Vermont coach Kevin Sneddon is careful in how he explains that senior defenseman Mike Paliotta became the most improved player he’s ever coached.
Sneddon is aware being given the title of most improved player isn’t always flattering.
To start off with, Paliotta was a big-time recruit for Sneddon and the Catamounts. Before Paliotta arrived to campus in 2011, he had already been a third-round draft pick by the Chicago Blackhawks and was a product of the U.S. national development program. His reputation was as an elite physical shutdown defenseman.
Sneddon envisioned Paliotta being more than that. Over the last four years, Sneddon, his coaching staff, the Blackhawks and especially Paliotta have put in a lot of time and effort to expand Paliotta’s game. He’s developed into an all-around defenseman who is still able to deny opponents’ chances, but is also now able to create his own offensive opportunities and is among the nation’s defenseman points leaders.
“Mike was obviously one of the more talented players coming out of the U.S., playing with the national program, but I think his game was maybe undefined, for a lack of a better word,” Sneddon said by phone on Wednesday. “He was maybe a cross between a tough defenseman and maybe not as skilled as he needed to be. I have no problem saying he is the most improved player I’ve coached. Sometimes you look at that negatively. I look at it as he was a very solid talent coming in. Where he was as a freshman, he was a little rough. Where he was, he didn’t have the confidence he needed. It’s night and day and he’s upward trending.
“I think a lot of times people expect a 6-foot-4, 200-pound defenseman to only be an excellent physical player. I think that was what Mike was concentrating on. I think what we’ve tried to do is as a staff and work with the Blackhawks is for him to be a tough competitor and enhance his skills to play at the next level.”
Paliotta took a large stride in that area his junior season. He became comfortable keeping his head up at the point and found ways to get pucks past the first layer of defense and onto the net. He also became more confident handling the puck, carrying it longer and passing it.
Paliotta’s numbers and the team’s success benefitted from his play. He went from having 10 points as a sophomore to 27 points last season as a junior. Vermont also reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010. He’s accumulated a team-leading 23 points this season and is sixth among the nation’s defensemen. The Catamounts are ranked No. 15 in the country by USCHO.com.
Paliotta’s motivation to improve his overall game was partly due to his future with his future employer, the Blackhawks.
“I think something I’ve noticed from them is they always play as a five-man unit,” said Paliotta, who closely watches Blackhawks defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. “All five guys are moving and active. They like to control the puck. Puck possession is huge in their game.
“I think that was something the Blackhawks always harped on at development camp, how important it was for defensemen to make plays. They really don’t like dumping the puck, don’t like giving it up.”
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has witnessed that progress in Paliotta’s game. Bowman said recently he fully intends on signing Paliotta and adding him to the organization’s stable of talented young defensemen when Paliotta's senior season is finished this year. Paliotta and North Dakota defeseman Nick Mattson are the college seniors among the Blackhawks prospects.
“He’s been very good,” Bowman said. “I’ve seen him play a couple of times, once on the road and I went up to Vermont, met with him, watched him play. He was very good that game. We’ve got great reports on his ability.
“His profile is not maybe as a high-scoring NHL player, but he does have that ability. That’s nice to see he’s tapping into it. I think he’s more along the lines of Stephen Johns. He’s a big kid. He’s got a physical side to his game. He’s not afraid to play a rugged game. But he’s worked on his skills, which is something we’ve talked about. Take advantage of it when you’re in college. He plays a lot of the power-play situations, and he’s done well with it. He’s someone we’re definitely looking to as soon as he finishes his year we want to turn pro.”
Paliotta is hopeful that is later than sooner. His priority now is helping Vermont get back to the NCAA tournament. His drive to want to win is one of the reasons why he was selected by his teammates as Vermont’s captain the last two years.
“He’s a fierce competitor,” Sneddon said. “He wants to win. He puts the guys before himself. Even though he was a high draft pick and garnered a lot of attention on the pro side, his biggest thing is he wants to win and be successful as a team. Guys respect his voice and work ethic on and off the ice. He’s essentially already a pro in his approach in how he takes care of himself physically and mentally and what he puts into his game.”
Whenever Vermont’s season does end, Paliotta said he looked forward to joining the Blackhawks.
“The past couple years they’ve been great with me and helped me out a ton,” Paliotta said. “I know they’re excited how far my game has come. I’m excited to start my pro career.”