There’s been some defensemen who have been part of juggernaut while others are the reason their teams are jockeying for playoff positioning.
Either way, we consider them to be the favorites for the USHL’s Defenseman of the Year award.
So let’s take a look at the five guys who could potentially walk away with the award.
-Andy Welinski, Green Bay Gamblers (Minnesota-Duluth): He’s been what a team would want in a defenseman. He has been an offensive threat and he’s been a leader on what is statistically the league’s best defense this season. Welinski has further established himself as one of this league’s best players as it appears the Gamblers have a strong chance at reaching the Clark Cup Finals. They’ve allowed the least amount of goals in the league while Welinski has also led a scoring-friendly blue line which has two players in the Top 5 in scoring among defensemen this year. He has scored 15 goals and 21 assists this season and has a plus-36 rating to boot. It has been argued Welinski has been to USHL defensemen what Kevin Roy (Brown) has been to forwards this year.
-Nolan Zajac, Omaha Lancers (Denver): Zajac has proved every since he was traded from Cedar Rapids he’s had an impact on Omaha. He came to what was once an offensively-challenged team and has helped turned them into what is (at least for now) the first place team in the Western Conference by a point over Lincoln with two weeks left. Zajac leads all league defensemen with 11 goals and 28 assists for 39 points. Compared to Welinski, his plus/minus ranking isn’t high. It is a plus-3. Though when you look at how valuable he has been to getting a charge into Omaha, it cannot be argued he’s has certainly been influential.
-Brian Cooper, Fargo Force (Nebraska-Omaha): OK. For those wondering why Cooper is on this list, here’s why. The Force have been the league’s second-best defense based on goals allowed. Its a penalty kill that has also been ranked in the Top 5 also. In fact, is the third-best penalty kill in the league. Who’d have thought that considering the Force opened the season losing 13 of its first 15 games? Cooper was known last year for leading the rush and delivering the big hit. He still does that, but he’s also done more to be a stay-at-home defenseman. He has scored 23 points this year, ten less than last year but what he’s done to help make the Force one of the league’s Top 3 defenses says a lot more.
-Paul Ladue, Lincoln Stars (North Dakota): Life has been rough for Lincoln lately considering it has one victory of its last four games. Not the situation where you want to be given the Stars are only a point out of first place. Wherever Lincoln ends up, just know Ladue will be one of the reasons why they will be a hard team to face this postseason. He plays in every big situation for the Stars and has backed it up multiple times. His 33 points are sixth among league defensemen and his plus-32 is third among league defensemen. Ladue has been one of those pleasant surprises for the Stars this year. Stars coach Chad Johnson said earlier in the year before Ladue committed, that he’s been one of this team’s best players and cannot be overlooked. Its clear people are starting to get the message.
-Michael Matheson, Dubuque Fighting Saints (Boston College): Matheson and Dubuque have certainly had an interesting year. Losing their best two-way forward (Zemgus Girgensons) to injuries and international duty didn’t help. Losing their No. 1 goalie (Matt Morris) to injuries also didn’t help. Yet Matheson and the defense found a way to make up for those losses. Dubuque’s defense ranks third in the league in terms of goals allowed. It has the best penalty kill at a shade over 87 percent. He has also scored 22 points in 49 games this year, which is second on his team among defensemen. He’s done all this while helping his draft stock rise. One Eastern Conference scout told NHL.com he believes Matheson will go in the late first round to the Vancouver Canucks.
THE VERDICT: Cooper, Ladue and Matheson have all been good this year. No one is doubting that. But no one can also doubt this has been a two-horse race between Welinski and Zajac. Zajac has helped save one team’s season while Welinski has helped destroyed others. It’s a tough one, but we will go with Welinski for the win.
NEXT: Goaltender of the Year.