Arizona State hockey has a few (but not many) question marks heading into the season opener, but none more important than defensive stability.
Sean Ritchie is one of the few returners on defense from last season and he said the opportunity to start as a freshman gave him a solid base for the coming year.
"My coaches and teammates played a big part in easing the transition from being an offensive, power play defenseman in my junior league to finding a game that was most beneficial to ASU hockey," Ritchie said.
Because ASU had a surplus of skaters to play on the power play, head coach Greg Powers wanted his former freshman to focus on mastering his defensive game and it did not take Ritchie long to get credit for his hard work. He started in 38 games in his first year with the Sun Devils and he understands not only the importance of his role, but also his place in helping the team come together.
"The defensive core is going to have a lot to prove right off the bat," Ritchie said. "With the loss of three key components to our blue line, we need people to step up in all areas. I'm hoping I can help the freshmen grow as players as much as I did last season."
The sophomore defenseman has to assume a leadership role this season, and he very well could be the best defensive-minded mentor on the team. During conditioning camp this past week, Ritchie looked strong during one-on-one drills and nobody outright beat him into the zone.
"I believe my biggest strength is my skating and mobility as a big body. I bring ASU a big, rangy, mobile defenseman that plays hard and smart and hopefully some offense along the way," Ritchie said.
As the sport-wide saying goes, "Offense brings in the crowd. Defense wins championships." The scoring will come with more time and chances, but his ability to set up goals for the forwards may happen more frequently this season. Ritchie tallied five of his six assists during the final month of the season.
"Hockey is a possession game so I just focused on regaining possession and moving it up to the forwards and let them create the goals," Ritchie explained.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman plays bigger than his size and he has plus vision on the ice. Last season Ritchie had a goal and six assists, but his role was to be a stay-at-home defenseman. Graduated blue liners Brian Parson, Ryan Clark and Darcy Charrois provided enough offense from the defensive unit.
Often times, an athletes' offseason routine dictates how much that individual will improve. The Edmonton, Alberta native made strides this summer to improve his game. He may not have Hulk-like strength, but we can settle for Captain America.
"I was fortunate enough to go back to my trainer Barry Butt in Edmonton who specializes in training hockey players in the off-season," Ritchie said. "I was lifting five days a week and alternating speed work and on ice as well. It was cool because I got to work out and get on the ice with players that are seasoned NHLers."
Ritchie has a high ceiling for his remaining three seasons at ASU. He may only score around a half dozen goals, but the size and knowledge he brings in front of his own net will ease the pressure off the goaltenders.