Three weeks ago this Saturday, the Michigan hockey team left the ice at Yost having posted a 60-shot, double-digit scoring spectacle in its preseason faceoff with Western Ontario. Elation was palpable as the players and coaches filed into the locker room, but hints of relief and surprise permeated the air as well.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson was quick to address the elephant in the room.
“The goal scoring,” Pearson said. “We were 42nd in offense last year, so we weren’t sure where the goals were going to come from.”
And yet, nine of the Wolverines’ 10 goals came from players who were on the roster last season. Plainly, such a large margin of victory could not have been anticipated.
Fast forward one week.
Michigan began its regular season on a New York road trip, where its emerging offense outshot St. Lawrence in the Friday nightcap and Clarkson on Saturday. Yet while the Wolverines tallied a win against the Saints, their Saturday battle went down on paper as an inerasable shutout loss.
Therein lies the point of reflection. Should losses like the one to Clarkson be taken at face value, or should they actually be interpreted as triumphs within themselves? There may not be one clear answer yet.
Inarguably though, the Wolverines demonstrated growth in both of their opening outings. Michigan, both nights, created viable opportunities for itself. Michigan, both nights, had its offense outshine that of the opposition. The same could not be said for most of last season.
When the weekend wrapped up, Pearson echoed this viewpoint.
“In some regards, we played better (against Clarkson) than we played (against St. Lawrence),” he said. “And some nights the puck just doesn’t go in the net for you.”
The elaborate, tiny details of each game will never be captured completely on a stats sheet. But that doesn’t make them trivial.
And this year, winning games shouldn’t be the sole emphasis for Michigan. Let me be clear: It’s not that winning isn’t important, or that the Wolverines won’t be capable of beating a multitude of their opponents. But chiefly, the transformation of this program won’t happen overnight.
Still, every small improvement displays the charisma Pearson has brought back to Michigan hockey. Every development prognosticates the program’s future success.
No one wanted to focus on the preseason poll that predicted the Wolverines would finish second to last in the Big Ten. On Media Day, players collectively expressed that they aren’t letting it get to them, and that they are determined to prove the poll wrong.
“It was a little bit of a topic of conversation,” said senior forward Dexter Dancs. “But, you know what, we’re not looking too much into it. But it will definitely be in the back of our mind when we play every team this year.”
Despite how disheartening the forecast of finishing sixth out of seven seems, it was anything but arbitrary.
Michigan’s 6-12-2 conference mark over the 2016-17 season says as much. The Wolverines had the third-worst Corsi-percentage — a measure of puck possesion and shot differentials — in the country. The offense completely broke down, and was never able to regenerate. Michigan commenced the year with a No. 11 ranking, but it quickly faded, slipping to 37th in the nation by the end of the season.
In contrast, No. 5 Notre Dame, No. 8 Minnesota and No. 11 Penn State all earned NCAA Tournament bids last spring. These three conference competitors, in addition to No. 6 Wisconsin, are all ranked above Michigan, and rightfully so.
With an elite hockey tradition, a new coach and a revamped mentality, the Wolverines are eager to write off last season as a glitch and move forward. But commanding a high-caliber conference like the Big Ten is an ambitious feat for anyone, and Michigan sits only a week away from its conference opener against the Nittany Lions.
This team is going to have to be patient. All of the adjustments the Wolverines hope to make will not happen in a month, in a season or even in two. The bulk of the roster returns from last year, and the learning curve will be steep. But in the case of Michigan — a team aiming for complete reinvention — time is its friend.
“It’s a process,” Pearson said after the Wolverines’ opening weekend. “And it’s going to be a process with this team.”
And who better than Pearson — a coach extremely familiar to working with struggling programs — to guide Michigan through this process?
Pearson embarked on his journey as head coach at his alma mater, Michigan Tech, in 2011. He joined a program that hadn’t seen a NCAA tournament appearance since 1981.
Just a season before he arrived, the Huskies held a 4-30-4 overall record. Rebuilding the team to bring it national relevance once again was a daunting task. And yet, with time, Pearson proved it feasible.
Development started out on a smaller scale, with gradual improvements year to year. Michigan Tech didn’t see a winning record until the 2014-15 season. But that same season, the Huskies notched their first-ever No. 1 ranking and netted an NCAA Tournament bid.
Obviously, the two circumstances are not the same. Michigan Tech hadn’t been hot for decades. Michigan had one bad year. But the Huskies are an unmistakable case of how a new set of skilled eyes and a little bit of time can revamp a program.
Thirty games — almost a full season — remain ahead of the Wolverines. Michigan should focus now on what it can control.
The offense is alive. Team chemistry is high. Newcomers are finding a groove and making contributions. The coach at the helm has experience working with teams and building their programs from the ground floor.
The rest, with time, will fall into place.
Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Anna_H_Marcus.