Yes, Defense Does Win Championships

11 Jan

“Defense wins championships” is among the older sports clichés out there, but it’s out there because it’s true, and Minnesota high school hockey fits the bill as well as any sport. Whether it’s a team built around tough defensive hockey like last year’s Wayzata Trojans or an overwhelming Edina team that just happens to have three or four D-I defensemen in back, the eventual state champion never has a weakness on the back end. A firm defense is the common denominator for basically every state champion over the past 25 years.

If you want to know if a team has what it takes to win, one of the easiest metrics is its number of Division One defensemen. There have only been four AA state champions with less than two D-I defensemen in the two-class era, and one of those comes with a huge asterisk, as Patrick Finnegan of Duluth East was one of the best defensemen in the state in 1998, but went the Canadian major junior route instead, as did another Hound defenseman on that team, Jon Hedberg. The remaining three are 1997 Edina, 2005 Holy Angels, and 2007 Roseau. The 97 Hornets, who stunned undefeated Duluth East in the title game, were masters of the trap. The 07 Rams’ single D-I d-man was one of the best in the past 15 years, and with Scott Oliver at the helm, they were a tough team that wasn’t going to take anything lying down. That leaves the 05 Stars as the only thing at all resembling an outlier.

Defense is the common denominator to so many state champions, especially when we get outside of the dynastic Bloomington Jefferson, East, Holy Angels, or Edina teams that had boatloads of talent everywhere. The Poehling brothers got all the hype, but I contended all along that the most important piece of the perfect 2015 Lakeville North team was its incredible defensive corps. When we’ve had lower seed state champions (2008 Hill-Murray, 2016 Wayzata), it comes on the strength of defense. 2003 Anoka may have only had three D-I players, but two of them were, you guessed it, defensemen. A solid group in back can cover for weak forward talent by just depressing scores and venturing into the attack at times; a solid group of forwards can’t possibly make up for fundamental defensive lapses.

We also can’t understate the power of a single elite defenseman in the high school game. 2006 Cretin-Derham Hall only had 4 D-I players, the second-lowest total for a champion of the two-class era, but one of them was Ryan McDonagh. 2009 Eden Prairie was very young outside of Nick Leddy, but Nick Leddy was Nick Leddy. Hank Sorensen drove some people nuts in his time with Wayzata, but there’s little doubt his hits were a key difference-maker for last year’s Trojans. Even a truly elite forward with something of a supporting cast, like Grand Rapids’ Avery Peterson, never had nearly the influence of a top-tier defenseman like Duluth East’s Phil Beaulieu when those two collided. Peterson deserved his Mr. Hockey award, but Beaulieu ran the show when East played Rapids in 2014, and a fairly thin Hounds team (by East standards) had little trouble beating the Thunderhawks. Once at State, they lost to a similar tough Eagan squad carried by one Nick Wolff.

At the same time, a lack of defensive discipline can doom a team that has the talent to win. I’ve leveled the same criticism at St. Thomas Academy in each of their three years in AA, and I’m going to do so again this year. Their aggressive play and deadliness in transition was a good style for making thin Class A teams look silly, but it’s often too fast and loose for AA. There’s a reason they’ve suffered three upset playoff losses (of varying degrees) in three years in AA. If Hermantown were to ever make the jump without any adjustments in style of play, I’d expect a similar result. (It’s exactly what happened when they twice collided with the rare Class A team that could play that tough defensive style, those East Grand Forks 2014 and 2015 teams.) There’s a reason that perennial powers like Duluth East and Hill-Murray always try take care of things on their own end of the ice first, no matter what sort of talent they have up front: their coaches have been around the block, and know what it takes to win.

I’m not saying offense-first teams can’t ever win. If there was an exception in recent memory, it was 2013 Benilde-St. Margaret’s; sure, they had four D-I defensemen, but three of them were very young, and that team was built purely around speed and a prolific offense. They only had one of the two or three best pure snipers of the two-class era in Grant Besse, and an overload of weapons around him. And even then, a very young Edina team had them on the ropes in the first round at State, and the two teams that were well-built stylistically to take them down, Eagan and Duluth East, decided to go and lose in the quarterfinals. Benilde’s inability to make State the following year, when Besse was a senior, and in 2016, when they went undefeated in the regular season, had a lot to do with playing a style that had no Plan B when it ran up against teams that didn’t roll over and make mortal mistakes.

Being defensive-minded alone isn’t going to win a state championship. One does, after all, need goals, and some measure of creativity for that inevitable playoff game when a team doesn’t quite play up to its potential, or gets knocked off its game. Teams of all varieties fall short, and there are plenty of scripts for upsets to follow. But if I need to choose among possible state champions, give me the team that rules the blue line. History doesn’t lie.

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