Gophers’ blueliners take offensive philosophy all the way to the net

Defensemen have scored 28 percent of Minnesota’s goals in the last three series.

Ben Goessling

The evidence was pretty clear Saturday: Mike Vannelli slipping behind two defenders in the slot, taking a crisp pass from Danny Irmen and faking Michigan Tech goaltender Cam Ellsworth to his knees before flipping a backhand home.

It would have been an impressive goal for a forward.

But Vannelli is a defenseman.

And anyone looking for proof the position has changed at Minnesota can quit searching.

Vannelli is just one of several blueliners on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team who is just as comfortable jumping into the offense as he is dishing out a body check.

This crop of offensive-minded defensemen isn’t new to the Gophers. In fact, they’re part of a long line that includes Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Keith Ballard.

But they’re quickly becoming proof of the rule, not the exception.

“Very rarely have we gone for a physical, stay-at-home defenseman,” said assistant coach Mike Guentzel, who is responsible for the defense. “We’re looking at transitional guys with the feet to jump in and the hand skills to move the puck.”

Despite the fact that it includes three freshmen and a sophomore, Minnesota’s defensive corps is second in the WCHA in scoring and has accounted for 28 percent of the Gophers’ goals during their last three series.

“The forwards can’t carry us every night,” said freshman Derek Peltier, whose six goals lead Gophers defensemen. “A lot of times, they’re setting us up, hitting us late and we’re finishing.”

Guentzel carries on a philosophy started after former Gophers coach Doug Woog returned from his position as the assistant coach of the 1984 Olympic team.

It starts with recruiting, in which the 11th-year assistant coach brings in players like Vannelli, who began his hockey career as a forward, and Peltier, who grew up watching Leopold in the Robbinsdale Armstrong hockey program.

From there, the Gophers tailor much of their practice routine toward teaching defensemen to move the puck.

Minnesota starts almost every practice with a series of drills that emphasize shooting, skating and passing.

And in those drills, there is basically no difference between defensemen and forwards.

“It’s something they learn from day one,” Guentzel said. “We allow the defensemen to jump in the play, and we encourage the forwards to use the ‘D.’ It opens up seams for everybody.”

It paid off again Friday, when Mike Howe found a wide-open Judd Stevens in the slot for Minnesota’s second goal of a 4-2 win over Michigan Tech.

“It was perfect. In some cases, a young kid like Mike Howe would be in a hurry and not stop to look for the ‘D,’ ” Guentzel said. “But we had a young guy with the poise to look and a veteran that trusted he would get the puck.”

But with that much independence, there is always a learning curve.

Vannelli and Peltier, who have played together most of the season, said it took them some time to learn the system and to know just when to take advantage of it.

“It’s definitely a fine line in knowing when to stay back,” Vannelli said. “You have to remember to follow the rush rather than leading it. A lot of it has to do with making smart decisions.”

When the system works, though, it becomes one of Minnesota’s biggest weapons.

And, sometimes, it makes all the difference.

Minnesota’s defensemen scored three goals in a 4-3 win over Minnesota-Duluth on Jan. 28 and matched that output in a 5-4 win over St. Cloud State on Feb. 25.

“I think they’re learning. You can see it in our second-half offensive totals,” Guentzel said. “Our numbers hold their own against anybody’s.”