The Old Dog is continuing to review Michigan Tech’s roster for the COVID-delayed 2020-21 season. After looking at the freshmen  and the forwards in previous columns, we’ll assess the defense in this installment of THG’s preseason coverage.

Seniors

There are two seniors returning this year. One will be a foundation piece, and the other may have a chance to improve on his previous three years playing for MTU.

Tyler Rockwell had a bit of an adjustment to make when he joined the Huskies out of juniors and only played in five games as a freshman. Early in his sophomore year, he found himself on the bench again after a lackluster performance. That seemed to ignite a fire in the small (5’8”, 160 pound) D-man, and he’s been a fixture on the blue line ever since. Rockwell isn’t going to score a lot of points, but he will play hard from the offensive end and deep in the corners in the defensive end, rarely making a mistake with the puck once he gets it. He’s been the Old Dog’s Chris Conner Pound for Pound award winner for the last two years, and he’ll be critical to Tech’s defense this year.

Cooper Watson has size (6’3, 200 pounds) but he’s not the fleetest skater. He’s been prone to taking penalties when they weren’t necessary and saw his lineup time diminish last season (11 games after 22 and 25 games the previous years). Could this be the year he finally puts the pieces together and becomes a blue line regular? He may get a chance to play more, but he’ll have to deliver if he wants to stay in the lineup.

Juniors

Like the junior forwards, the junior defensemen will likely play a huge role for the Huskies this season.  

Eric Gotz had a good freshman year and an even better sophomore season. He’ll be an assistant captain this year and should be a big offensive force as well as a strong defender.  After notching 20 points last season (4G, 16 A), coach Joe Shawhan will be expecting a great deal from Gotz.

Colin Swoyer also had a fine freshman year, playing in almost every game and showing flashes of serious offensive potential. Swoyer was one of Tech’s key powerplay leaders last season, and scored regularly (4G, 17 A) just as Gotz did. In some ways, it’s almost like Gotz and Swoyer are interchangeable pieces, and that’s an enormous factor for the coming season.

Tyrell Buckley has only played in five games in in his first two campaigns at Tech. Last season, he had an unfortunate break when he delivered a hard check against Minnesota State early in the season. The result, which to this day the Old Dog can’t understand, was a five minute major and a game misconduct—and it appeared to be a clean, extremely solid hit that caught the MSU player by surprise. He didn’t get on the ice much after that episode. Buckley will provide depth but is unlikely to play unless there are a raft of injuries.

Sophomores

Tech’s two sophomores should both be in the lineup for most games this season, and could, like Gotz and Swoyer did last year, emerge as big-time pieces in Tech’s puzzle this year.

Chris Lipe was a lineup regular in the first half of his freshman year and looked rock solid in his own end. As the year went on, though, he struggled a bit more and didn’t dress for two games late in the season. He wasn’t a significant offensive factor (1G, 2A) though. As with most second year college players, we’ll learn a lot more about Lipe as the season unfolds.

Brenden Datema didn’t break into the lineup early last year, but gradually saw more ice time as the games rolled by. He started seeing the ice as a seventh defenseman in some games, then worked his way into the lineup as a regular at the end of the season. Every discussion of Datema starts with “big” (6’5”, 220 pounds) and always includes a nod to his booming shot from the point. If Datema continues to improve this season, he could be the kind of blue line player that other teams fear and dread. But he’ll need to keep working on his skating and his ability to control loose pucks for that to happen.

Freshmen

Again, we won’t rehash what we’ve already written about Jed Pietila and Brett Thorne. But they will certainly get a chance to have an impact in their first year.

The Old Dog’s Assessment

The top three defenders (Gotz, Swoyer, and Rockwell) appear a near-certain lock to be in the lineup every night. The next three spots though are up for grabs, and, because Shawhan prefers dressing a seventh defenseman most nights, there may well be a fourth spot for some of these players.

Datema and Lipe are good bets for two of those slots, and Watson, Thorne, and Jed Pietila are likely to rotate in until Shawhan finds a combination that works.

This is a fine group and should provide solid support for the forwards. The big concern, though, is depth. A couple of injuries, which seem to strike the Huskies’ defensive core every year, could throw a wrench into the works. This is also a terrific opportunity for anyone not named Rockwell, Gotz, or Swoyer, and we’ll have to see if any of the bottom six can stand out and make an impression.

In the end, this is probably the weakest link in the Husky chain this year—but that’s not to say it’s a weak link per se. Of course, the defense is intricately linked with goaltending, and we’ll examine that next week in our final roster review before the first game on Saturday November 21 at Lake Superior State.