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A new-look blueline club: College hockey teams seeking small, shifty defensemen

Scott Perunovich (7) of Minnesota Duluth controls the puck near Ian Mitchell (5) of Denver during a Dec. 3, 2017, game at Amsoil Arena in Duluth. (Clint Austin / Forum News Service)

DENVER — When fifth-year Denver coach Jim Montgomery recruits defensemen, he insists size is not a factor.

What he is looking for are players who can move the puck and get it up the ice. It just so happens that those types of players often come in small packages.

"Whether they are 5-foot-7 defensemen or they're 6-foot-5 defensemen, you just want to have those guys," said Montgomery, whose fourth-ranked Pioneers host No. 9 Minnesota Duluth at 8:05 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, and Saturday, Feb. 3, at Magness Arena in Denver. "The quicker you can break out, the less time you spend in your own end, the further the puck is away from the net, the better defensive team you are."

Of the 41 defensemen Montgomery has coached at Denver, 25 have come in at under 6 feet. And while the average height of his defensemen has grown by more than 2 inches — from 5-10.5 to 6-0.67 — since taking over the program in 2013 from George Gwozdecky, Montgomery still leans on the little guys at the blue line.

This year's Pioneers defensive corp is led by 5-9 senior alternate captain Adam Plant (2 goals, 2 assists, plus-7) and 5-11 freshman Ian Mitchell (2-19, plus-10), who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round of the 2017 NHL draft.

Other notable Denver defensemen from the past who failed to hit the 6-foot mark include Nolan Zajac, Joey LaLeggia and Will Butcher, who all rang in at 5-foot-10. LaLeggia was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as a senior in 2014-15, and Butcher won the Hobey a year ago.

"I just think you have to find hockey players that can move the puck," Montgomery said. "The most important thing is to have defensemen that can break the puck out, whether they can do it by themselves or find teammates in open space and quickly."

Once an outlier, Denver is no longer the only school out there chasing after smaller, quicker puck-moving defensemen. It's happening at all levels, even the NHL.

The same goes for UMD this season, where the average height of Scott Sandelin's defensemen has dropped by more than an inch from last season from 6-1.56 to 6-0.36.

Three of the five defenseman UMD lost from last year's squad were 6 feet or taller, including 6-4 Carson Soucy and 6-6 Brenden Kotyk. They were replaced by five freshmen, with three failing to hit 6 feet. Matt Anderson is 5-11 while Scott Perunovich and Louie Roehl are 5-10.

Perunovich, the Hibbing native and rising prospect for the 2018 NHL Entry Draft, has been the standout of the group. Montgomery said Sandelin was correct to compare Perunovich to his former defenseman, LaLeggia, because of the escapability, skating and separation Perunovich creates and snap shot he possess.

Perunovich leads all NCHC defensemen in scoring and ranks fourth nationally with six goals and 18 assists. His plus-11 rating is fourth in the league.

Bulldogs sophomore Riley Tufte, a quick 6-6 wing who was taken in the first round of the 2016 draft by the Dallas Stars, said Perunovich is a shifty player, one that can give guys like him fits on the ice.

"Scotty, he's just so quick. I can usually beat the big defensemen with my speed, but Scotty is so quick and he's so smart and shifty that you need to make the right move against him," Tufte said. "He can get under your skin pretty good. He gets right on you and takes the puck away. I've learned a lot just going against him this year."

Sandelin said this year's defensemen, who have regularly featured 6-4 sophomore Nick Wolff and 6-4 freshman Dylan Samberg, bring a different dynamic with their size and skating ability, but they're still learning how to properly break out of the defensive zone and get the puck safely up the ice.

Perunovich said that's an area he needs to improve on, admitting he cringes watching himself on film some weeks making one too many moves in the defensive zone.

"I think I'm going to try simplifying my game more," Perunovich said. "Sometimes I try to do too much against these teams who it is not going to work against because they are too good. We have good enough forwards to get it on their tape and let them do the work."

Sandelin said breakouts are not just the responsibility of the defensemen, but all five players on the ice. The forwards need to improve in that area, too. There were too many turnovers against North Dakota and St. Cloud State the last two weeks, Sandelin said.

"We have to be good first defensively to create offensive chances and limit (Denver's) time in the zone," Sandelin said of this weekend. "If you spend a lot of time in your zone, you're not going to have a lot of energy to go the other way. That's one thing (Denver is) good at. They're good at playing in the other team's defensive zone, wearing teams down, creating opportunities and sucking the energy out of teams."

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317
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