Dec. 6, 2012
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING - This is John Draeger's idea of a perfect day in the fall and winter:
Go to class in the morning, get to Munn Arena around noon, hang out, practice, work out and head back to the dorms around 7 p.m.
"I love coming to the rink every day, practicing or playing, and just being around the guys,'' said the Michigan State freshman defenseman. "This is the best part of the day.
"I'm very structured. I eat the same things, I come to the rink at the same time and leave at the same time. The guys get on me about it. It's just me.''
Thus far this season, Draeger, a 6-foot-1, 190-pounder from Faribault, Minn., is making a solid impression on his coaches and teammates.
He's playing a lot of minutes with defense partner Jake Chelios, and seeing plenty of time - at even strength, on the power play and killing penalties. He's playing 25-30 minutes a game.
"I'm definitely learning a lot and getting more and more experience every game. It's repetition, repetition, repetition,'' said Draeger, who celebrated his 19th birthday last Monday. "I think I'm doing all right. I know I have to get better. I like the little things I've been doing with Jake Chelios. We've been communicating a lot better.
In 14 games, Draeger has one goal and four assists for five points. He scored his first collegiate goal on a power play on Oct. 27 in a 4-2 victory at Lake Superior State.
This weekend, the Spartans (4-8-2 overall, 3-6-1-0 CCHA) play a two-game league series at No. 4/5-ranked Notre Dame (11-4-0, 7-1-0-0) at 7:30 p.m. both Friday and Saturday.
A year ago, Draeger was a senior at Shattuck St. Mary's prep school in Faribault, Minn., (south of Minneapolis) basically playing Midget AAA hockey. He was a confident, dominant defenseman playing against 16-18-year-olds.
"I was a bit of a late bloomer. I really didn't get any college offers until after my junior year,'' said Draeger, a third-round selection by the Minnesota Wild in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft.
As a junior and senior, he helped lead his team the U.S. U-18 national championship.
Now, he's going up against players 18-24, who are bigger, stronger and more skilled. It's a challenge for any defenseman just starting his college career.
"It's kind of a wake-up call when you take your first big hit. At Minnesota (in MSU's season opener), I got my bell rung a couple of times coming up the middle,'' Draeger said. "I saw the one on the (scoreboard). I think the crowd liked it.''
In his college debut weekend series, Minnesota swept MSU, 5-1, 7-1.
"There are big, physical guys in college but I think I can play at this level,'' Draeger said. "I see myself as a two-way defenseman who takes pride on defense first, and when the opportunity is there, I do like jump up into the play.
"I want to keep it simple. I rarely take slap shots. That's just me. I try to get the puck on the net, and anything can happen on rebounds.''
The Spartans' defense, which includes two freshmen, two transfers and a senior and a junior, has played pretty well in the first two months of the season.
And Draeger and fellow freshman Travis Walsh have made a big impact.
"They've evolved very nicely. We've asked a lot of them and they've played well,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said. "They're getting plenty of minutes and they're accepting the challenge.
"Draeger is competing hard and adapting to this level of hockey. We have to remember that he came out of midget AAA at Shattuck. This is a huge step.
"We've played against some good teams and he's stepped in and is playing anywhere from 25-30 minutes a game. He's playing with confidence. He'll make his share of mistakes but he's moving the puck well and defending well.''
Anastos believes Draeger has the potential to be an elite-level defenseman.
"He has a very big upside. I think that's why Minnesota drafted him with their third pick,'' Anastos said. "He has strong leadership characteristics.
"I think he has an incredibly bright future here and beyond.''
Walsh, who's made a smooth transition from two years of junior hockey in the U.S. Hockey League to the college level as a puck-moving defenseman, is impressed with Draeger's work ethic.
"It's great to see kids who want to get better, are willing to play hard every shift and don't accept losing,'' Walsh said. "He's a freshman that's going to help build this program and the type of player you want.
"He's a skilled player and it's nice that we're on a power play together.''
Draeger said one of the toughest adjustments he's had to make is learning to handle 1-on-1 situations against older, quicker better players.
"That's one area that's really tough. The players are skilled, strong and fast,'' he said. "You have to keep your gaps up and be careful of the skilled guys
"In my senior year at Shattuck, I was comfortable just about every play. I'd see an odd-man rush and just say `I got it.' Now, I have to be aware of more guys who have skill and speed. On 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s, you have to communicate with your partner.''
Draeger said he started to feel more confident about his game during MSU's victory in the second game of the LSSU series.
"As a defenseman, you know you're comfortable when you're defending well and you feel good and hop into the play on offense,'' he said. "It's when it comes naturally and there's no hesitation.''
Draeger's goals coming into the season were pretty simple. It was to be a consistent player and make the lineup every night.
"You want to be a guy who can be reliable and play in every situation and not make many mistakes,'' he said. "You don't need to be a flashy guy as a freshman. For me, it's to make good, simple plays and be someone your teammates can count on.''
During practices, Draeger works on various aspects of his game. There's one area that gets special attention.
"It's definitely skating. With the tempo of the game, you have to be a good skater,'' he said. "I think I'm a pretty smart player and I think the game well, but when you're able to be faster and get places faster, it makes everything easier.
"Everything slows down that much more.''
Draeger is the second player to come to the Spartans from Shattuck St. Mary's. Sophomore right wing Tanner Sorenson, who's from Anchorage, Alaska, and spent six years at the school, was Draeger's teammate two years ago.
In addition, Adam Nightingale, MSU's director of operations, coached at Shattuck St. Mary's after graduating from MSU in 2005.
"Adam was my coach when I was on the 9th grade team. He was one of my favorite coaches,'' Draeger said. "It was my first year there and it's the lowest-level team. You're starting from scratch. But he made the game fun.''
Nightingale also made sure the Spartans coaching staff knew about Draeger, whom Nightingale felt possessed all the ingredients the coaches were looking for the definitive Spartan player.
Draeger visited MSU in mid-October last season and watched the Spartans defeat Ohio State, 3-0. He also took an official visit to New Hampshire and took unofficial visits to Minnesota-Duluth, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Minnesota-Mankato.
"I wasn't sure about what other official visits to take, but then I came down here to visit and I loved it,'' Draeger aid. "That was it.''
Soon, Draeger committed to MSU and then went back to leading Shattuck to another national title.
As a young boy, Draeger's favorite players were defensemen - former Golden Gophers standout Jordan Leopold, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 2002 and has played nine seasons in the NHL for five teams, and former Red Wings star Nicklas Lidstrom.
What's Draeger's attraction to defense?
"I love seeing the ice and seeing everything develop,'' he said. "I was always a good backwards skater. It just came naturally.
"I believe defensemen are among the smartest players on the ice. Defense wins championships and you're a guy everyone relies on.''