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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Defensemen drive UW's success

schultz: Freshman Justin Schultz has already taken a leading role in the UW defense

Defensemen drive UW's success

When it comes to defenseman, Wisconsin has a history.

Names like Suter, Driver, Hill, Chelios and Rafalski highlight the record book for Badger defensemen, each having spent more than a decade in the NHL, and this year's team certainly keeps up the tradition.

The No. 2 Badgers boast easily one of the best crews of blueliners in the country and are making a case as the top group in college hockey. That unit is scoring a national-best 3.17 points per game combined, one year after finishing second in the category and seeing second-round pick and top point scorer Jamie McBain make his expected departure to the professional leagues.

""It's pretty crazy when you look at it on paper,"" senior defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. ""We've got a lot of draft picks and [freshman John] Ramage winning a world junior gold medal, our regular six have got a lot of accolades.""

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That would be five of six UW defenders already drafted by NHL squads. The unit is headlined by the contrasting styles of junior Brendan Smith and McDonagh, one of the team's tri-captains.

McDonagh plays the game with a defensive edge, using his ample strength to deliver some of the most forceful hits any Badger can deliver. Early in the season he delivered such an impact that the victim's feet flew high in the air, his skate cutting McDonagh's face.

Smith will never be described as forceful, but is exceptionally talented in the offensive zone, playing well with the puck and possessing a slap shot that has been described as ""thunder from the point."" He has the most points of any college defenseman and is fourth on the team in goals.

But with the great talent level came one issue: defensive play. In hockey the most talented defensemen usually shine on the attack and must learn the finer points of playing in their own zone.

The Badgers had a tough time with that last season, but this year the four returners (Smith, McDonagh, junior Cody Goloubef and sophomore Jake Gardiner) have all made strides, and it shows in the statistics. Wisconsin is allowing three fewer shots per game this season and has jumped from 22nd to ninth in scoring defense.

""It starts with the practice. We emphasize it so much,"" McDonagh said. ""Good sticks, good positioning, a lot of communication. We don't want to give up any goals in any games, and I think we know at this point in the year we can all play offense.""

This has been a bit of a shift for Smith, who explained, ""I came in just all about the puck and I [was] an offensive defenseman.""

He, along with several other players, credited assistant coach Mark Osiecki for his work in developing their skills and understanding of how to defend at a high level. Ramage, a true freshman, has had less trouble with that, coming in and excelling defensively. But his classmate Justin Schultz has taken on perhaps a larger role.

The 19-year-old has earned the responsibility of quarterbacking Wisconsin's powerplay unit, a role McBain held last year.

""Justin Schultz has come in and he may not have the numbers that Jamie [had], but he's got that coolness in his blood,"" Wisconsin head coach Mike Eaves said. ""When you're on the blueline and you're the last guy with the puck, that doesn't faze him. He has confidence, he has poise with the puck and that's where he's done a really fine job for us.""

Schultz gave special credit to Smith for helping him fit into that spot.

""Coming into a level where guys are a lot stronger, a lot faster, getting little tips form [older teammates] here and there, it helps a lot,"" Schultz said. ""Especially on the power play.""

But how does a school continue the tradition of bringing in defensive talent?

The answer according to Eaves is a combination of the team's proven track record and Osiecki's ability to fashion talented young players into NHL defensemen.

""It helps throwing out those names and it helps having the reputation of coach Osiecki because he's as good as anyone I've ever met in terms of working with young defensemen, breaking down their position and getting them the fundamentals that they can add to their repertoire,"" Eaves said. ""They already have natural ability, but it adds to their repertoire so they can get to where they want to get to and stay there.""

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