive flair Bennett showed his first couple years, because it's not coming from anywhere else on this defense corps and whoever ends up pairing Bennett will be shot if he so much as thinks about getting up ice.

Now, who partners with Bennett? Your options are all frightening on some level. The primary contenders:

  • The aforementioned MIKE DOWNING, who has promise and offensive upside but saw his stock drop significantly in his final year of junior and needs to fill out.
  • Senior KEVIN CLARE, who provides zero offense (0-2-2 last year, 12 shots), was –9 last year in just 19 games, and was scratched for the final 14 because of disciplinary issues.
  • Junior BRENNAN SERVILLE, who seems like he should be more of an offensive defenseman of only because he tends to give you hives with his decisions but is as bereft as Clare is in the points department (1-2-3, 21 shots) and was scratched for 11 games himself last year. But I guess he was +3? Woo?

I'm going with Downing, mostly because I cringe at the idea of Clare or Serville on a top pairing and haven't seen the freshman yet, but I could also see the job going to Clare, since Downing has some offensive upside in his game:

"He carries the puck well out of the zone and makes good decisions on when to hang on to it or move it ahead. Sees the ice well in transition and has a pro pass. He is willing to mix it up, especially when defending down low. He is also very good at moving the puck on the power play. He has a good, hard shot that he gets through to the net, but can and will fake his shot and make a quick pass to the open man. He is not afraid to jump to an open hole on the offensive attack to create scoring chances. He will need to show all of this with more consistency for the next level."

Michigan may want to split those two guys in an effort to have a puck-mover on the ice for most of the game. Clare's just going to sit back, break up plays, and try to get the puck out of the zone, and if he's out there with a lesser guy that could result in spells of uncomfortable pressure.

As for Serville, I'm in full confirmation bias mode with him in which I magnify every mistake he makes. But I'm aware of it and I'm still nervous about having him in a major role. He was a draft pick a couple years back and defensemen take time, etc etc etc. I'll be pleasantly surprised if he makes a significant step forward.

[After THE JUMP: at least they've got a ton of third pairing guys?]


there are worse things than being inexplicably +5

BOTTOM PAIRING AND FURTHER DEPTH. Further down the roster you've got three more freshmen, hockey Kovacs, and a guy who lost his job to hockey Kovacs. Hockey Kovacs is MIKE SZUMA, who could not be less of an offensive threat if they did not provide him with a stick but played 30 games last year, acquired one point and just two minor penalties, and lead the team in +/- with +5. Nine of the ten games he missed occurred in the first 14 games of the season—you know, when Merrill was also out—and while Clare left the lineup for reasons not entirely to do with on-ice performance, Szuma beat out Mike Chiasson straight up.

Szuma can't do much more than eat minutes against checking lines, but he evidently does that with aplomb. I'll be surprised if he doesn't lock down a third pairing slot this year. He is reliable, and that's in short supply.

Before the just-mentioned MIKE CHIASSON lost his job to Szuma he was another no-offense middling defensive defenseman. By the end of the year he was clearly seventh in the pecking order, scratched for almost the entirety of Michigan's encouraging season-enduring run (he played in place of Serville in a 6-2 win versus Northern Michigan). His –6 may be a bit deceiving since he more than anyone else on the roster bore the brunt of Michigan's terrible goaltending until Steve Racine's end-of-season run; no one else missed only those 10 games. He should rotate in, and be the exact same guy.


The most promising freshman other than downing is NOLAN DE JONG, a seventh-round pick of the Wild. Like Downing, he needs to fill out something fierce. The Wild's GM was uncharacteristically blunt when asked to describe him, calling him "physically weak," something he won't be able to get away with nearly as much in college.

Downing has a couple of years of a good play in the high-level USHL to his name; De Jong's performance is much less projectable since he comes in from the lower level BCHL, a firewagon hockey league in which save percentages are sad and scoreboards active. Downing was originally a Cornell commit, FWIW, and the CSB liked him a lot more than his draft position would indicate, ranking him 111th. His mobility is a strength. If he makes better decisions than Serville he could pop up onto that second line; if he gets blasted off the puck like Serville did as a freshman he'll be stuck on the third pairing.

Michigan brought in KEVIN LOHAN a year earlier than they might have; since Lohan is 6'5" and turns 20 today that should paint a clear picture for you: this is a project. Lohan emerged into a big-minutes guy for his BCHL team last year, and defensemen tend to develop slowly, so Michigan might have something there. Putting him in the top-four mix straight out of the BCHL is asking a lot.

Finally, Michigan brings in Zach Hyman's brother SPENCER HYMAN. Think Bob Gassoff; Hyman's unlikely to crack the lineup as a freshman.


Adam Schnepp

October 1st, 2013 at 1:53 PM ^

I agree with hoping that Red breaks his even-minutes policy, Bennett needs to be out there as much as possible. If he plays the (more defensively responsible?) Trouba role then I think pairing him with a less dynamic, offensively inhibited partner is fine. Moving Downing to the second pair at least puts one d-man capable of starting a rush or moving the puck up ice himself on two of the three pairs.

At the same time, I do think it'd be interesting to see how Bennett and Downing play together to start the season. I think the question here is do you go with one strong defense pairing and two weak ones or do you split Bennett and Downing and have three diluted, serviceable pairs? How quickly this question is answered could go a long way toward determining Michigan's fortunes this season.

Also of note is that Downing made USCHO's ten to watch list and is the only freshman to be included:

Michigan Arrogance

October 1st, 2013 at 4:00 PM ^

well, I don't think the coaches worry about  1 good pairing or 2 OK ones... I think they think about having offensive and defensive balance for these pairings.


If Bennett and Downing can play an offensively & defensively balanced game together, they will probably stick together. If one isn't comfortable being the defensive guy and makes mistakes in support of the linemate, then they will split them up.

Adam Schnepp

October 1st, 2013 at 11:07 PM ^

I agree with you. My point was really just a thought experiment. Say Bennett and Downing play well together. Do you keep them together all year or split them up because there are no other offensive-defensemen on the team and that's something the other two pairs sorely lack? I see this playing out like the Zetterberg-Datsyuk issue does every year: they may start together but eventually something goes wrong further down the lineup and they have to be split. Regardless, whatever happens should be interesting to watch.