Just because it’s not easy to find bright spots in this year’s Michigan hockey team doesn’t mean they’re not there. They exist, they are just reflected in ways other than the team’s overall record.
To find one, just look to forward Boo Nieves, the freshman currently leading the Wolverines in assists with 12, who finds a way to be at the right place at the right time.
Though Nieves — a New York Rangers draft pick — was a highly touted recruit coming in, Michigan coach Red Berenson was still uncertain about how his transition to the college game would be, considering Nieves was coming in straight from prep school, instead of playing with a junior league in the interim — he skated with the Indiana Ice of the United States Hockey League for about a month.
“I think (the transition) is going pretty well,” Nieves said. “I think it’s definitely the speed of everything. Everyone’s a little bit faster, everyone’s a little bit stronger. I wasn’t really used to that at first.”
If adjusting to speed was one of his concerns coming into Michigan, Nieves has done a good job hiding it — his agility has quickly set him apart from some of the other Wolverines.
“He’s a really dynamic skater,” Berenson said. “He can just take off and leave everyone behind. He’s got that burst of speed with him, and he’s got the skills to go with it.”
That couldn’t have been more evident than during the Wolverines’ contest with Western Michigan last Friday night. Just minutes into the first frame, Nieves skated across center ice, weaving in and out of the Broncos’ defenders. A quick dish to sophomore forward Phil Di Giuseppe was all it took to set up a goal.
It was a seemingly simple pass, but for a team that’s been relying on scrappy, garbage goals throughout the season, it was one of Michigan’s more beautiful plays.
Nieves registered more ice time than usual this past weekend, which Berenson said was a reward for Nieves’ hard work and playmaking ability.
In a season in which seasoned upperclassmen have severely underperformed, Nieves has been one of the team’s steadier players. And that’s pretty reassuring, considering week-to-week consistency is one of the hardest things for rookies.
Typically, the freshman class starts hitting its peak at the beginning of the second semester, so the coaches are still expecting more from Nieves in the remaining eight games of the regular season.
It appears that the only hitch in Nieves’ freshman campaign is the Wolverines’ overall performance. As Berenson points out, even when a player has a fantastic weekend, a team loss can easily overshadow the accolades — Nieves, along with fellow standout freshmen Jacob Trouba and Andrew Copp, hasn’t had the chance to see what a winning Michigan program looks like since starting their college careers.
For now, though, it seems like Nieves is putting his individual accomplishments on the back burner, at least until Michigan finds its footing again.
“It’s mostly a team effort,” Nieves said. “No one guy is going to carry the team. We’ve got to come together collectively. It has been frustrating as a whole, (and) it’s not any few guys that aren’t working hard. We’ve just got to apply and put it all together.”