MSU men's hockey media day

Ian Scheid (front), Connor Mackey (left) and Riese Zmolek are Minnesota State’s top three returning defensemen this season. Scheid, a junior, has 50 points so far in his college career. Mackey played all 40 games and Zmolek played 35 as freshmen last season. Photo by Pat Christman

All eyes were on Daniel Brickley last season, and after he opted to forgo his senior season at Minnesota State and sign with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, it might be easy to fret about the Mavericks’ defensive corps this year.

But even without Brickley, an All-American in 2016-17, defense looks to be one of the strengths of this year’s team.

“I think we all believe we can be solid again,” sophomore blueliner Riese Zmolek said. “We learned a lot from last year. We’ve set our goals as a team and as a D-corps, and we’re trying to grow as a D-corps. Each day at practice, everybody’s getting better — D-corps, forwards — so it’s just good competition out there to get everyone better.”

Minnesota State returns a young core led by junior Ian Scheid. Scheid, an All-WCHA third-team pick, compiled an impressive 50 points over his first two seasons — 30 on the power play. He had 26 points last season.

“As a group, I hope there can be a core that allows us to get out of our own end with possession — and then be creative and productive in the offensive end from the blue line,” Hastings said. “I believe we’ve got depth there. When you’ve got depth, there is daily competition, which we need. We should get better there as the season progresses.”

Sophomores Connor Mackey and Zmolek quickly became lineup staples as freshmen and should be two of the top defensemen in the WCHA.

The undrafted Mackey, who had 12 points and was a WCHA All-Rookie pick last year, is getting some of the same kinds interest from the pros as Brickley did the last two years. Zmolek, a Rochester native, had seven points as a freshman but proved to be a reliable, shut-down defensive defenseman.

“(Brickley) brought a lot at both ends of the ice, obviously,” Zmolek said. “I think we’re going to have to step it up a little more offensively, guys chipping in here and there, try to work on that part of our game and then also just defend really hard.”

Junior Edwin Hookenson blossomed over the second half of last season, logging important late-game, lead-preserving minutes along with Zmolek and even scoring a bit with eight points. Of his 25 appearances, 16 came in the final 17 games.

“There are four guys, in my mind, that we’ve already been leaning on,” Hastings said, referring to that foursome. “If (Mackey and Scheid) play together as a pair, they can play all three situations: even strength, power play, penalty kill. The other two need to be a shut-down pair. They’re very good defensively, although I do believe both have some offense in their game. They can increase production there.”

Sophomore Jack McNeely had six points in 23 games as a freshman, most of which were in the first half of the season. He will be competing for the fifth and sixth defenseman spots, along with freshmen Wyatt Aamodt of Hermantown and Andy Carroll of Northfield, both of whom played in the United States Hockey League last season, and California native Zak Galambos, who was in the British Columbia Hockey League.

Zmolek said the first-year players are progressing well in the preseason but remembers he and Mackey making their own transition to college hockey just a year ago.

“There’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “I remember at the beginning of the season, there were a lot of things I needed to learn and just getting in those habits day in and day out and trying to bring that to the game. Both of us worked on that and brought that into the game. I think it just progressed from there, and we kept learning throughout the season, doing the little things.”

Neither senior Alec Vanko nor junior Michael Bigelbach saw any game action last season. Vanko played in 24 games over his first two years and could see time at forward this year. Bigelbach played seven games as a rookie.

Follow Shane Frederick on Twitter @puckato

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College hockey, general sports reporter