- Paul Sherman/Daily
By Greg Garno, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 13, 2014
Somewhere on the bench during Wednesday practices, Andrew Sinelli watches on. He sits hunched over and staring at a former life play out in front of him.
The forwards take turns skating with the puck from the faceoff circle and skate down to the net in the manner of a shootout. They’re practicing for that one-on-one situation when they need to score.
Some celebrate when they score, while others rush back to the bench after being stonewalled. But there sits Sinelli, in his dark blue jersey designated for defensemen, watching on.
At one point, the junior forward was that player driving to the net, working for his chance to be one of the 12 starting forwards for the Michigan hockey team. Now, he’s finding his niche as a defenseman in a transition from forward to back pairs.
Yet Sinelli has not only made the transition to fill in for injured freshman defenseman Kevin Lohan, he’s also provided stability to position that was inexperienced from the start of the season. And that presence has been key to how the 10th-ranked Wolverines have performed in the Big Ten.
“He’s defensive-minded and fast enough that he can make up for mistakes. He plays a pretty simple game,” said senior defenseman Mac Bennett. “And he’s done it unbelievably well.
“If you took any other forward and put him at defenseman, I don’t think they’d do as good a job as Sinelli.”
The switch wasn’t out of choice, but rather out of need.
After junior defenseman Brennan Serville suffered a head injury against Niagara, Michigan was left missing two of its six starters on defense. Lohan remained out with a knee injury since the beginning of the month, and Michigan coach Red Berenson had few options to turn to.
That Monday, Nov. 25, of practice, Sinelli arrived at his stall in the locker room to find a dark blue jersey hanging. Designated for defensemen to wear in practice, the dark blue jersey separates which teammates practice with whom.
“Do you notice anything new?” Berenson asked.
“Well, it looks like I’m a defenseman,” Sinelli responded.
“Yeah. But we’ll see how well you skate,” Berenson remarked before he walked away.
It was the last real interaction regarding his position Sinelli remembers having with his coaching staff — which has remained quiet since.
“I just thought I was going to fill in,” he said with a smile. “I definitely didn’t expect to be on defense this long.”
Since Nov. 29 against Ohio State, Sinelli has not missed a game playing alongside senior defenseman Kevin Clare.
However, Sinelli isn’t the first forward in program history to move from forward to defenseman. Just last year, former forward Jeff Rohrkemper was called upon to fill that role after former defenseman Jacob Trouba was suspended.
But the difference between the two is that Rohrkemper filled in sparingly — a temporary replacement who was otherwise left to fight for ice time as a forward.
“Most hockey players will tell you to get them in the game,” Rohrkemper said, “they’ll play any position you want.”
The transition from forward to defenseman requires an advanced ability to skate. The defenseman must be able to excel at skating backward fast enough to keep up with streaking forwards and pivot quick enough to square up, nuances that both Rohrkemper and Sinelli had to embrace.
It also helps to have a large body frame, which neither Rohrkemper nor Sinelli possess. At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Sinelli lacks the height and weight of some of his teammates and some opposing forwards.
But what’s tougher is playing like he’s 6-foot-3 and more than 200 pounds.
“I think the toughest part is just to play with confidence,” Rohrkemper said. “But one thing that benefited me and one thing that benefits Andrew is being a reliable forward defensively. If you already have the confidence and ability to play well defensively, that factors in.”
It’s difficult to measure how Sinelli has performed this season at defenseman. Unlike the forward position, which uses goals and assists as the best way to measure success, defense has little to reference.
“It’s a position where you’re graded on who has the fewest mistakes,” Berenson said.
In his time since then, Sinelli’s minus-five rating doesn’t necessarily indicate his performance. But more telling may be that Michigan has won 10 of the 13 games Sinelli has been on the ice as a defenseman.
Even more telling is the 2.16 goals-against average that the Wolverines have posted in the past six games with Sinelli’s improved performance.
“I’ve definitely had my struggles but think it went smoother than I thought,” Sinelli said. “My skating really helps. I’ve been pretty steady. I haven’t done anything spectacular, but I haven’t done anything that’s negatively affected us.”
Added Bennett: “He’s a guy that we kind of rely on, so we have to make sure he keeps going in the right direction.”
With each game, Sinelli continues to improve, getting more physical in front of the net, pushing the puck forward or making a hit worthy of a replay.
Before his switch to defenseman, Andrew Sinelli played in three games. He finished with one assist and a plus-one rating.
But with a depth chart stocked with forwards, playing time became an increasing struggle. He’ll be the first to tell you that he wasn’t scoring goals before the switch, so it’s not the end of the world to play in a new position.
“It might be the best thing he ever did,” Berenson said.
Added Sinelli: “I’m just kind of grasping the opportunity and making sure I don’t lose it. I’m just happy to help any way I can.”
Sinelli’s 6-foot-5 wingspan separates him from other players. It’s noticeable, and it allows him to get away with using a shorter stick forwards use in practice and games.
He’s never had a need to switch sticks until now. But part of him won’t give that up. It’s all he has left to feel like one of the forwards.