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College hockey: Baker steadies Saints’ defense

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CANTON — Over the years, Justin Baker has experienced a transformation as a defenseman for St. Lawrence University.

Entering the collegiate ranks as primarily as an offensive-minded defender, Baker has since steadily worked on and honed his defense.

Now a senior, Baker has emerged as one of the most versatile defensemen in the nation, if not ECAC Hockey.

“He’s very good defensively with a great stick,” St. Lawrence coach Greg Carvel said of Baker, one of the team’s three assistant captains. “He’s a fierce competitor, who is physical and blocks shots — he does it all. ... To me’s he’s one of the top two-way defensemen in our league, for sure.”

Baker’s offensive numbers remain strong as he’s tied for the conference lead in points (23) among defenders with Union’s Mat Bodie and along with his six goals and 17 assists, Baker is tied for fourth in the country in points per game among blue liners (0.88).

“I’ve always been more of a thinker concerning the game,” said the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Baker. “It’s about learning the different facets of the game and absorbing what I can during my four years here. Coach Carvel is the same way, he’s a student of the game, and he has a lot of knowledge to pass on.”

Baker and the Saints (9-14-3, 3-8-3) are on the road this week in ECAC Hockey play at Princeton tonight and at third-ranked nationally and second-place Quinnipiac on Saturday, both starting at 7.

“Justin Baker is a great asset for us in every facet of his game,” said Carvel, known as a defensive forward back in his playing days with St. Lawrence. “I think he’s an elite player. Offensively, he’s one of the few defensemen in our league who can skate the puck the length of the ice and make plays.”

Baker gives a lot of credit to his time playing with friend and former teammate George Hughes. The two were often paired together on defense last season.

“Last year, obviously I got to play with George Hughes and really taught me a lot,” said of Hughes, who is playing for the Bakersfield Condors of the ECHL. “From him I learned how to make the college game a lot simpler. I’m just glad to have the chance to help the younger generation of St. Lawrence players like he helped me.”

While the Saints have struggled on defense for much of their season of late, Baker has attempted to be a stabilizing factor throughout.

“[Assistant] coach [Mike] Hurlbut has been amazing, he’s really taught me the defensive side of the game,“ Baker said. “That’s really been my primary focus since I got to St. Lawrence, I didn’t really have high offensive production in my first two years here. But I just focused on tightening up the defensive zone.”

A strong and unyielding work ethic has also fueled his success for Baker, who says the ECAC has “probably the best defensive hockey around right now.

“I’m a real competitive guy,” said Baker, who with a goal and two assists had a hand in all three of the Saints’ goals in a 4-3 loss to RPI last Saturday after the team knocked off then- No. 4 Union, 2-1, the previous night. “Opportunity is a terrible thing to waste and I can’t help but feel guilty if I feel like I’ve taken a few seconds off. Whenever I get that chance back again I want to prove myself.”

The Toronto native grew up following quintessentially versatile and future Hall of Fame defender Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings.

“I really looked up to him,” Baker said. “I think he just had the whole game figured out — he wasn’t necessarily the strongest guy on the ice or the fastest. He was a good skater and was always in the right position with his stick intercepting plays along with great offensive vision. He just did the right things and played the game the right way.”

As one of only three senior defensemen for the Saints, Baker has also stood out as a leader.

“I know what a huge jump it is from juniors to this level,” Baker said. “You don’t want to overlook that and you definitely don’t want to be frustrated playing with freshmen because you realize where you came from. But these guys have done a really good job this season.”

St. Lawrence’s roster includes four freshman defenders, including Gavin Bayreuther, who is Baker’s defensive partner and leads all first-year defenders in the nation in goals (6), assists (16) and points (22).

“He’s really responsive and he’s trying to see how he can be better,” Baker said. “And he’s a really confident player as well, which is important.”

With eight games remaining in the regular season, ninth-place St. Lawrence is looking to make up ground in the ECAC playoff chase.

Chris Fitz Gerald covers St. Lawrence hockey for the Times. He can be reached at cfitzgerald@wdt.net

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