Northeastern 2021- Preview: Defensemen

(Photo By Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

We continue our season preview with the defenders on the blue line today. Formerly a weakness at Northeastern, the play of the defensemen both in driving offense and preventing quality shots and opposing goals has become a strength the last three-to-four years under Coach Madigan and his staff. Even with the departure of former captain Ryan Shea we expect the defense to remain just as strong this season.

The Returnees: Collin Murphy (senior), Billy Carrabino (senior), Jordan Harris (junior), Julian Kislin (junior), Jayden Struble (sophomore), Jeremie Bucheler (sophomore), Mike Kesselring (sophomore), Tyler Spott (sophomore).

  • After only losing one starter (albeit a captain who played upwards of 30 minutes a game), the Huskies return a strong core of defensemen who all have roles between the three pairings, powerplay, and penalty kill. Jordan Harris, already counted on to play top-pairing minutes and run the powerplay, will be leaned on heavily this season once again.
  • If we had to pick one player to most fill the void left by Shea, it would be Struble. Arguably the most physically gifted defenseman of the Madigan era, Struble’s combination of physicality and skill is a blend rarely seen at the collegiate level at his age (he only turned 19 in September). If Struble can stay healthy (and he’s already fighting the injury bug this year), he has the potential to be a top-pairing-caliber defenseman in the Huskies’ second pair, and could see time on both the penalty kill and powerplay.
  • Julian Kislin has a case for the most-improved defenseman from start to finish last season, showcasing his growing physical game as well as the offensive flair we’ve known him to have since he arrived. Routinely getting time on the powerplay last year, Kislin has the inside track for one of the top four spots on the right side for the Huskies, and would pair well with either Harris or Struble.
  • Kesselring, Bucheler, and Spott all showed personal growth through their freshmen campaigns, with Kesselring showing his offensive skillset from the outset, Bucheler providing the calming two-way presence more expected of a seasoned veteran, and Spott earning himself more ice-time and improving defensively as the season progressed. We expect Kesselring to round out the top four with the players mentioned above, and Spott likely will see time as he continues to grow and mature. The biggest things we would like to see from each of them this season would be more discipline from Kesselring (particularly regarding checks from behind/along the boards); more offensive input from Bucheler, who has been tabbed by some as a likely breakout player this year; and dependability in the defensive zone from Spott, using smarts paired with his stick and positioning to clear the puck from danger.
  • Collin Murphy was tabbed as an assistant captain, and since arriving at Northeastern he has been a stabilizing force in the corps. Never too flashy but the bedrock of dependability, Murphy as a senior reminds me of what Garret Cecere was like in his final year- he’ll be reliable in his own zone, will hopefully contribute a handful of points on offense, and can slide in on the penalty kill when needed and provide clutch minutes at any part of the game. Similarly, Billy Carrabino has shown that when called upon, he can be a reliable defender who will not hurt the team, and with team depth likely to be tested in a pandemic season, we expect Carrabino’s number will come up on enough occasions that he will make a name for himself in 2020-21.

The Newcomers: Johnny DeRoche (junior, transfer, UVM), James Davenport (Victoria, BCHL)

  • DeRoche is a transfer from Vermont who played two seasons for Kevin Sneddon’s Catamounts, transitioning to defense after a year and four games as a forward. He will not be eligible until fall of 2021, but the defender comes to Northeastern with two full seasons of eligibility, with all seven points last year coming in his 21 games as a defenseman. As he develops more as a reliable defender, we see him emerging as a trustworthy piece for the Huskies’ defensive corps for two years. As a reminder, the last player recruited to Northeastern as a forward that converted to defenseman and played under Madigan turned out alright, too.
  • James Davenport is the lone freshman defenseman this year, but he is no slouch himself. Coming in off a season in the BCHL with Victoria, Davenport has excellent offensive abilities for a young defenseman, to the point where he likely could see some time this year and contribute. Well-built at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, this may be a growth year for Davenport purely due to the depth in front of him at the position, but like we mentioned for Carrabino, depth will be crucial for teams to succeed this year. We see Davenport having plenty of chances to contribute this season, and using them as building blocks to create even more opportunity next year.

The Verdict: As I said in the intro, I expect defense to be a strength for Northeastern, which will help all three inexperienced goaltenders. With five of the top six regular defensemen from last year returning, plus players like Spott, Carrabino, Murphy, and Davenport all providing extensive experience and different skillsets, I believe the defense will be deep and afford Coach Madigan to mix and match his bottom pairing depending on what is needed.

If I had to pick the breakout player from the bunch, it would be Jayden Struble, with Jeremie Bucheler a close second. Both players have boatloads of talent in all three zones, have the size to play physical, and have the finesse to play up on the rush and drive play forward. Health and consistency will be the keys to their success and fulfilling their brimming potential.

All that said, don’t sleep on the reliability of Murphy as a senior assistant captain who can calm down play and stabilize the often chaotic settin a college hockey game can bring. Also equipped with valuable size and strength, I think Murphy will prove himself much deserved of the letter on his chest by season’s end with his play on the ice and his role as a leader off of it.

Predictions of pairings:
Line 1: Harris/Kislin
Line 2: Struble/Kesselring
Line 3: Murphy/Bucheler
Extra skaters: Spott/Davenport/Carrabino

Check back next week for our preview of the forwards as we head into the opening weekend of Hockey East!