We’re gonna get to that place where we really want to go. — Bruce Springsteen “Born To Run”
Hockey players come in all shapes, sizes and talents. You’ve got the goal scorers, the goaltenders, the playmakers, the tough customers on defense, the grinders, the enforcers.
Give me a strong-skating, puck-moving, pass-first, play-the-body, shot-blocking defenseman any day.
Add in a little bit of shiftiness and scoring ability and you’ve hit gold, in my opinion.
All of these traits are what junior defenseman Spencer Stastney gives to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Spencer Stastney: From this vantage point, the Notre Dame junior defenseman is a player to watch. (Image credit: Notre Dame athletics).
OK, so what’s the deal with a Hawaii writer giving pub to a Midwest college hockey team?
Well, first of all, college hockey is a great product for fans. The action is usually fast and intense and the players aren’t as big and imposing and deemed “perfect” as in the NHL. To me, it’s super fun to watch, and it’s too bad that only a handful of games are available in Hawaii for free.
I watch college hockey when I can and try to find a player or a team to follow.
It started in about 2008, when I caught a Miami RedHawks game. I was immediately floored by the way they played. Very cerebral. So cerebral, in fact, that in one sense, it was as if they were all physicists who studied the motion of the puck.
Obviously, I’m not totally serious about that last statement, but what I mean to say is they were winning the 50/50 battles with uncanny regularity. That has a lot to do with anticipation. At times, the puck, it seemed, was glued to their collective sticks.
It was the first time I had seen anything like it, so any time Miami came on, which wasn’t very often, I would watch it. I was a believer and wondered exactly how coach Enrico Blasi was training them.
Then, while watching them blossom in 2009, I was thrilled to see the RedHawks keep on fighting all the way to the NCAA championship game. I watched as they took a commanding lead, only to see it wither away in a devastating 4-3 overtime loss to Boston University after leading 3-1 with 1 minute to go in regulation. You can watch video of that harsh and hard-to-take collapse below.
Overall, though, it was cool that a team I happened to discover in 2008 came within a minute of winning it all in 2009. During their run to the title game, I named my youth team the Mililani RedHawks for the state tournament. That team went 0-4, but played great in all but one of the games. It was a ‘B’ level team and we were playing ‘A’ caliber competition, so wins were not fully expected.
The next iteration of my recent college hockey watching experience came a few years ago, when I found a player, who to me, was kind of like a diamond in the rough.
Sure, Taro Hirose was a highly skilled player for Michigan State. I believe he was the NCAA leading scorer at the time, too. But what attracted me to his ability was that he was different than the normal high-scoring player.
First of all, he was Japanese-American and there are a ton of Japanese-Americans I play with and against here in Hawaii. One of them is Lance Hamilton, who is trying to make his way in junior hockey right now, playing for the Elmira Jr. Enforcers of the United States Premier Hockey League.
Out here in Hawaii, we are all pulling for Lance to make it far.
Despite not having typical NHL size, Hirose (5-foot-10, 160 pounds) immediately went to the Detroit Red Wings when his final year of eligibility with the Spartans ended in the spring of 2019.
In parts of two seasons with the Red Wings, Hirose played in 36 games, with 3 goals and 11 assists — nothing unbelievable.
Right now, he’s in the AHL with the Grand Rapid Griffins. Click this Facebook page to see Hirose’s highlight reel from the minors: https://bit.ly/3f8N74Z.
Aside from his size and heritage, there are two other traits Hirose has that got me to tune in to his Michigan State games — he is a super creative playmaker and he has excellent ice vision.
That vision comes in handy when he decides to make passes that others might not think of in the offensive end. The vision is also super valuable for Hirose as a forechecker.
For Hirose, forechecking is not slamming into the corners. It’s being in the right place to intercept a breakout pass by the other team. I saw him do just that numerous times.
Taro Hirose is trying to make it back up
to the Detroit Red Wings. (From Twitter).
So, I will be checking up on Hirose from time to time to see how his career unfolds. One Detroit writer believes it’s bewildering that he is not up with the big club now. You can read that story right here: https://bit.ly/2Pr0fYa.
Before I get to what is the main reason for this article (and that Notre Dame hockey headline), there are two more players I would like to mention that kind of fit the same bill as the type of prospects I have been paying attention to.
One is Tim Stutzle. The other is Jamie Drysdale.
As a freelancer for TheHockeyWriters.com last May, I wrote about both of them in what was that website’s mock draft. I was mock picking for the Los Angeles Kings and I took Stutzle with the third overall pick (at that time, the real 2020 NHL Draft order had not been set; eventually, in reality, the Kings wound up picking second, taking forward Quinton Byfield; Stutzle went third overall to the Ottawa Senators).
My main reason for choosing Stutzle (and at the time, I thought his name was pronounced STUT-zul) was that he passed the “eye test” on video over others I was looking at. Bottom line on him was that he looked to be an extremely talented playmaker (my favorite kind of player) to go along with great goal-scoring ability.
One day about a month ago, while playing in a pickup hockey game with some others here in Hawaii, a few guys were talking about a breakout Ottawa star. I hadn’t paid attention to how Stutzle was doing, so I didn’t even know they were actually talking about him. They were pronouncing his name “STOOTS-leh” and that threw me off. It took a few minutes for me to realize that he was the guy I had mock drafted, and I’m still not sure of the correct pronunciation.
Highlights of Stutzle’s first NHL game are below.
Right now, Stutzle (6 goals, 13 assists) is fourth in team scoring and tied for second in assists. He is also a candidate for NHL Rookie of the Year honors.
As for Drysdale, he scored his first NHL goal the other night in his first game after a late-season promotion from the AHL to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks.
In that mock draft story, I mentioned Drysdale as a possible franchise-changing player and someone I would have picked if the Kings were looking for defense.
That first NHL goal of Drysdale’s was beautiful and it showed off his uncanny lateral movement that will certainly be one of the trademarks of is game. See video below.
And now, finally, let’s move on to the reason for writing this article. In the biz, we call it burying the lead when you wait until the end to get to your point. Oh well, in this case, it works for me.
But let’s see if you, the reader, can make it down this far to get to the golden nugget — or, if you prefer, the golden dome.
What’s this about Notre Dame and one of its players?
Well, last season, I put on a college hockey game and was immediately struck by the play of one of the Fighting Irish’s defenseman.
It was the first shift of the game and I saw Spencer Stastney make a quick turn, cutting into the ice so super flawlessly on a transition from front to backward skating.
It was nothing much, really, and probably something I would have forgotten if the announcers didn’t start talking about how Stastney was one of the best skaters in college hockey. That caught my ear.
Skating is the number one talent in this sport. It gets you to where you want to go. It’s not always speed. It’s lateral movement. Stastney does it sharply and smoothly and quickly.
And so I watched Notre Dame and Stastney every chance I got to see what kind of a player he really is. And he (and the Fighting Irish) rarely disappoint.
In the video below, Stastney shows patience at the point, drives toward the net, makes a pass to a teammate in front and immediately skates hard to catch an attacker from behind. Watch it and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this kid is someone to keep an eye on.
As Big Ten hockey goes, Notre Dame is up near the top, but it’s a strong league, so the season’s win-loss record (14-13-2, third place in the seven-team Big Ten) is not that great.
After rolling past Penn State twice (5-2 and 7-0) to end the regular season, the Fighting Irish met up again with the Nittany Lions in the first round of the league playoffs. After storming out to a 2-0 lead, Penn State fought back to end Notre Dame’s league championship hopes, winning 6-3.
That loss was a bit of a bummer. I thought Notre Dame had a chance to win that tournament and also make a run at a national title. The fan in me wanted to see them move on.
A first-round loss could have meant the end of the season, but somehow, the NCAA selection committee last week saw something in the Fighting Irish to put them in the 16-team bracket to fight for a spot in the Frozen Four.
I was elated when I found out.
Stastney, by the way, would not be the first person the average fan sees if he or she is watching a Fighting Irish game. They would probably first notice big, rugged defensemen Matt Hellickson (New Jersey Devils draft pick) or Nate Clurman (Colorado Avalanche draft pick) or solid two-way defenseman Nick Leivermann (Colorado Avalanche draft pick) or high-scoring forwards Alex Steeves, Graham Slaggert (Colorado Avalanche draft pick) or Landon Slaggert (Chicago Blackhawks draft pick), or even goaltender Dylan St. Cyr.
But for me, Stastney — a Nashville Predators draft pick — is the best player of the bunch. He very rarely makes a mistake on breakout passes. He’s patient with the puck. He will take a lane himself when he sees it. He can put it in the net. On top of that, he is super quick and efficient in getting in the way of the oncoming rush. That last one is a trait that not everybody has.
Spencer Stastney — almost always in the right position. (Image credit: Notre Dame athletics).
While being challenged or battling for possession in the defensive corner, Stastney usually comes up with the puck and sends it to the right teammate.
Last year, I asked another freelancer at TheHockeyWriters.com — someone who is looking at prospects all over the world — what he thought about Stastney. Sure, he said, great player, but not big enough (5-11, 187 pounds) to have much of a chance to make it to the NHL.
But there is room for small, puck-moving defensemen in the best hockey league in the world. Drysdale is 5-10, 180. Torey Krug is 5-9, 186.
And the Notre Dame team in its last few games (aside from the breakdown against Penn State) has been on fire.
Goaltending and defense is an obvious strength, but now the forwards are really playing like they want it. See puck, get puck, pass puck, put puck in net!!!! That attitude when it gets down to the nitty-gritty is what can take a team far.
Another Notre Dame defenseman, senior
Matt Hellickson, has played in 146 straight
games, dating back to the first game of his
freshman season. Image credit: EliteProspects.com).
To me, Notre Dame — a team fortunate to get a second life — has a chance to do damage in the national playoffs. It certainly won’t be easy, but I will be watching.
First up: Boston College on Saturday at 7 a.m. (Hawaii time), live on ESPN News and streaming at WatchESPN.com.
And I will let you know how they do.
Below, in italics, is the text of an email I wrote to the Notre Dame sports information department, hoping for an interview with Stastney or the Notre Dame head coach for this story. It was right before the Fighting Irish’s first-round Big Ten exit. There was no reply. That’s OK. Hawaii is a long way from Notre Dame. They have better things to do than deal with someone with an inquiring mind 5,000 miles away.