Spencer Stastney: Skating into a Top-Pair Role

The 2018 draft pick played a defense-focused season.

Shortly before a 6:30 PM puck drop in Manchester, NH, defender Spencer Stastney was announced as a late scratch in what would be the University of Notre Dame’s last game of the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

24 hours before that 4-0 loss to the UMass Minutemen, Notre Dame took down Clarkson University in overtime, and Stastney (despite not being recorded on the score sheet) was a big factor, playing critical minutes late in the game and in overtime.

One week before that, Stastney scored the (technically) lone goal of his freshman campaign in South Bend: the game-opener as the Fighting Irish took down the Penn State Nittany Lions for the 2019 Big Ten Championship title.

It was a quiet season for Statsney, who was picked 131st overall last summer by the Nashville Predators from a heralded U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP) that included Bode Wilde, Mattias Samuelsson, and K’Andre Miller on defense alone. He finished with one goal and three assists in 39 games played for the Irish but also only committed four minor penalties. He finished 11th in team scoring the season before, with two goals and 28 points in 57 games for the USNTDP, but had an impressive tournament at the U18-World Junior Championships, finishing tied for sixth in team scoring with five points in seven games.

I don’t think Stastney’s offensive numbers this year are indicative of his potential. I think his freshman season at Notre Dame was best used playing catch-up on defense. He only recently transitioned to the back-end in the past few seasons and was able to learn from two excellent prospects in Andrew Peeke and Bobby Nardella.

I spent the past couple weeks re-watching some of Stastney’s games from this season and want to highlight some really impressive shifts and skills.

In the clip above—early in the Big 10 title game—Stastney, #24 in white, exhibits excellent positioning. He uses an active stick along the boards and reverts back to a shooting lane between a Penn State player and the net when his partner takes the puck-carrier.

Moments later, Stastney does well to anticipate an opposing player drifting towards the back door. Despite not being overly physical or using an active stick, he maintains good positioning in the slot and is therefore able to clear the puck into the neutral zone.

On his next shift, Stastney pinches well inside the blue line and breaks up a zone entry but makes a curious, ill-advised pass to clear. Despite this, he collects the loose puck and goes end-to-end for a beautiful goal (Note: this is Stastney’s lone credited goal this season. He scored a double overtime winner on Jan. 20, however, that extra frame was played purely for tie-breaking purposes in the standings. The result of the game is recorded as a 2-2 tie).

Despite moments like the goal above, Stastney still played too much of a reserved offensive game this past season. Notice his time and space above for a good skate through the neutral zone. Instead he makes a poor, two-zone pass that results in a turnover.

Later that game, Stastney started gaining more confidence in his offensive zone play noticeable by him hovering lower for better puck support. Above you will notice a good, heads-up activation by #24 that leads to an extended offensive zone possession.

Above, Stastney displays some mildly frustrating defense. He positions himself well in front of the net but doesn’t have his stick in a good position to play the puck or stick-check his opponent if needed. In fact, when the puck makes its way to the net front, Stastney becomes overly-reliant on his hands with his stick flailing elsewhere. But, seconds later, he makes an aggressive attack on a puck up for grabs and is able to deliver a nice pass for a controlled zone exit.

The above clip shows Stastney late in Notre Dame’s first round match-up with Clarkson shortly after the Irish tied the game at two. He slides well to the back post to cover that floating skater and shows good communication when playing man-coverage along the half-wall. This leads to a turnover that Stastney clears to his teammate.

Deep into overtime, Stastney finds himself in front of the net and does well to win a rebound. You will noticed a preferred skating trick of his: using his edges to pivot his stance open without committing to a crossover move. He can work on his puck control skills and awareness that deep in the zone, but how often will we see him down there in the future? His awareness and ability to skate in tight corners or to open space will only help his neutral and defensive zone games, too.

Notre Dame will likely return five other defenders next season, but only two of them—Matt Hellickson and Tory Dello—played more than Stastney this past year. Additionally, they will welcome two freshmen on the back end. Stastney will see top-pair minutes at even strength and be given every opportunity to excel during a man-advantage and on the penalty kill.

Sentiments like the following are trite, but I hear often this season Stastney’s teammates gloated about how he is easily the best skater on the team. It shows in the tape above and is complimented well by his disciplined defensive approach.

A complete defensive skill set isn’t there just yet, but you and I have seen flashes of brilliance. Outside of lackluster offensive production, I was impressed with the strides Stastney took defensively and in his transition game. More ice time will only help solidify better decisions, and I anticipate more points will come naturally for a gifted skater and puck handler like #24 in year two in South Bend.

All statistics are courtesy of eliteprospects.com.