When Travis Walsh was growing up, he was taught that going unnoticed as a defenseman sometimes can be a positive attribute.
While some players concern themselves with tricky goals and big hits, blueliners — as the back line of players on the ice — serve as a solid guard from pucks making their way to the net and as protection of their goalie.
Although Walsh might not be worried about standing out, he and fellow freshman defenseman John Draeger have gotten noticed for their consistency and talent on the ice despite their youthfulness.
“Those guys are getting lots and lots of minutes,” MSU hockey head coach Tom Anastos said. “I think they’re progressing awful nicely. We’re asking a lot of them; we’re giving them a lot of minutes. They’re accepting that challenge, and I’m really proud of how they’re embracing that and they’re working hard to do the very best they can.”
A third-round 2012 NHL Entry Draft pick by the Minnesota Wild, Draeger has been paired up with junior Jake Chelios for most shifts this season. Draeger comes to East Lansing from Faribault, Minn., where he won two consecutive Tier I national championships at Shattuck St. Mary’s School.
For a young player — Draeger just turned 19 years old this week — instead of being intimidated by bigger, stronger players who are teetering mid-20s, he chooses rather to learn from their styles.
Growing a little bit more every game, he said he’s growing comfortable to college hockey, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t any struggles along the way.
“It’s kind of a wake-up call when you take your first big hit,” he said. “Against Minnesota, I got my bell rung a couple of times coming up the middle. I saw it on the Jumbotron a few times; I think the crowd liked that. But there’s big, physical guys out there — they’re bigger, faster and stronger. But I think when I hop out there, I feel confident that I can play at this level.”
Anastos seems to think Draeger can play fine at the collegiate level and “beyond,” giving him 25-30 minutes of ice time a game and noting at Tuesday’s press conference that he thinks Draeger will work his way up to being a top-tier defenseman.
“He’s not showing any signs of ‘Oh, this is too much,’ or ‘I’m worried about this.’” Anastos said. “He’s playing with lots of confidence, and sure, he’s going to make his share of mistakes, but I think he’s doing a good job. He’s moving the puck well, he’s defending well and we’re all making our share of mistakes, but he works so hard that he overcomes a lot of that.”
Walsh, who’s been partnered with senior Matt Grassi for most games, also has shown the same type of stability and ethic as Draeger.
Walsh said he’s grown more comfortable and confident as the season moves along, and that also speaks to his cohesiveness with his partner.
“I’ve been with Grassi for most of the season, and it’s just so much easier when you know your partner’s tendencies,” Walsh said. “You almost don’t even have to look. You know he’s going to be there, especially when you’re communicating with each other.”
Both Draeger and Walsh have gotten a good amount of time on the power play, and the two combined have 52 blocked shots this season — Draeger with 30 and Walsh with 22, the leaders of the team in that category.
Anastos said both have evolved nicely since stepping on to campus, and he foresees bright futures at MSU for each defenseman.
“Draeger has a really good work ethic,” Walsh said. “Myself, I like to think I have a good work ethic as well. He’s another guy who came in with a really good work ethic and it’s good to see kids who want to get better. It’s good to see that he’s coming as a freshman, somebody who’s going to build the program. Those are the kind of kids you want coming here.”