Moffie's defense drives hockey's offense

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Junior defenseman Lee Moffie leads the team in plus/minus and assists. Buy this photo

By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Writer
Published January 17, 2012

After Friday night’s victory against Ohio State, Michigan coach Red Berenson and fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick happily answered the questions about the shutout win. But while they were busy gushing, another Michigan player was patiently waiting to be addressed by the media.

It was junior defenseman Lee Moffie, who had a standout game against the Buckeyes, second only to Hunwick. He provided the Wolverines’ first goal of the night and an assist, but until that night, he had never been the center of defensive focus.

It's easy to get caught up on the team's traditional defensemen. Senior Greg Pateryn is a big, fearless guy who isn't afraid to slam opponents into the boards to go after the puck — everything a defenseman should be.

Those players are undoubtedly valuable to the team, but they can't compare to Moffie if you look at the box score.

Moffie quietly leads the team in plus/minus rating (plus-20) and assists (17). You wouldn't know it without looking at the stats, but there’s something about his presence on the ice that catalyzes the team’s offensive drive.

“Moffie can free up a forward with one good pass,” Berenson said. “He can jump in and join the rush. He’s got good offensive instincts, (and) that’s the kind of player that we recruited.”

Just as Berenson likes his forwards to play both ways, he values the same versatility in his defense. But Moffie’s offensive intuition doesn’t show in number of goals scored. Instead, he takes pride in surveying the environment and setting up his teammates for goals.

Moffie makes sure driving the offense doesn’t become his top priority — he learned that lesson before he ever arrived at Michigan, when he played for the Waterloo Black Hawks. No matter how good his offense was, if his defense wasn’t up to par, he wasn’t going play that game.

“My main focus is always playing good defense,” Moffie said. “Like coach said, good defense generally leads to good offense. My main focus is always to play good 'D,' and that’s the way it works out.”

Moffie’s strength on defense comes from the fact that he can easily move the puck out of his own zone and is alert to his surroundings. Once the puck gets in front of the opponent’s net, he doesn’t have trouble setting up his teammates with assists.

He doesn’t think there’s any special formula for the number of assists he’s tallied over the course of the season — for him, finding an open man is a matter of luck, not skill. But Berenson sees it as a hybrid of the two.

“It’s a little bit of coincidence and a little bit of confidence,” Berenson said. “He’s got offensive instincts that you can’t teach. He might see a play that another player doesn’t. It’s good execution and good awareness.”

Even though Moffie doesn’t play with the same ferocious nature that Pateryn does, he still finds his own balance between necessary aggression and making smart decisions.

“It’s not like (Moffie is) soft out there,” said freshman defenseman Mike Chiasson. “He plays tough when the time comes. Moffie does a good job of knowing when to step up, when to play tough and when to knock guys down in front of the net. He finds a good balance.”

For most of the first half of the season, Moffie skated with Chiasson. But since the return of sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, Berenson has found a productive combination.

“They’re both smart with the puck, both smart without the puck,” Berenson said. “I think they’ll be an imposing pair. They can move the puck, they can create offense and they’ll be solid.”

Moffie in particular has noticed a difference in his game since he started playing with Merrill.

“We’re growing together, game by game, practice by practice,” Moffie said. “We work off each other, (and) we’re looking to get the immediate play.”

It seems paradoxical that someone who leads the team in plus/minus rating and assists only has three goals to his name so far this year, especially after Moffie led the defensive corps in goals last season.

Moffie hinted that the discrepancy might have something to do with Michigan’s lackluster power-play unit, which is where the bulk of his scoring came from last year.

But it doesn’t matter to Berenson or the team how often Moffie’s shots find the back of the net — playing solid defense remains the top priority.

“(Moffie) is a really humble person,” Chiasson said. “Just keeping the game simple, he’s just doing his job.”