Jesse Ramsey took a step forward by moving to the back.
Ramsey, a third-year player for the Kenai River Brown Bears, was a middling threat without a niche as a winger early in his North American Hockey League career.
So he scrapped the idea of playing forward.
“I wanted a little more playing time,” Ramsey said. “And there was an opportunity.”
The native of Minnesota shifted from forward to defenseman when the Bears needed help on the back line midway through 2010-11.
Now Ramsey, 20, is a central figure for the NAHL West Division leaders, who return from a 7-1-1 road trip to host the Dawson Creek (British Columbia) Rage at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center.
Ramsey is tied for the team lead with a plus-eight scoring differential, meaning Kenai River has produced eight more even-strength and short-handed goals than it’s allowed when he is on the ice.
Last year, splitting time between forward and defense, the 5-foot-11 athlete finished with a negative-nine tally — tied for third-worst on the team.
Coach Oliver David, who uses three lines for defense and four for offense, challenged Ramsey to improve those numbers following the season.
After training in Minnesota all summer, the work paid off.
“It’s a big swing,” said David, also in his third season. “To be a plus defenseman is great.”
Ramsey isn’t entirely new to defense.
Under the tutelage of his father, Dave Ramsey, he played nearly every position growing up.
A product of the prestigious Elk River Youth Hockey Association, which produced Paul Martin and Joe Otto of the National Hockey League, Jesse Ramsey often played center one shift, wing the next and defense the next.
Dave Ramsey, who coached his son beginning at age 5, said the younger Ramsey has always been a good back-checker, allowing him to play anywhere on the ice.
“He’s a jack of all trades,” Dave Ramsey said. “He’s used to that.”
The versatility carried over to high school. Jesse Ramsey played defense as a freshman and sophomore, and forward as a junior and senior.
Tendered by the Wenatchee (Wash.) Wild following graduation, he was traded to the Bears shortly after David joined the organization midway through 2009-10.
The team was a mess — it finished in last place with a record of 12-40-6 — and Ramsey produced just three goals in 38 games as a forward.
He added 16 assists, playing left wing most of the season.
“He didn’t have a ton of success, which can be attributed to a number of things — being traded, not playing with guys who had already been playing together and being moved into that role, not having chemistry in general with those guys, and moving around — all those things,” David said.
Despite the struggles, Ramsey made the team as a forward the following season.
But it wasn’t until the Bears suffered injuries and movement along the back line that Ramsey caught his break.
The team needed a defenseman. Someone in-house had to step up.
Given Ramsey’s experience on defense, his inconsistency on offense and the fact he wanted more playing time, David called his number.
The progression has been steady ever since.
The Bears (14-5-1, 29 points) recently completed their best road trip in club history, a nine-game stretch in which Ramsey had four goals and three assists. He had five goals all of last season.
Twenty games into 2011-12, the veteran is Kenai River’s fourth-leading scorer and its top-scoring defenseman with 11 points (five goals and six assists).
“My mind-set is a little more accustomed to playing defense,” Ramsey said. “My confidence has been getting progressively better. I’ve just been trying to get the puck on net, trying to shoot, and gotten lucky.”
A fast skater with good closing speed, Ramsey prefers the left side and has shared a line with rookie Jacob Davidson most of the year.
Davidson said it’s been a luxury and learning experience to play alongside the third-year veteran.
“Jesse is really fast, makes good decisions with the puck. We can always count on him to get the puck out,” Davidson said. “At the end of the shift he can rely on himself and you can rely on him to get the puck out of the zone.”
Fellow defenseman Raymond Stenehjem might appreciate Ramsey’s success most.
Stenehjem and captain Brett Lubanski join Ramsey as the team’s only other third-year players, the lone athletes who experienced the 12-40-6 nightmare of 2009-10.
“To keep moving with the same guys helps a lot because it seems to drive the rest of the guys who weren’t with it in the beginning,” said Stenehjem, who has 10 points.
David expects Ramsey to land a Division I scholarship by the end of the season, something for which Ramsey said he’s always strived. The Air Force Academy is among those showing interest, David said Tuesday.
The do-it-all athlete must improve his defense and shot, David said, but he is elite on the offensive blue line and has premier skating and retrieval skills.
With 40 games remaining in the NAHL season, Ramsey’s immediate task is to help the Bears win.
“It feels great to know our hard work paid off and it’s finally coming together. It’s different because the first couple years, we were always trying to climb,” Ramsey said. “Now we’re on top and it’s a lot harder to stay on top than it is to climb up there. You want to stay positive and humble and work hard.”