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This 'D' will have to bring his 'A' game

Updated 11:29 am, Saturday, July 28, 2012

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  • Westport's Mike Paliotta of the University of Vermont surveys his options during a January game against the University of Massachusetts outdoors at Fenway Park in Boston. Paliotta has been invited to try out for the U.S. Junior National Team and leaves next week for its Lake Placid training camp. Photo: Contributed Photo, Brian Jenkins Contributed Photo / Westport News
    Westport's Mike Paliotta of the University of Vermont surveys his options during a January game against the University of Massachusetts outdoors at Fenway Park in Boston. Paliotta has been invited to try out for the U.S. Junior National Team and leaves next week for its Lake Placid training camp. Photo: Contributed Photo, Brian Jenkins Contributed Photo

 

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He's only 19, but Mike Paliotta already has represented the United States in international hockey tournaments in the Czech Republic, Sweden and Germany. Now, the Westporter and rising sophomore at the University of Vermont would love another chance to play for his country -- this time in Russia at the World Junior Championship after Christmas.

"It would be a huge honor," said Paliotta, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound defenseman who was picked by the Chicago Blackhawks in the third round of last year's NHL draft.

"I had the opportunity to play for the U.S. team with the under-17 and under-18 team and while you're there, you see the under-20 team being picked every Christmastime and you can't help but hope to one day have that opportunity," he said this week.

Paliotta will have the chance to make his case for a spot on the elite under-20 team. He is one of 46 players invited by USA Hockey to its national junior evaluation camp Aug. 4-11 in Lake Placid, N.Y. The camp includes practices, intra-squad scrimmages and international games against Sweden and Finland.

Paliotta was back in Westport this week after participating in a Blackhawks' prospect camp earlier in the summer. During an expansive interview, he talked about his chances of making the national team, the continuing development of his game at Vermont, his summer training regimen and his future.

The 2013 U.S. national junior team will be selected in late December following a pre-tournament camp Dec. 19-23 in Helsinki, Finland. The World Juniors are immediately after -- Dec. 26-Jan. 5 in Ufa, Russia, an industrial city 800 miles east of Moscow.

LIKES HIS CHANCES

There are only three returnees from last year's U.S. junior team, so plenty of spots are available. But among the invitees are 16 other defensemen, including Brady Skjei, the New York Rangers' top pick in this year's draft. The final roster will include six or eight defensemen.

After a promising first year at Vermont -- Paliotta led all freshmen defensemen in icetime and scoring -- the Westporter thinks he has a good chance to make the national team.

In addition to having size, he sees himself as a physical defenseman who likes to finish his checks and can help out occasionally on offense.

"I'm just going to go to camp and play my game and show them why I think I should be on the team," said Paliotta. "I'm looking forward to it and it should be a good camp next week."

Paliotta played in 30 games for the Catamounts last season, recording four goals and six assists while receiving quality minutes in key situations -- including some time on the power play. Vermont, though, is coming off an un-Vermont-like 6-27-1 season.

"I'm really happy with where I am right now," he said. "I know Chicago is happy with my development over the past year at Vermont. I think the coaching staff at Vermont did a really good job of just continuing to build my game.

"I don't want to limit my game to just defensive defenseman, because I do have good puck moving abilities. I have a good shot from the point, and offensively I can chip in and contribute. But defensively, I definitely take pride in my shut-down game, being able to shut down the other team's top players and just be used in all situations -- whether that's on the penalty kill, power play or five-on-five."

After the national team tryout camp, Paliotta will return home for two weeks before heading to Vermont on Aug. 25.

COMMITTED TO UVM

He shut down a rumor that he would be leaving Vermont to play for the St. John's Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

"For me, it doesn't really suit my game very much," he said. "I'm really happy with how things are going at Vermont. There's rumors every couple months that I'm possibly considering going there, but that's all it is, a rumor. I haven't even been in contact with them personally, and I'm not intending to go there. I'll be back at Vermont in September."

Paliotta also said that getting an education is important to his family. He is majoring in business at Vermont.

"Obviously, I'm getting a really good education at Vermont," he said. "I love my teammates up at school."

During his time at home, Paliotta trains with Ben Prentiss in Darien, whose clients include current NHLers Max Pacioretty, of New Canaan, Ryan Shannon, of Darien, Martin St. Louis, Matt Moulson and James van Riemsdyk.

"This is my third summer there and (Prentiss) has completely changed the way I work out," Paliotta said. "He's done an unbelievable job in just continuing to make me stronger and faster and an all-around better hockey player."

While Paliotta hopes to once again wear the red, white and blue this winter in Russia, his ultimate dream is to play in the NHL for an Original Six franchise in a great hockey city with some of the league's best and most passionate fans.

"The next step for me is to continue to develop my game as best as I can until Chicago feels that I'm ready to sign a contract," Paliotta said. "I'm going to give it my best shot and see where it goes. But if it were up to me, I'd sure love to play a long career in the NHL. I don't think Chicago is in any rush to sign me."

Bob Birge is a freelance writer.

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