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Deep at 'D': Minnesota State will lean heavily on its blue-liners this season

Six defensemen return for Minnesota State this season. That experience will be beneficial early in the year, as the Mavericks are set to face at least three top-10 ranked teams in the first month of the season.

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Minnesota State denfensman Wyatt Aamodt makes a pass against Bemidji State during the first period of the Mariucci Classic on Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. Jason Wachter/The Rink Live

Aamodt. McNeely. Carroll. Hirose. Livingstone. Malinowski.

It's a group of blue-liners most Division I college hockey coaches would welcome with open arms.

Add two valuable freshmen and a senior from the transfer portal and it's easy to see why Minnesota State University's defensemen feel the need to be at their best at all times this season.

Not only do the Mavericks face tough competition on a weekly basis -- starting with this weekend's season-opening series at defending national champion University of Massachusetts (6:30 p.m. today, 3 p.m. Sunday) -- they face tough competition just to crack the lineup.

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"I hope it's very difficult for the young guys to get in there because that means guys like (captain Wyatt Aamodt and alternate captain Jack McNeely) are playing to their capabilities," said MSU head coach Mike Hastings, who is starting his 10th season with the Mavericks after leading them to their first-ever Frozen Four appearance last season. "We're going to rely on that group to be example-setters, to perform at the level they've performed at previously and maybe a little bit more.

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"This is their team. The coaching staff only goes as far as the players. They're going to have to make sure this team is dialed in for each other."

Like many hockey coaches, Hastings is proud that his MSU teams are often built from the net out. For the 2021-22 Mavericks, that starts with returning Mike Richter Award and Hobey Baker Award finalist Dryden McKay, MSU's senior goalie. But McKay can't do it alone, particularly in the first month of the season, when the Mavericks play series against both teams that were in last spring's national championship game (No. 1-ranked UMass and No. 2 St. Cloud State), as well as two games at the Ice Breaker in Duluth -- one against Providence and the other against either No. 6 Minnesota Duluth or No. 3 Michigan.

That's where the Mavericks' veteran defensive corps comes in. From seniors Aamodt, McNeely and Andy Carroll, to sophomores Akito Hirose, Jake Livingstone and Tony Malinowski, they'll all be leaned upon heavily. So will senior transfer Benton Maass (New Hampshire) and freshmen Bennett Zmolek and Steven Bellini.

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Minnesota State sophomore defenseman Jake Livingstone played in all 28 games for the Mavericks last season, when he registered four goals and 14 total points. The Rink Live file photo / Jason Wachter

MSU only lost one defenseman who was a lineup regular a year ago, but it's a big loss -- 2020-21 captain Riese Zmolek, who is now in the Minnesota Wild's farm system.

"We have a deep group, for sure," said Aamodt, a Hermantown native who was voted MSU's captain for this season by his teammates. "Last year we had a deep group, as well. It's hard to lose a guy like Riese Zmolek. He did a lot for us and was one of those unspoken heroes back there for us.

"It's going to take a little bit for all of us to step up and pull that piece of the rope that he had a big chunk of last year. It helps when you bring in guys like Bennett Zmolek. Tony Malinowski is back; he's a great fit for us, and (newcomers) Steven Bellini and Benton Maass. It's going to be an absolute battle back there just trying to get playing time."

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Aamodt said he's proud to wear the "C" as MSU's captain and follow in the skates of leaders he's played with such as Max Coatta, Nick Rivera, Marc Michaelis and Riese Zmolek.

"It's a great honor," said the 6-foot, 200-pound Aamodt, who has 17 points in 82 career games at MSU. "... I learned a lot from those guys. How to be a pro around the rink and how to take care of each other on the ice and off.

"Those guys would go above and beyond to take care of their teammates, so it means a lot to kind of follow in their shadows and just try to pave our own path and get going this weekend here at UMass."

McNeely was an alternate captain a year ago and will be again this season, along with forward Reggie Lutz. They're the two "super seniors" on this year's Mavericks team, guys who decided to accept a fifth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all athletes due to the COVID-19 pandemic altering the season in 2020-21.

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Minnesota State defenseman Jack McNeely, 3, takes the puck from Bemidji State forward Ethan Somoza during the first period of the Mariucci Classic Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, at the 3M Arena at Mariucci in Minneapolis, Minn. (Jason Wachter/The Rink Live)

"I'm really excited to be back. I love the group we have," McNeely, a Lakeville native, said. "I think we have the opportunity to do something really special this year.

"When the season ended last year, you didn't have much time to think about what you were going to do (for this season) because the coaches had to make a decision on other guys based on if you're not coming back, or you are. Ultimately, this is the best place for me. I love the program, the guys, the coaching staff."

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Carroll, a senior and a Northfield native, made impressive strides last season, recording nine points in 26 games and making himself and invaluable piece of the lineup. Sophomores Hirose and Livingstone did the same, stepping in as true freshmen and playing in all 28 games.

"We want to allow those guys to continue to grow," Hastings said. "Look at a guy like Wyatt Aamodt. He's our captain now. What he shoulders as his responsibility ... he's been, in my opinion, emulating what a captain should be, all the way from this summer to today.

"We're going to allow those guys to take the opportunities and grow, and hopefully they provide the examples we need to have so our young guys can not play like young guys early in the season."

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