Gophers' Chesley fits the profile of a certain NHL defenseman

As comparisons go, the one that Bob Motzko made Wednesday was enough to raise an eyebrow or two.

In assessing the development of Ryan Chesley, the Gophers men's hockey coach saw similarities with the sophomore defenseman that he witnessed with a prominent Gopher of the recent past.

"Some of the things that I can say about him are some of the things I used to say about Fabes," Motzko said.

Fabes, as in Brock Faber. As in first-team All-America selection, two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, 2022 U.S. Olympian and 2024 Calder Trophy contender, Brock Faber of the Wild.

It's lofty company, and Chesley isn't fully there yet, but Motzko likes his career arc.

"He's a beast of a defender, powerful skater, very strong, and his offense is going to continue to get better as he gets older," Motzko said. "… He's gonna continue to become more and more of a complete player at a high, high level."

For Chesley and his Gophers teammates, the postseason ramps up Saturday night against Michigan in a one-game Big Ten tournament semifinal at 3M Arena at Mariucci. The Gophers will face a stiff challenge from a Wolverines team that ranks third nationally in scoring (4.28 goals per game) and has the nation's best power play (48-for-135, 35.56%). Chesley figures to draw plenty of time against the Wolverines' top line of Dylan Duke-Gavin Brindley-Rutger McGroarty, which has combined for 60 goals and 142 points.

"Just the amount of skill that both our teams have makes it very competitive," said Chesley, a second-round draft pick by the Washington Capitals in 2022. "Obviously, we're both really high-level offensive teams, so we've gotta come ready to play and try to shut them down."

Shutting opponents down is something Motzko trusts Chesley to do. The 6-1, 195-pound Mahtomedi native has been a mainstay in the lineup since the first game of his freshman season. With the departures of defensemen Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson to the NHL, the Gophers could have expected a big dropoff from their 2.38 goals per game allowed in 2022-23. This season, they are giving up only a bit more at 2.50 per game, which is tied for 13th nationally.

Motzko appreciates the role that Chesley fills.

"He's so responsible and plays heavy minutes," the coach said. "No matter who he's paired with, he's going to be out against a lot of teams' top players. I think he's one of the best in the country in defending."

That showed up in the world junior championship. The United States won the gold medal, going 7-0 and beating host Sweden 6-2 in the final. No opponent scored more than three goals against Team USA.

"They'd pair him with an offensive guy to steady the ship," Motzko said of Chesley, "and he's sure a guy who steadies our ship."

Like Faber, Chesley continues to work on his offensive game. He has two goals and five assists in 35 games, similar to his output of 2-8-10 last season. He believes his work in the offseason and development during the season is paying off.

"Breaking the puck out and using my skating more has been a big emphasis," Chesley said. "And just being all around the rink, getting into good areas, joining the rush a lot and getting some chances."

Senior defenseman Carl Fish is impressed with the mental part of Chesley's game.

"His confidence level is through the roof," Fish said. "… He's jumped into a leadership role on the back end, and that definitely shows. When he's on his game, the entire 'D' corps is on their game.''

Chesley now turns his focus to the details that become so important when the season reaches the one-and-done stage of the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten semifinals will replicate that type of pressure, and the Gophers' 3-2 escape against Penn State last Saturday — when the Nittany Lions outshot them 35-7 over the final two periods — caught the players' attention in a couple of ways.

"One positive we can take from it is we found a way to win," Chesley said. "It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done."

He also saw the thin margin between winning and losing in the postseason.

"We've just got to focus more on the little details, just prepare more and know that our season can end at any time," Chesley said. "We just have to come ready to play."