In a world where statistics dominate so much of the judgment about an athlete’s play, sometimes the key assets of a hockey defenseman’s play get lost in the mix.

Ice Hockey
Junior defenseman Jason Dest has been on the ice for just one Michigan goal this season. (RODRIGO GAYA/DAILY)

One of the most popular ways to judge a defenseman is with their plus-minus rating – which gives a player plus-one for being on the ice when their team scores and minus-one for an opponent’s goal. But Michigan juniors Tim Cook and Jason Dest have proven this statistic doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Through the team’s first nine games, both Cook and Dest sit at minus-five – worst among the seven Michigan defensemen that have suited up this season. Yet neither of the two, nor coach Red Berenson, is overly concerned.

“Plus-minus is kind of a funny stat,” Dest said. “It kind of evens out by the end of the year. Sometimes you’re out there for a goal and you have nothing to do with it, or, vice versa, it’s actually your fault.”

The explanation for their low ratings lies in the plus part of the statistic – Dest has only been on the ice for one offensive goal, and Cook has yet to be on the ice for a single Michigan goal this season. Their minus-five rating as a pair accounts for less than one-quarter of the goals scored by the Wolverines’ opponents thus far.

“We’re not so concerned about the goals against,” Cook said. “Five goals against in eight games for me and nine for (Dest) – it’s not that big of a concern. Our main concern is helping the forwards out on offense and pitching in that way, as far as getting them the puck and helping them score.”

Cook attributes the lack of offensive production when the pair is on the ice to its style of play.

“Obviously, Jason and I are not the most offensive defensemen,” Cook said. “We just have to help the forwards out more and help get the puck to them so they can score. Are we going to score goals? Maybe, maybe not. But as far as keeping the puck in, we can do a better job. That’s for sure.”

Both Cook and Dest have spent time after practice this week working on the offensive part of their game.

“(Offensive production) starts in practice here,” Dest said. “We have to focus on the things we are doing wrong – like passing. We just stay out here for a while after practice and work on things to get our chemistry going. Once we start flowing we’ll be good to go.”

In addition to working the puck into the offensive zone, Cook believes that a key to improving the pair’s plus-minus rating will be to get the puck on net, which can result in goals or rebounds that the forwards can knock in.

“We just need to try to get better with the puck, working on moving it in and keeping it in the offensive zone,” Cook said. “It isn’t a bad play to dump it in the corner, but you’re definitely not going to get the offensive production.”

Though the offense isn’t there yet, Berenson has been happy with the pair’s contributions on defense.

“I think (Cook and Dest have) given us some valuable defensive defense,” Berenson said. “They’ve also helped clear our zone when it’s under pressure. When you don’t notice them, they are playing well. A lot of good defensive play goes unnoticed.”

While Berenson has toyed with the thought of switching up defensive pairings, he still plans to start Cook and Dest together for the time being, giving them the chance to feed off of each other on the ice.

“I think we bring a lot of intensity to the table together,” Dest said. “We both like to play physical and muck it up in the corners a little bit. When we play well together, we can definitely get some momentum going with some big hits.”

As they ratchet up the intensity in practice and the results begin to show in games, Dest and Cook will likely see improvement in their plus-minus ratings. For their careers, Dest is plus-23 and Cook is plus-eight, suggesting that the offensive production will indeed increase.

“(Cook and Dest have) been victimized in certain situations,” Berenson said. “Sometimes your best defensemen will be minus when they’re playing well but are victimized by goals against. We’re not at a finger-pointing stage.”

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