Monday, November 24, 2014

Young UNH Defensemen Face Challenges Without Brett Pesce

UNH Defensive Stalwart
Brett Pesce Out of Lineup

Last season, UNH was fortunate to have one of the best core of offensive defensemen in Division I hockey. Eric Knodel (7G, 22A), Justin Agosta (6G, 20A), Trevor van Riemsdyk (4 goals, 19 assists), and Brett Pesce (7G, 14A) were UNH's 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th leading scorers, respectively. All four were also known for their 1-on-1 defensive skills. TvR and Knodel have moved on to professional hockey and Agosta elected to use his 5th year of NCAA eligibility playing closer to home at Quinnipiac University.

The departure of Knodel, van Riemsdyk, and Agosta plus the enrollment of four freshmen has resulted in one of the most youthful group of UNH defensemen in recent memory. As this table shows, the 9 defensemen are young in age and/or inexperienced at the NCAA level. Cameron Marks, Rich Boyd and Dylan Chanter are 19 years old and junior Brett Pesce just turned 20 a couple weeks ago. Five of the 9 have played in fewer than a dozen NCAA games.

UNH Defensemen 2014-15

Player DOB Age Class Career Games '14-'15 Games +/- Goals
Brett Pesce 11/15/94 20 yr/0 mn JR 90 11 +4 1
Matias Cleland 1/28/94 20 yr/10 mn SO 51 10 +0 0
Dylan Maller 4/15/94 20 yr/7 mn SO 31 11 +2 0
Cameron Marks 4/9/95 19 yr/7 mn FR 11 11 -2 0
John Furgele 1/15/93 21 yr/10 mn FR 7 7 +0 1
Ryan Randall 2/20/92 22 yr/9 mn SR 5 4 +3 0
Rich Boyd 6/7/95 19 yr/5 mn FR 8 8 +0 0
Dylan Chanter 9/19/95 19 yr/2 mn FR 1 1 +0 0
Harry Quast 3/26/91 23 yr/8 mn JR 41 3 -5 0

Brett Pesce, a third-round draft pick of the Carolina Hurricanes, is by far the most experienced defenseman on the 2014-15 UNH roster. Since the first game of his freshman season, Pesce has played in every game (91 games) but one. Over the first 11 games of this season, Pesce leads all UNH defensemen in goals (1), points (3), and +/- rating (+3).

Unfortunately, UNH will need to find a way to compensate for Pesce's absence after the injury he suffered Saturday night against Providence. With just under 8 minutes left in the second period, Pesce rushed the puck through center ice and into the Providence zone. As he streaked across the mid-slot, Providence defenseman Jake Walman bent low to the ice and lifted his hip up into Pesce's left thigh, just above the knee. Pesce barrel rolled to the ice but got back up and managed to hobble back to the blue line. He then handled two cross-ice passes from Matias Cleland, passing one back to Cleland and dumping the other into the corner. He then gingerly skated to the bench. Here are two replays of the hit with one in slow motion:

Brett Pesce did not return to the game and in the post-game press conference, Coach Umile said:
"He is probably going to be out for quite a while, but I am not quite certain yet. We will do some x-rays and MRI’s and find out."
As of the time of this posting, there is no further information on the nature of the injury or recovery time. Needless to say, it will be difficult to fill Brett Pesce's skates. In addition to having the most experience among all UNH defenders and the most points, his play in the defensive zone is exceptional.

Pesce has honed a style of defensive play which emphasizes the use of his stick, quickness, and positioning to gain and maintain possession of the puck. As he approaches the opposing puck carrier, he usually leans forward with his stick poised to poke or snatch the puck away. Where a more conventional defender would tend to play the body, Pesce focuses on where the puck is and anticipating where it is about to go. His hand-stick coordination is so quick, he often beats the opponent to the puck and/or digs it away from him. Watch him gain control of the puck in these highlights:

When Pesce left midway through the game on Saturday night, Providence had 14 shots on goal. UNH was down to 5 defensemen on the bench - Cleland, Maller, Marks, Furgele, and Randall. The combined NCAA experience of this corp was 105 games, just 15 more than Pesce has played. All things considered, UNH played well defensively over the final 28 minutes. Providence only generated 9 more shots on goal but one of them got past freshman goalie Adam Clark with 12 minutes left in regulation.

As the table above shows, all four freshman defensemen have seen game action so far this season. Cameron Marks has played in all 11 games. Somewhat surprisingly, the defensive statistics for this team is similar to last year's Wildcats, who advanced to the Hockey East Championship Game. The 2013-14 UNH team gave up an average of 2.59 goals per game which was 7th among the 11 Hockey East teams. The current team has allowed an average of 2.72 goals per game which is 9th among the 12 HE teams. If you disregard the 8 goals they surrendered at UMass Lowell - something which can't be ignored - the GAA goes down to 2.2 goals per game. This year's penalty kill percentage is 88.1% (5th in Hockey East) while last year's was 82.6% (9th in HE).

On the offensive side of the ledger, a comparison of this year's relatively young, inexperienced group of defensemen with last year's is more stark. In 2013-14, Knodel, TvR, Agosta, and Pesce combined for 24 goals. Of the 9 UNH defensemen last season, they were the only ones to score goals. So far this season, freshman John Furgele, who will be 22 in January, has scored the only goal other than Brett Pesce's.

When Pesce left the Providence game with an injury, freshman Cam Marks (0G, 1A) took his place at the point of the power play unit. Rich Boyd, the second youngest defenseman at 19 and 1/2, has seen substantial minutes on the power play in the 5 games he's played. Boyd has generated 13 shots on goal and has 2 assists. Sophomores Dylan Maller (0G, 2A, 4SOG) and Matias Cleland (0G, 1A, 9SOG) are logging many more minutes this year, on both regular shifts and specialty teams.

Senior Ryan Randall (22 years, 9 months), the second oldest UNH defenseman, has played in 4 of his 5 NCAA games this season. He's been a steadying presence with a +/- rating of +3 and has contributed an assist. The "oldest" defenseman, Harry Quast, has fired 8 shots on goal in 3 games. At 19 years, 2 months old, freshman Dylan Chanter is the youngest UNH defenseman and the third youngest player on the team - Shane Eiserman and Warren Foegele are younger. Although Chanter has played in only one game and not yet scored, he scored 4 goals and 3 assists in the BCHL Playoffs last spring.

All-in-all, the 2014-15 UNH Wildcats - with freshman goalie Adam Clark, 4 freshman defensemen, and 5 freshman forwards - are performing relatively well in the defensive zone. Only time will tell whether the freshmen defenders can help fill the scoring gap left behind with the departure of Knodel, van Riemsdyk, and Agosta. The next stretch of 5 games against RPI, Boston College, and Maine will be a stern test, particularly if Brett Pesce is not in the lineup.


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