Ten to watch: Meet some of college hockey’s impact defensemen for 2014-15

The crop of college defensemen who will make the biggest marks this season is a diverse one. You have big bangers a la Colton Parayko and Ben Hutton, slick puck movers such as Steve Weinstein and Joakim Ryan, and all shades and classes in between.

Here is a “crib notes” look at some of the most interesting blueliners in the nation, listed in alphabetical order:

Gavin Beyreuther has improved his skating in advance of his sophomore season (photo: St. Lawrence Athletics).

Gavin Bayreuther, St. Lawrence sophomore

The Canaan, N.H., native exploded onto the college hockey landscape last year, putting up outstanding offensive numbers (9-27–36), tops among all freshman defensemen.

Still, the ceiling is plenty high, which means he’s got plenty of growth in his game ahead, particularly in the defensive zone.

“What makes Gavin an effective player,” said Saints coach Greg Carvel, “is his innate offensive instincts and ability. He is one of those defenseman who knows how to get pucks to the net, and beyond that he has a big shot from the blue line.

“The knock on Gavin was that his skating wasn’t good enough to be drafted this past summer in the NHL. To Gavin’s credit, he focused on this part of his game this summer and he looks outstanding on the ice upon his return to campus for his sophomore season.

“I think Gavin will bring his game to a new level this year as he will combine improved skating with a confidence that you could see building within him during the second half of last season.”

Bayreuther earned an invite in May to the NHL scouting combine but went undrafted. As well, wrist surgery waylaid his plans to accept bids to NHL development camps in July.

Still, if he can build on last year’s success, the NHL may soon be beating down a path to his door.

“Gavin came to SLU a very raw player who had gotten by mostly on ability,” said Carvel. “Now he has become more committed as a player to learning the position, and the more he focuses on improving his game, the better and better he is going to be. He has a lot of potential and I think he is going to find new levels.”

Noah Hanifin is projected as a top-three pick in next year’s NHL draft (photo: Tom Sorensen/USA Hockey).

Noah Hanifin, Boston College freshman

Hanifin is perhaps the most heralded rearguard to hit college hockey in a generation, or two, maybe since Chris Chelios enrolled at Wisconsin way back in 1981.

Still just 17, Hanifin fast-tracked his way through high school to take his place on the loaded BC blue line, making him what is believed to be the youngest Eagles player ever.

How long he remains there could be in question, given that he could be a top-three pick in next year’s NHL draft and zooming along on an even faster track to the show.

But for now, Hanifin is content to enjoy this part of the ride. Having just arrived on Chestnut Hill, Hanifin isn’t looking to leave just yet.

“I try not to think about it,” said Hanifin. “It’s always going to be in the back of a kid’s mind. It’s been my dream since I was a little kid to play in the NHL. As of right now, I’m just focusing on helping BC win hockey games.”

Ben Hutton (10) led Division I defensemen with 15 goals last season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Ben Hutton, Maine junior

When veteran coach Dennis “Red” Gendron took over at Maine last year, he found a large surprise waiting in the Black Bears’ cupboard in the form of Hutton.

Gendron put the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Vancouver draftee to work in every situation and was rewarded with Hutton’s 15-goal (tops among all Division I defensemen), 14-assist effort.

“He’s obviously a very, very good offensive player,” said Gendron. “He has above-average instincts, and he knows what to do with the puck. He’s probably a little underrated defensively. He doesn’t skate around the ice looking for the big hit. But he uses his stick and his reach. He keeps things simple.”

Colton Parayko’s positioning gives him an advantage (photo: Alaska Athletics).

Colton Parayko, Alaska junior

His size alone (6-5, 220) is enough to catch the eye. What makes the future St. Louis Blues player a blueliner to watch is the way he can use that bulk to his advantage.

“He is a difficult player to play against because of his size, mobility, and hockey instincts,” said Alaska coach Dallas Ferguson. “He was a player that played in all situations for our team and someone that found ways to be successful while being checked very tight throughout the season.”

Parayko’s long reach makes it difficult for onrushing forwards to skate around him.

“He has a long stick,” said Ferguson. “But he also does a great job positioning himself to use his size to his advantage.”

Brett Pesce (22) scored seven times last season (photo: Melissa Wade).

Brett Pesce, New Hampshire junior

Last year saw an uptick in Pesce’s goal production, with seven tallies (he had just one as a freshman). One of those was the series clincher in the Hockey East quarterfinal against Northeastern.

Pesce, a Carolina third-round pick, will be a horse on the UNH blue line again, making his presence felt in all three zones.

Joakim Ryan has played in 100 games over his first three collegiate seasons (photo: Shelley M. Szwast).

Joakim Ryan, Cornell senior

He’s nothing less than a coach’s dream, a blue liner who can combine smarts, speed and skill. Add in a helping of consistency from shift to shift, period to period, game to game, and you have Ryan, who will be called upon to handle every task that Big Red coach Mike Schafer can assign him.

“He’s a tremendous skater who can get up and down the ice all night long,” Schafer said. “He plays on the power play and on the penalty kill, and just has great hockey sense. He logs a lot of minutes. His progress over the last few years really gives him a tremendous opportunity to not only be a great collegiate player, but also to eventually play in the NHL.”

Mike Reilly had 33 points last season (photo: Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com).

Mike Reilly, Minnesota junior

The youngest but most experienced of the Gophers’ three Reilly brothers, Mike Reilly has already shown himself to be one of college hockey’s premier offensive defensemen.

Having accounted for 47 points (including 9-24–33 last year) in his first two seasons, Reilly could well surpass those totals this year, which could be his final season before he turns pro with Columbus.

Once Keaton Thompson got into the North Dakota lineup last season, he racked up a plus-14 rating (photo: Bradley K. Olson).

Keaton Thompson, North Dakota sophomore

Thompson got off to a slow start as a freshman, sitting out as a healthy scratch for all but one of North Dakota’s first 10 tilts. Once he got his chance, however, he made the most of it, racking up an impressive plus-14 rating and showing signs of developing into the shutdown defenseman that prompted Anaheim to make him a third-round pick in 2013.

His offensive production was modest (3-8–11) but respectable considering that he didn’t really see the ice until after Christmas.

Steve Weinstein’s play reading is one of the best parts of his game (photo: Melissa Wade).

Steve Weinstein, Bentley senior

One of college hockey’s more unsung talents, Weinstein led all Division I defensemen in scoring last season (1-37–38).

Weinstein has an uncommon ability to let plays develop and put the puck right where it needs to be.

“[He] has the ability to read a play before it happens,” said Bentley coach Ryan Soderquist. “[That] puts him among the top puck distributors I have ever watched.”

Whether Weinstein ends up piling up more points than last year is a moot point, said Soderquist.

“My expectation for Steven this year is for him to continue to lead by example every day with his work ethic,” he said. “Everything else will take care of itself from there.”

Look for Zach Werenski to be involved offensively for Michigan (photo: Tom Sorensen/USA Hockey).

Zach Werenski, Michigan freshman

Another fast-track freshman will bring both size (6-2, 215) and vitality to Ann Arbor.

He also brings a high-octane competitive spirit, which will make him increasingly tougher to play against once he masters the jump from the U-17/18 level.

“I’m an offensive defenseman,” said Werenski. “I like to jump up in the play. I like to score goals, but I hate to be scored upon. If the puck goes in the net, it’s the worst feeling.”