When Mel Pearson was hired after Red Berenson’s retirement three years ago, the Michigan hockey program was in a transitional state.
Recruiting in hockey happens years in advance of when players show up on campus, so as Berenson headed toward retirement, recruits became more and more cautious about committing to the Wolverines. In Pearson’s first year, the freshman class included Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris, both of whom were first-round NHL draft picks and have gone on to successful professional careers — but that was the exception, not the norm.
In the fall of 2018, Pearson brought in a 10-player class, but not one of them was an NHL draft choice. There was some talent in the group and most of them have found success at Michigan, but the class was a bit of a question mark coming in.
This past fall, Pearson’s reputation for high-level recruiting started to come to fruition. He brought in two first-round NHL draft picks in Cam York and Johnny Beecher, along with Nick Granowicz, who scored seven goals in year one. The other members of the class — Eric Ciccolini and Keaton Pehrson — should be key contributors in the coming years.
Now, the Wolverines’ incoming class for the 2020-21 season is one of the best in college hockey.
“If you go down the list of players we have coming in, we’re really excited about this group,” Pearson said. “(We) feel they’re really gonna fit in and plug some of the holes we lost by losing nine pretty good seniors. And we’re gonna need that. We’re gonna need those guys to come in and contribute right away.”
The Daily breaks down some of the key pieces of the class and the biggest names to know going forward.
Thomas Bordeleau (U.S. National Team Development Program)
Michigan’s senior class contributed 37.8 percent of its offense last year, so, needless to say, there are some serious holes to fill up front in the coming year. Bordeleau led the NTDP in scoring with 16 goals and 30 assists for a total of 46 points in 47 games and projects as a late first or early second pick in the 2020 draft. He’s played center for the NTDP, but at 5-foot-9, he’s a little small to play center in the Big Ten — especially on a team loaded with talent down the middle — so he may slide to the wing for the Wolverines.
Brendan Brisson (Chicago Steel, USHL)
Brisson’s Chicago Steel team was essentially a super-team in the USHL, so take his numbers with a grain of salt, but he’s clearly got some offensive talent. He finished second in the USHL in scoring with 59 points in 45 games. Brisson’s performance this year, particularly at the World Junior A Challenge, has put him solidly in the first round in most mock drafts. As the Wolverines lost more than a third of their offense, his scoring touch will be called upon right away when he hits the ice in the fall.
Kent Johnson (Trail Smoke Eaters, BCHL)
Johnson has spent the last two years playing underage in junior hockey. Because he doesn’t turn 18 until October, he is not draft-eligible in 2020 but is projected as a top-5 or top-10 pick in the 2021 draft. Though he’s a year or two younger than most of the BCHL players, Johnson put up 101 points — 41 goals and 60 assists — through 52 games to win the BCHL scoring title by a full 30 points. The BCHL is known as an offensive league, but just below two points per game is still close to unheard of. Once again, with the offense Michigan lost, the Wolverines will look to Johnson’s scoring ability to fill the gaps.
Philippe Lapointe (Trail Smoke Eaters, BCHL)
Lapointe missed the beginning of Trail’s season with an injury and still put up 55 points in 36 games once he returned — good for second in the BCHL in points per game. Again, the BCHL is an offensive league, so his numbers may be a bit inflated from both that and playing on Johnson’s wing, but he looks like a solid third-line winger with a decent amount of offensive upside. Lapointe is also one of the older players in the class at 20, and that additional game experience is valuable when making the leap to college hockey.
Owen Power (Chicago Steel, USHL)
Like Johnson, Power is coming to Michigan in his draft year after two seasons of junior hockey. And like Johnson, Power is currently projecting as a top-10 — if not top-5 — pick in the 2021 draft. He led USHL defensemen in scoring with 40 points in 45 games, and at 6-foot-5 is an imposing presence on the blueline. With Luke Martin and Griffin Luce both graduating, the Wolverines only have one defenseman — Pehrson — above 6-foot, so Power’s size, in addition to his elite-level skill, makes him even more important for Michigan.
Jacob Truscott (U.S. NTDP)
While Power is the model of a modern two-way defenseman that can both drive play and sit back and defend, Truscott is more known for his defensive game. He can contribute a fair amount offensively — his 21 points in 47 games ranked second on the NTDP for defensemen — but his defensive mindset will be key as he joins a young group of blueliners. The Wolverines are losing two stay-at-home blueliners in Martin and Luce, so the addition of Truscott is important for a group that’s mostly made up of puck movers.
Erik Portillo (Dubuque Fighting Saints, USHL)
Portillo was the third-round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in the 2019 NHL Draft and was a member of Sweden’s team at the 2020 World Juniors. For Dubuque, he finished fourth in the USHL in save percentage at .915 and had the second-best goals against average at 2.11 goals per game. He’s tall — standing 6-foot-6 — and fits the physical model of a modern NHL netminder.
Michigan found its goaltender this season in sophomore Strauss Mann, who finished second in the nation in save percentage at .939 and had the sixth-best goals against average at 1.85 goals per game. Both markers set single-season records for the Wolverines. But he won’t be around forever, and adding Portillo two years behind him in the pipeline sets Michigan up for continued success in net.