- Max Collins/Daily
Like any other team, the Michigan hockey team has its unspoken rules — and this one has become a tradition. Freshmen defensemen must pay their dues, whether it’s getting the sauna ready after practice, carrying equipment off the ice, or recycling bottles in the locker room. But every defenseman, regardless of year, is responsible for one job — they have to protect the tape.
This year’s lone freshman defender, Lee Moffie, is entrusted with making sure the team’s forwards don’t use the clear tape. The playful rivalry is just part of the tradition that contributes to the great camaraderie of this year’s defensive corps.
“They don’t let us use their clear tape before practice,” junior forward Louie Caporusso said. “I don’t know why. I think it’s pretty immature, if you ask me. They have their own ways of going about things.”
It’s a rivalry that lasts. Senior Scooter Vaughan was switched from defense to offense this season, and he said that he steals the tape just to frustrate his former unit.
Keeping the tape away from the forwards is just the beginning of the rivalry the two units have on and off the ice. Joking with each other and taking extra shots at forwards in practice are little ways the fraternity evokes itself.
The defense hangs out on and off the ice, on road trips, during team meals. The group of defenders even has its own line of lockers in the team’s dressing room, which they call “D-Row.”
“We went to that after a while,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said of the locker configuration. “We like that. All the defensemen, their conversations are hopefully about defense. But they’re sitting near the guy they’re playing with.”
The consensus among the group is that this is the best the blue liners have gotten along in the past four years. And that camaraderie has already led to results on the ice.
“Even when you’re not talking, the communicating before and the camaraderie really helps if you don’t have the chance to talk and be really blatant with what you want done,” sophomore defenseman Brandon Burlon said. “Knowing what the other guy is going to do makes it a lot easier.”
The defense, which includes seven returning players, will likely be a strength of a team that is much younger on offense.
“All eight defensemen need to be on the same page at all times,” senior captain Chris Summers said. “It is definitely a team game, like I’ve said before. If we’re on the same page and everyone is working, then everyone’s going to be having fun.”
There is no lack of camaraderie on D-Row, and the tale of the tape is entrenched as a defensive tradition.
“It might be the most simple thing in the world to just toss it to (a forward),” said Burlon, who, along with sophomore Greg Pateryn was in charge of the tape last season. “But you got to just shake your head and say ‘no.’ ”
Shades of the Past
As much as the members of D-Row pride themselves on their level of camaraderie, it’s not all about friendship and togetherness.
That sense of unity off the ice does separate this defensive group from many of Berenson’s past groups, but so does the possibility that this could be one of the best that he has coached.
On paper, that year’s this defensive unit looks like one of the deepest in Michigan hockey history. All Berenson asks for is a balance between sound defense and offensive contributions when opportunities present themselves.
“That’s what we’re looking at, ultimately — getting offensive support from the defensemen and still being really solid defensively,” Berenson said. “So that’s a challenge for the defensemen. I don’t want them getting trapped up the ice at the expense of hoping to get the puck on offense and leaving us outnumbered.”
Summers compared this unit to the team’s defense in 2006-07, from his freshman year. That group featured current Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson and Boston Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick. But in some respects, this year’s unit is better than the group that included the eventual NHL regulars three years ago.
“There is probably better balance (this season) with four or five guys that could contribute offensively and score some goals,” Michigan assistant coach Billy Powers said. “Whereas maybe that group Summers is talking about, we had two or three.”
The coaching staff’s emphasis on more of an offensive-minded defense comes after last season’s dismal output from the blue line. Just 18 of the Wolverines’ 145 goals came from defensemen. That was a major factor in the team’s low power play percentage — 15.8%, a rate good for sixth in the CCHA.
But with a more concerted focus in the offensive zone during practice and another year of experience for a now-veteran group, the expectations for defensive production will surely be higher.
“We’re getting better from last year,” Burlon said. “You saw last year how we went down with three injuries to defensemen, including myself, and I think we still held our own. Having everyone back and healthy this year, we’re going to be that much better.”
The six returning defensemen each played in at least 25 games last year, even with the abundance of injuries. Five of those six — Summers, Burlon, senior Steve Kampfer and juniors Chad Langlais and Tristin Llewellyn — figure to play in every game. The sixth, Pateryn, will battle for the final spot with Moffie.
And that isn’t a knock on Pateryn. Rather, it’s a testament to the team’s great depth and Moffie’s upside.
“They’re probably going to be fighting along with (senior Eric) Elmblad for a spot all year long,” Powers said. “Now, the other five guys have a little more experience. But if anybody in that group starts slipping, we’re comfortable that with our depth with Moffie, Pateryn and Elmblad.”
In Michigan’s first few games, defensemen have joined the rush and forwards have often looked to open men on the point on the forecheck.
“The defense jumping up in the rush and being a part of the play offensively is a big deal,” Caporusso said. “If the defensemen aren’t a part of the rush, then it’s just three-on-three down low and you can’t hit that odd guy coming in.”
In the Wolverines’ first win of the season, against Alaska-Anchorage on Oct. 10, the blueliners provided five assists and eight shots on goal in the 6-1 victory.
No defensemen scored, but the defense's increased offensive role was apparent. For D-Row, it may be only a matter of time before pucks start hitting the back of the net.
Even with four of the Wolverines’ five regular defensemen capable of putting up a lot of points, they haven’t forgotten to uphold the other long-standing tradition of D-Row — keeping the puck out of the net.
In each of the past two years, Michigan has been ranked fourth in the country in goals against. The Wolverines gave up just 2.05 goals per game last season.
“There’s a lot of pride in that locker room for plus-minus, for being on the ice for goals against,” Berenson said. “I know there’s defensemen that are going to be looking at their points, but they know bottom line, it’s what they do defensively that’s as important or more important.”
While many coaches and players have reiterated that solid defense translates into a good offense, the increased role will undoubtedly lead to increased risk on the back end.
In an effort to find that elusive balance between offense and defense, two-way talents like Summers have been paired with more defensive-minded players such as Llewellyn.
“It’s important to have a cross section of defensemen on your team,” Berenson said. “So everyone’s not just offensive and not just defensive, you want them to contribute in both areas or complement one another.
“We’ve got some physicality on defense, we’ve got some mobility, we’ve got some offensive instincts that are going to help us and they’ve got some good defensive instincts as well.”
Looking across D-Row, that cross section is evident. Langlais at 5-foot-9 is dwarfed by six inches by Pateryn, whose locker sits just feet away.
The offensively talented Langlais will show up on the stat sheet much more than Pateryn, but the physical presence the 210-pound defenseman displays on the ice could be just as important.
“Different guys have different roles,” Pateryn said. “All of us know what we need to do and we’re not going to do things we can’t do.”
The defensive combinations have changed often in the early part of the season, and while this has led to the camaraderie seen on and off the ice, the roles for some have changed.
On opening weekend, the coaches paired up Burlon and Langlais, two puck rushing defensemen. The pair has been forced to adjust to each other's offensive prowess and take fewer risks compared to when they are paired with a stay-at-home defensemen.
“We try and contribute in every aspect of the game,” Burlon said. “You don’t want to be a one- dimensional player. If you have to be called upon to fill a different role, that’s important.”
With just one incoming freshman, the experienced group knows how to adjust to changing roles. With the return of veteran players comes both the return of silly off-ice traditions and the potential for more on-ice success.
“To me, the team with the best defense wins,” Berenson said.