Last season was a trying one for University of Maine freshman defenseman Mike Banwell.
He was in and out of the lineup as he struggled with the adjustment from Junior hockey to Hockey East. He finished with two assists while appearing in 20 of Maine’s 34 games.
But Banwell has improved dramatically and has become a fixture in the Maine lineup.
He has five assists in 17 games entering the Saturday night-Sunday afternoon series at Conte Forum against Boston College.
“When he first arrived last year, I thought he was behind the eight-ball when it came to making decisions due to the speed of the game,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “But, through his hard work and focus, he has done a tremendous job improving his hockey sense and decision-making.”
“It’s great to see a guy like Mike doing well,” said senior center Chris Hahn. “He’s probably the hardest worker on our team. He also spends a lot of time watching video.”
“It really eats him up inside if he doesn’t play well or the team doesn’t play well,” added Hahn. “He bleeds Maine hockey and it shows in his play.”
In addition to taking a regular shift, Banwell has also been used on the power play and the penalty kill.
“I know I’m not the most skilled guy out on the ice by any means, so I have to work as hard as I can and do a little bit extra,” Banwell said. “I don’t want to look back in a couple of years knowing I could have done a little bit more [to improve]. That’s what motivates me. I want to make sure I do everything I can to get to where I want to be.”
He learned the value of simplicity last season when he was prone to turnovers.
“I’ve focused on keeping everything simple,” said Banwell. “It helps me and the other defensemen to focus on the little things. If we don’t have plays, we just glass it out [of the defensive zone].
“I’ve gained a lot of experience so I’m more comfortable and confident. Last year, I worried about having the puck on my stick in certain situations. Now I want the puck on my stick so I can contribute to the team.”
Whitehead said by simplifying his play, Banwell has “allowed his strengths to come out.”
“Because he was prone to turning the puck over last year, he wasn’t able to play with confidence,” explained Whitehead.
Whitehead said Banwell’s lists of strengths include his “defensive play, shot-blocking, ability to win loose pucks, his toughness and his great feet.
“He goes north with the puck as well as anybody on the team and he wrists the puck on net, nice and low. As a result, he’s come up with some big assists for us. And he has surprisingly good skill.”
“He knew he had to work hard and do the little things right and he has come a long way,” said sophomore center Tanner House. “He’s playing great right now. You can tell he has a lot more confidence out there.”
There is no doubting Banwell‘s athleticism. The Scarborough, Ontario, native won the citywide Toronto Maple Leaf High School fitness challenge in 2005 and won the 1,500 meters in the Ontario Indoor Track and Field championships. He was also a standout in cross country.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Banwell is a physical presence on the ice.
“I have more of a defensive role and to do well at that I have to make sure I play physical. I’m taller than most of the guys out there, so I have to make sure I use that to my advantage,” said Banwell.
Maine will be looking for its first win since Dec. 13 when it faces off against Boston College. The Eagles haven’t won since Nov. 30.
“It’ll be a challenge since BC is in the same situation we are,” said Banwell. “We upset them earlier this year [2-1], so they’ll be fired up. These are going to be crucial games for us to try to climb up the standings.
“We’re going to have to keep things simple and every guy is going to have to play as hard as he can. They’re very shifty and very quick and those are the toughest guys to play against. If you make errors, they’ll capitalize. We’ve got to contain them, get the puck out of our zone and move it into their zone.”