Veterans Butcher, Zajac taking control of Denver blue line
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The University of Denver faced a daunting task coming into the season – replace seven seniors who played key roles for a squad that reached the NCAA tournament’s final eight last spring.
Perhaps nowhere were the losses felt more than on the blue line, where All-American Joey LaLeggia and rock-solid Josiah Didier graduated and went directly the American Hockey League.
Yet the Pioneers’ goals allowed per game overall (2.94 through 16 games this season) and in NCHC play (3.12) were only slightly higher from a year ago. Some of that is due to stellar play from goaltender Tanner Jaillet, but the emergence of junior Will Butcher (above) and senior Nolan Zajac (below left) on the back end likely has had just as much to do with that.
“They’ve done a great job,” DU coach Jim Montgomery said. “I asked them to be leaders of our ‘D’ core and I think both of them take a lot of pride in that. You see them talking to their specific ‘D’ partner during practice, and on the bench they’ll be talking to the ‘D’ core as a group in timeouts if there is something I’ve said or coach (Tavis) MacMillan or coach (David) Carle has said and it seems like someone doesn’t have a full grasp of it.”
Sophomore Adam Plant often is paired with Butcher, and he said the junior has added another dimension to a game that impressed the Colorado Avalanche enough to select Butcher with a fifth-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft.
“He’s taken big steps from last year,” Plant said. “He is a bit more vocal, but he leads by example. He’s always working hard and people follow his lead. I look up to him a lot. He and Nolan are the two guys the rest of us (defensemen) look up to. They make us feel comfortable, which makes everything so much easier.”
Butcher said he and Zajac made it their mission to help integrate the Pioneers’ younger blueliners. To that end, sophomore Tariq Hammond, who typically is paired with Zajac, is developing into a Didier-type shutdown defenseman. Plant has taken another step in his all-around development, and juniors Nick Neville and Matt Van Voorhis and freshman Blake Hillman have played key roles at times.
“(The blue line) has been transformed a little bit because we have a couple of new guys taking leadership roles, myself included,” Butcher said. “But we’re starting to hit our stride. We’re starting to focus on what we want to accomplish defensively, especially with the freshmen we have on the back end like Blake Hillman or Sean Mostrom, even some of the other guys like Tariq stepping into bigger roles for us.”
LaLeggia and Didier combined for 51 points last season, while Butcher and Zajac added 39. Butcher and Zajac – both alternate captains this season – already had 23 points a little more than a third of the way through the season. Clearly, the DU duo is taking their offensive games to another level as well.
“This is a natural progression for Will’s development,” Montgomery said. “He’s an elite thinker on the ice with great poise. He’s a one-man breakout. He’s an incredible defenseman in transition whether he’s joining in or he’s the one making the penetrating pass that leads to an odd-man rush.”
The Pioneers have hit a few bumps – mainly in the road – during the season’s first two months, but the defense’s growth has mirrored the team’s, and it bodes well going forward, Butcher said.
“I think right now, we’re exactly where we want to be if not a bit better than we’d want to be,” he said. “We’ve learned from weekends like our one in Boston (two close losses) where we’d play well throughout the game, but not manage the game well.
“(Lately) we’ve kept coming after teams. That’s something to take as a positive. I think we need to keep working on it so we can progress toward our goal to get back to the national championship.”
— Chris Bayee