PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Seamus Casey’s offensive prowess and untapped upside are undeniable.
The focal points of his game, Casey’s use of those abilities during his journey through the National Team Development Program was nothing short of exceptional. Yet as scouts analyzed his aptitude, one shortcoming remained — defensive deficiencies.
But before he joins the Michigan hockey team, Casey wants to address those struggles right away.
“(My defense) is something that I always need to improve on,” Casey said at USA Hockey’s National Junior Evaluation Camp on Tuesday. “Especially going into Michigan this year. I want to keep making strides there.”
Before he takes the ice for Michigan though, Casey has already begun honing a defensive ability that will be crucial for jump to the NCAA level.
Although Seamus finished with a plus-32 rating in his final year with the U.S. National Team this past season, questions abound thus far surrounding his defense. With 33 points (10 goals, 23 assists) in 48 games, Casey’s offensive ability stands out, yet he often struggles with over-aggression leading to defensive lapses.
However, throughout evaluation camp this week, 2023 Team USA coach Rand Pecknold and his coaching staff have made an outsized effort to influence his play.
“It’s an unusual thing,” Pecknold said on Tuesday. “These kids are all thrown in and it’s a trial (to make the team), but at the same time, we’re trying to put in some structure so that we’re organized.”
Structure will be key for Casey as Pecknold, the head coach for the Quinnipiac men’s hockey team, provides an early glimpse at what NCAA coaching looks like. As both player and coach are well aware, making the jump from the NTDP to the NCAA is a tricky process. The game will be faster, the players will be stronger and the competition will be tougher — making growth a necessity for Casey.
And at the start of camp, Casey’s rough edges began to show. During practice drills for transition play, Casey’s nose for the puck periodically came on too strong, allowing forwards to puncture past the defensive blue line for what would have been prime scoring chances.
Though these mistakes end in a whistle during practice, in the NCAA, they end in costly goals.
Yet Casey never shies from these lapses. He listens to coaches during the drills and actively seeks out lessons from assistants once practice concludes. It is a level of maturity that garnered both understanding and praise from the staff.
“We’re trying to put something new in the neutral zone that he’s never done before,” Pecknold said on Tuesday. “I want him to hold the blue line. He knows that he’ll do it. He just made a few mistakes and (hasn’t had) enough reps yet. We’re only in the fourth practice. He’s been really good.”
And as camp progressed, Pecknold’s influence began to show.
“There was a couple things on the rush,” Casey said. “Pretty technical stuff, like hand placement, which is something I’ve heard from (Nick Fohr) my coach at NTDP. But, I was getting it back from different coaches too.”
For good reason too, as the rush is one situation where Casey can truly shine. His ability to harness lateral movement — already excellent for the NCAA level — flashed as he grew to control the blue line through superior skating. After minor tweaks over the course of the week, where forwards originally saw daylight, they found dusk as Casey shifted back and forth across his defensive positioning.
Though there is much more work to do, this week of practice provides a hopeful glimpse into Casey’s development process that will continue at Michigan. Regardless of where his game currently stands, his maturity, and commitment to the process will take him far.
For now though, Casey and Pecknold understand that building on a defensive skill set takes time. And with each passing practice, skills compound and lessons evolve into habit.
Casey has yet to reach the finish line, but with Pecknold’s help, he has continued making strides.