North Dakota has one of the most impressive groups of defensemen in the country. They boast six NHL Draft picks on the blue line, including one of the rare first round NHL Draft picks currently playing college hockey in Jordan Schmaltz. But it has been sophomore Troy Stecher, the one undrafted player among North Dakota's top seven defensemen that has emerged as arguably the team's top defensemen this season, and after going undrafted in his final year of eligibility last year, Stecher is now on pace to become a highly-sought after free agent this coming summer.
Stecher, a native of Richmond, BC, was a highly-ranked recruit coming out of the BCHL. He initially committed to Nebraska-Omaha, but after UNO assistant coach Mike Hastings left to take the head coaching job at Minnesota State, Stecher re-opened his recruitment and eventually committed to play at North Dakota.
Stecher was solid as a freshman for North Dakota, but mostly unremarkable. He was a regular in the line-up, but usually on what was pretty clearly the team's third defensive pairing. This year, he's playing a much larger role. North Dakota has the depth to roll all three defensive pairings, but Stecher is emerging as one of the team's top options, including playing on the power play, penalty kill, and in key late-game situations.
I had the opportunity to see Stecher play November 22nd against St. Cloud State--a 3-2 North Dakota win-- to take a closer look at what he's doing that is making him so effective. (Highlights of that game are here, which you may find instructive on some of the goal scoring plays I talk about.
One of the big concerns with Stecher in the past is a lack of prototypical pro size. He stands at only 5'10". Part of his transition over the past year has been to add a lot of weight, however. He went from a listed 179 lbs. as a freshman to now being listed at 190 lbs. In the eye test, he looks a lot stronger too, especially in the lower body, and he's added that weight without sacrificing any of the speed and quickness that made him effective in the first place. If anything, his skating has gone from good to great with that added muscle.
He made his presence felt early in the game when he took a puck off the boards at the offensive blue line and a quick read to fire a shot through traffic towards the front of the net.(0:18 of highlight video) A big part of North Dakota's offensive strategy is to shoot a lot of pucks from the perimeter and then have their forwards crash the net hard and win battles for rebound opportunities. That's exactly what happened on that play. Stecher showed great hands to handle the puck off the boards, and good vision to see a shooting lane to get the puck on net all in a split second. As a result, two teammates batted at the puck in front of the net, before it bounced to a third teammate who knocked it into an open net. Stecher didn't show up on the scoresheet as the third assist, but he made a nice play to help start the sequence.
His next shift started with Stecher making a great read in his own zone to notice all three St. Cloud forwards were trapped down near the UND goal line in a transition situation.(1:50 of highlight video) Stecher used this opportunity to turn a 2-on-2 into a 3-on-2. He ended up receiving pass all alone in front of the net, but the pass was a little behind him, and by the time he caught it on his backhand and brought it to his forehand, he didn't have much space to make a play.
Later that shift would be his biggest mistake of the game.(2:05 of highlight video) Stecher was skating the puck out of his own zone against St. Cloud's 1-2-2 neutral zone defense. He made a nice move to avoid the first defender, but skated himself into trouble along the left boards and tried to make an awkward pass that was intercepted, and created a 2-on-1 the other way that ended up in the back of the North Dakota net. That was more the exception than the rule though. Generally, his decisions in that area of the ice were very good. In fact, on his next shift he showed some nice skating and made an excellent pass in that area to help UND move the puck through the neutral zone and gain offensive zone entry.
His mobility makes him an excellent defender in the neutral zone too. He showed the ability to jump up and intercept a pass in the neutral zone.(2:47 of highlight video) He was able to show that aggressiveness without it ever feeling like he was gambling though. He didn't get caught, and was never too aggressive or too passive on his gaps.
His one assist in the game came on North Dakota's third goal.(5:12 of highlight video) Once again, Stecher found St. Cloud's forwards behind him in a transition and used the opportunity to create a 3-on-2 rush. The puck ended up being dumped into the zone and Stecher, as the first man in, did an excellent job of winning the race to the puck and tying up the play until support from a teammate could come. The puck was cycled back to Stecher behind the net, and he made a shot/pass from a low angle that created a rebound opportunity for a teammate to put it into an empty net.
The fact that he's always a threat to jump into the rush like that and create odd-man situations is such a valuable asset. He's great at recognizing those situations, and has the skating ability to make the play.
Less flashy but equally important was his work on the penalty kill. Again, his speed and quickness allows him to be aggressive and take away a lot of space on the penalty kill. During a second period penalty kill, he made a nice play to force a turnover, and ultimately draw a penalty on the other team. When he got possession of the puck on the PK, he kept things simple and got the puck out of the zone.
Another area of his game that I really liked was his ability to take passes in his feet or behind him and still make a play. The ability to turn bad passes into good passes is a pro-level skill, and Stecher did an excellent job with that.
But maybe the most important vote of confidence he got on Saturday night was late in the third period, with North Dakota protecting a 3-2 lead, Stecher played the final 1:39 of the game alongside Paul LaDue to help North Dakota protect their team's lead.
"Those two guys, they battle and compete hard defensively. They both have excellent sticks and defend very well, and they have the poise to play in those situations," said North Dakota head coach Dave Hakstol.
Stecher and LaDue were strong in those final minutes and St. Cloud State was never able to mount anything serious offensively, giving North Dakota the 3-2 win.
Overall, I was very impressed with Stecher, and would not be surprised if multiple NHL teams try to sign him over the offseason. Philosophies are changing in the NHL, and it's becoming more and more important that defensemen at the NHL level have the ability to jump into the rush and attack when given the opportunity rather than just sitting back and defending. There's no doubt that Stecher has that ability. And with his added strength, he's not going to be a liability in the defensive zone either. He's a bit of a late-bloomer by NHL prospect standards, but has definitely developed into a legit prospect at North Dakota.