Playing Both Sides

Brett Skinner and Matt Carle each arrived at the University of Denver with an array of offensive skills so impressive the Pioneers coaching staff couldn’t wait to unleash them on the power play.

The only problem was that Skinner and Carle are defensemen, and before they could wreak havoc in the WCHA, DU coach George Gwozdecky and his staff first had to teach the talented duo the tricks of the trade along the blue line.

Now in their second season together, Skinner and Carle have developed into two of the top offensive threats among defensemen across the nation.

Skinner and Carle emerged into two of the Pioneers’ top scoring threats during their stretch drive toward the national championship last April. Now, not only are they providing DU with timely scoring sparks, they have developed defensive skills equal to their scoring prowess.

“That’s one of the reasons we recruited them. They are terrific offensive players,” Gwozdecky said. “They have great offensive instincts. Yet we knew the areas they had to develop were their defensive aspects of the game. How to read rushes. How to play in their own zone. Both have improved dramatically in those areas. But they were recruited for their offensive capabilities, and you can see the confidence they have developed in those capabilities.”

Skinner, a junior from Brandon, Manitoba, led DU defensemen with 23 assists last season, notching two against Minnesota-Duluth in the semifinals of the Frozen Four. Carle, a sophomore from Anchorage, was DU’s leading scorer during its season-saving nine-game unbeaten streak that closed the regular season last year.

The duo has built upon last year’s late surge. Heading into this weekend’s WCHA series at Duluth, Skinner leads the Pioneers with 13 assists and is third on the team with 15 points. Carle, who last year became the first American-born player to win both the national championship and a gold medal at the World Junior Championships, has scored five goals and is tied for fourth with 14 points.

“This year it has carried over and it has continued to work for us,” said Skinner, who will break into DU’s top 10 list for career scoring by a defenseman by the end of the season if he maintains his current pace.

“It’s a fun style that we play where we are allowed to jump up in a play whenever we want. Coach lets us hear it when it backfires, but for the most part it has worked out for us.”

That trust hasn’t always been there for Skinner and Carle. Skinner, in particular, recalls arduous sessions with Gwozdecky and assistant Steve Miller in which they honed the offensive-minded youngster’s defensive skills during his freshman year.

For Carle, the challenge was learning exactly when to jump into a play in the offensive zone. A smoother puckhandler than Skinner, Carle seemingly can get shots on the net from angles that would be difficult for even the most talented forwards. Those skills made Carle an immediate impact player for DU, but they also gave him a steeper learning curve along the blue line.

“Last year, the first thing was to get used to the speed of the game,” Carle said. “You have to be careful and make sure when the forwards carry the puck up the ice they aren’t going to be turning the puck over. It’s about being more aware out on the ice and really reading the plays.”

With an array of forwards cleaning up the shots and lead passes provided by Skinner and Carle, the Pioneers boast one of the most versatile offenses in the WCHA. Skinner and Carle also provide a unique punch from the point in power-play situations, where the duo has combined for three goals and 12 assists.

“Both of them have advanced their game since last year,” Gwozdecky said. “They’re both playing extremely well right now. During the occasions when they have been paired together on the ice during a game, they hold the puck and maintain possession so well that it’s difficult for the other team to have a lot of time with it. They both do a great job of quarterbacking, whether we are on a five-on-five or a special-teams situation.”