1. How well will the defense mesh?
This unit is undoubtedly the Michigan hockey team’s biggest question mark before the season begins, and the best indicator of how well it performs will be how prepared senior defenseman Mac Bennett is.
Bennett has the most experience of any defensemen after playing in the top four all last year, and he’ll return as the leader this season. But who fills in behind and alongside him will be scrutinized Sunday.
Michigan coach Red Berenson will likely pair younger defensemen with Bennett and other experienced players to bring them up to speed quickly. Freshman Michael Downing has drawn high praise from the coaching staff early on, as has freshman Nolan de Jong.
Both are experienced following extensive time in junior hockey but come in a bit weaker and lighter than the coaching staff would have liked. Neither has experience at the collegiate level, but former defenseman Jacob Trouba is proof that it doesn’t take long to adjust.
“Everything just seems to be clicking more and more,” Bennett said. “Passes are getting a little bit better, guys are knowing where to go in the defensive zone. Everything has just been rolling smoothly.”
Senior Kevin Clare returns after missing a majority of last season, but he still has the talent to be as good as anyone. How he pairs up with de Jong or Downing will make a big difference how far the team goes this season.
There won’t be much time for testing the pairings Sunday, though, as No. 4 Boston College visits Yost Ice Arena on Thursday. Waterloo (Ont.) won’t compare to the offenses the Wolverines will see later in the season, but it should be a chance to see how well the defense works together.
“I really like our defense,” Bennett said. “I know that was supposed to be our weak point on the team, but I don’t see it as a weak point. I think we’re right where we need to be.”
2. Who will fill in on special teams?
The only unit that possibly lost more experience than the defense was the special teams.
A.J. Treais, Lee Moffie, Kevin Lynch, Jon Merrill and Trouba all saw considerable time last year on the penalty kill and power play but are gone now. Only Bennett returns with more experience on special teams.
If the penalty kill can hold Waterloo without goals, then it could be a sign of things to come. Look for players like Copp or Downing to see time early.
The power play, however, will take time to develop. Any offensive production with an extra man should be seen as a good sign for the duration of the season. Last year, Michigan relied on Trouba during the power play, but how will it respond without him?
3. Just how good is the offense?
When you consider the amount of talent that steps in this year, and combine it with the amount of talent that left, there’s not much to question up front.
Sophomores Andrew Copp and Boo Nieves return as hard-working centers and should only benefit from more time spent alongside junior forward Alex Guptill and senior forward Derek DeBlois.
But can Copp and Nieves avoid a sophomore slump and continue to play at a high level? Can Guptill be the scorer he’s counted on to be?
After last year’s anemic start and unexpected strong finish, it begs the question: Which unit will show up?
It will be tough to answer every question if Berenson experiments with lines for 60 minutes, but look to see if the Wolverines can rack up shots. It will be a good sign of how well they do with the puck. Look for freshmen JT Compher, Evan Allen and Tyler Motte to fill in lines and make an impact, too.
4. Can Racine continue his hot streak from last year?
Sophomore goalie Steve Racine enters this season as the No. 1 netminder, but is he ready for the long haul?
The first game is by no means a make-or-break moment, but it will be easy to see if everything has fallen into place early on. What should you look for early on then?
“I don’t want to see any bad goals,” Berenson said. “I want to see him play the puck, minimize rebounds and stop the shots he’s capable of stopping.”
Racine has had a full summer to practice in his new role, which should be important for his confidence. If he can bail out the defense, he’ll not only give himself more confidence, but it should filter down to the defense.
5. Is the team chemistry stronger?
Last Friday, the Wolverines took the day off, for what is likely a program first: to play paintball. It has little to do with hockey, of course, and more to do with team bonding.
Bennett, DeBlois and Copp, in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year, have organized more activities as a way to combat last year’s issue. Throughout last season, team chemistry was poor and contributed to the early struggles, according to Berenson and players.
“I think there’s a better attitude in that locker room,” Berenson said. “I think they can’t wait to play, and they’re more worried about doing the right thing this year.”
Added Bennett “Everyone wants to be a little bit closer than last year, and I think we’ve done a good job of that so far.”
Part of that is due to the different leadership in place from last year. Last year, Berenson selected a fourth captain, former forward Kevin Lynch, a few weeks into the season, a rare event in program history. This year’s trio of captains is more vocal and already more involved in getting the team together.
There’s a different feel now. Captains organized shootouts; skaters ran into boards to distract their teammates during interviews with reporters; and everybody suffers through conditioning workouts now.
But what will it take to show the improvement?
“I’d like to see our team establish some type of identity,” Berenson said. “Our team was not as ready to play and win (last year) as it is this year.
“This team’s got a lot more humility right now. I think they’re going to play hard.”