Yesterday we previewed the Huskies’ biggest strength—the forwards—and today we look at likely the biggest question mark: the defensemen. Michigan Tech has lost all six (actually seven) blue-liners that were starting regularly during the 2016-17 season including three big pieces that departed this year. Mitch Reinke signed an entry level contract with the St. Louis Blues shortly after MTU’s loss to Notre Dame. Dane Birks, who was drafted by the Penguins in 2013, signed a deal with Pittsburgh in the offseason. Both did so with college eligibility remaining while Mark Auk stayed all four years and was a big part of the team during his whole career.
Those three defensemen combined for 17 goals and 73 points last season, which is more than the five departing forwards combined (28-31-59) in 12 more games. That will leave a very big hole to be filled by mostly underclassmen. Keegan Ford (injured for the second half of last season) will return for his Junior season but may not be ready for the opening series with UMD along with Todd Kiilunen, who played a total of 18 games in two seasons after joining the Huskies as a true freshman in 2016.
The most experienced defensemen are actually a pair of sophomores: Seamus Donohue and Mitch Meek. Donohue really blossomed over his freshman season and surprised me with 16 points and as much playing time as he got. Meek played in more games and managed 10 points himself. Both will be leaned on pretty heavily as depth is lacking, mainly because of the youth of the group. The other two sophomores could be asked to step up as well. Cooper Watson saw quite a bit of action down the stretch run, making some rookie mistakes, but for the most part he didn’t stand out as good or bad, which is okay for a guy who seems to be mostly a stay-at-home defenseman. Tyler Rockwell played in five games but Coach Shawhan talked positively about him on the October 1st Joe Shawhan Hour.
The three incoming freshman could all be expected to contribute from day one. Colin Swoyer is the most heralded of the bunch, playing in the USHL last season and finishing the year fourth in points among blueliners. What could we expect from a top-5 scoring defenseman from the USHL? Last year four of the top five were freshmen in college. Two of them should be semifamiliar to MTU fans: Mikey Anderson was big part of UMD’s championship team scoring over 20 points as a freshman from the blueline while Connor Mackey played nearly every night for Minnesota State and put up a dozen points himself. The average points line for the four that played college was 37 GP, 4G-14A-18P. I would think based on all the playing time Swoyer should get (top four minutes from day one), that would be the low end of what myself and the coaching staff is hoping for from him. 20 points seems extremely likely. Not to take away from the other two new faces, both Tyrell Buckley (Merritt-BCHL), and Eric Gotz (MN Wilderness-NAHL) could see extended minutes and after some transition time be ready for regular playing time.
Beyond the health of Keegan Ford, the success/failure of this group will be based on development and the ability of the coaches to develop the young guys and find a way to build this position back up to what it has been. If I had my guess, Donohue, Meek, Watson, Swoyer, Buckley, Gotz and Kiilunen will dress on 10/12 against UMD, if Ford isn’t cleared. The top-4 by GLI will likely be Ford, Donohue, Swoyer and Meek.
We’ll find out just how much skill there is on the blue line and how good the coaches are at getting what they need out of this group. That will likely determine whether MTU is fighting for the MacNaughton Cup or wondering whether or not they’ll be at home for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
I lean towards Shawhan and company finding what they need from this group after a shaky start. Once Swoyer, Buckley, and Gotz get comfortable with the WCHA, I fully expect this team to go on a run. Stay tuned for my preview on the most confusing position over the last month (and much of last season): goaltenders.
Cover image courtesy Michigan Tech Athletics.