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Griffs count on Schmelzer

The number catches your attention.

As a freshman, Ryan Schmelzer is a plus-14 for the Canisius Golden Griffins.

The company he’s keeping with that stat draws you in even further.

Schmelzer ranks fourth in the nation among rookie forwards in plus/minus rating. The three players in front of him? Boston University’s Jack Eichel, a near certain top two draft pick in this summer’s NHL draft followed by Michigan’s Dylan Larkin (drafted by the Detroit Red Wings) and Minnesota State’s CJ Franklin (a draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets).

In isolation, the statistic itself, even his ranking among the elite freshmen of college hockey, doesn’t mean much.

Use it as a starting to point to look at Schmelzer’s performance and you begin understand what makes him an effective and dangerous two-way player, who centers the top line for a Griffins team sitting in second place in Atlantic Hockey during their bye week.

The ridiculously good plus/minus rating, on track to be the highest for Canisius in the Atlantic Hockey era, doesn’t surprise his former coaches. Mike Torrillo, himself a 1988 alumnus of the Ice Griffs, called him one of the most cerebral players he ever coached at Williamsville East.

“He understood the game. His positioning was solid. He’s a great two-way player,” said Torrillo, who still holds the Canisius scoring record with 265 points during the Division III era. “He’s just a hard working kid you love to have. He could play any position, any part of the game. He could be on the penalty-killing unit or a power-play guy. He could be the checker against the other team’s best line or if we needed goals, score a goal.”

Schmelzer’s two-way game starts with defense. Always with defense. He first learned it during his travel team days with Bob Rosen (another former Canisius player and coach) and later honed his two-way game playing for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres under Michael Peca, a two-time Selke Trophy winner for best defensive forward in the NHL.

“Growing up, I’ve always been defensive-minded,” Schmelzer said. “The easiest way to do that is in the offensive zone. If they don’t have the puck, they can’t score.”

It’s a painfully simple concept, but one that takes discipline to execute. His awareness in all three zones has improved throughout his first collegiate season, earning him a spot on the top line. He first centered Shane Conacher and Ralph Cuddemi against Sacred Heart on Nov. 8. Schmelzer scored his first collegiate goal in that game and has been with the Griffs’ dynamic offensive duo ever since.

“He’s just been the rock on our line,” Conacher said. “He keeps it simple and plays that gritty game that gets him that good plus/minus. He’s been very consistent for us.”

His rating certainly gets a bump from playing with Conacher and Cuddemi, who are ranked 12th nationally in scoring with 29 points apiece.

“The plus/minus on those goals, I didn’t even do anything,” Schmelzer said. “I just stood in front and they passed it around me. For the most part I’m looking for them. They’re real easy to make plays with.”

Maybe they’re easy to make plays with for Schmelzer. But centering Conacher and Cuddemi isn’t a guarantee of easy stats. To the contrary. Having excellent stats while centering that line is another indication of the type of player Schmelzer is already and the one he is developing into.

“Ryan emotionally fits in very well with those guys,” Canisius coach Dave Smith said. “What he brings to that line is a willingness to pass or a willingness to hold it. Those guys are hard to play with because they’re hungry and they look at you like ‘That’s my puck. Give it to me.’ You have to have a strong soul to hold it. Ryan has that. … The biggest compliment to Ryan is he just plays the game with them, not for them.”

The Griffs will return to action Feb. 6-7 when they travel to Pittsburgh to play defending conference champ Robert Morris.