The 2017-18 Michigan Tech Huskies have nine defensemen on their roster (a year after rostering only six, if you exclude Chris Leibinger), so there is a good chance we will see some of just about all of them. Only three of them were on last season’s team, leaving doubt on what this unit may turn out to be. They will have to stomach the departure of three key members of a blueline that aided in having a top ten defense in the country.
The biggest loss is probably Shane Hanna, hero of last year’s incredible WCHA Championship Game. He was second on the entire team in points (8-19-27) and was a factor on the power play with four goals. His leadership will also be greatly missed, not just because he was an associate captain. He was a major presence for four seasons: 90 total points and a plus-56 in 163 total games.
Just as big a loss is Matt Roy, who gave up his senior year to sign with the Los Angeles Kings. He was right behind Hanna with 26 points, including a team-leading 21 assists. He really broke out last year—he nearly doubled his career point total after tallying 29 points in his first two years. Roy led all defensemen on shots by a wide margin, meaning his offensive presence will be a hole that needs filling.
The final defenseman not to return is Cliff Watson. Another four-year starter, Watson was less of an offensive force that the aforementioned pair, but his defensive-minded game will be missed all the same. He was the only defenseman to play all 45 games last year, a testament to his durability.
This group as a whole was a huge part of why MTU had an elite defensive unit that also was often the most consistent part of the offense. This year’s group is unlikely to put up the same type of offensive numbers, but there is still plenty of talent.
Senior Mark Auk is the man best suited to fill the offensive shoes left behind by Hanna and Roy. He has picked up double digit assists each of the first three years. His playing time has increased every year as well, and will be a staple near the top of the rotation. He had a career high in points (5-18-23) which should increase this year with more opportunities to contribute.
Sophomore Mitch Reinke will be someone to keep an eye on this year especially considering he was named an associate captain. Tasked to be a leader as well as likely top four defenseman, Reinke is a definite x-factor.
Dane Birks is the final returning player and is in line to increase his role significantly. While he played in 42 games last season, he only picked up nine points. He is the top returning defenseman in terms of plus-minus, for whatever that’s worth, but he has definitely proven to be reliable defensively. He is a good bet to fill Cliff Watson’s role this year.
There are a good number of new defensemen, so we will touch on the four most likely to make an immediate impact. One of the most notable new Huskies is Wisconsin transfer Keegan Ford. The sophomore spent parts of five seasons in the USHL with Dubuque and Madison with 12 games for Wisconsin in 2014-15 in the middle. The Huskies have been sitting on him for a couple years now and he will finally make his way to Houghton after a successful amateur career. This included captaining the U19 USA World Junior team in 2015-16 where he won a bronze medal. He has shown he can create offense at every level he has played at, so the 21-year old will come in with expectations of immediate impact. Considering there are only three veterans on the team, he is a good bet to be in the top six the entire season.
Seamus Donohue captained Wichita Falls (NAHL) last season after one year in the BCHL with Penticton. A two-time Minnesota state champion with St. Thomas Academy, he has also found offensive success throughout his career. He quarterbacked the power play at Wichita Falls, so he could find a role with the special teams unit here as well.
Tyler Rockwell played the last three years with the Wenatchee Wild (NAHL/BCHL), playing roughly fifty games each season. He was the captain of last year’s team. A product of Shattuck St Mary (MN), Rockwell is going to get a chance to prove he can produce this season. Like many of these guys, they had little problem scoring at lower levels but will need to show they have a strong two-way game to be in the lineup every weekend.
Not to be forgotten is Cooper Watson, brother of two-time captain Cliff Watson. He brings a similar game to the ice as Cliff did, with very little offense but a focus on the defensive end. He played the last two seasons with Madison (USHL) and was a teammate of Keegan Ford last year as well. Head Coach Joe Shawhan can only hope he has the type of career his brother ended up having. That is probably a bit of an unfair expectation, but he will certainly have the benefit of the coaching staff knowing what a Watson can offer. Regardless of how often he plays, he will be in the back of fans’ minds considering his brother’s legacy.
Michigan Tech’s defensive unit is a massive question mark considering the turnover. Which such a sweeping overhaul, it would be unfair to expect the kind of lockdown defense that the team produced last season. Still, I have hope that the strong recruiting class and returning players can shoulder the load and work with the goaltenders to recreate some of the magic from last year’s team. If the defense plays at or near the same level as last year, there could be another NCAA tournament appearance at the end of the road.