Heading into his freshman season with the Wolverines, Nick Pastujov was tasked with more than just preparing himself for the transition to college hockey. A shoulder injury and its ensuing surgery added injury rehabilitation to the to-do list for the then-freshman forward. And in the 28 games he played in his first season, Pastujov recorded just one goal and two assists.
Now, heading into his senior year, the forward has had three consecutive summers of development –– seeing an increase in production every season with the Michigan hockey team. This summer, he attended the New York Islanders’ development camp.
The camp’s roster featured other college players in their program, junior-level players from the Canadian Hockey League, recently-signed players by New York and various talent the Islanders are scouting. For the former 2016 seventh-round selection by New York, this is all part of an offseason that has resulted in Pastujov’s confidence being as high as ever.
“I definitely think my game has matured every single year in a different way,” Pastujov told the Daily. “And I’m kind of starting to find myself and my identity and how I want to play after college.”
Last season, Pastujov scored 11 goals and collected 13 assists. Beyond the numbers though, Pasujov’s role with the team evolved as he was often slotted alongside the team’s leading scorer — junior forward Will Lockwood — after sophomore forward Josh Norris’s season-ending injury in early January.
Norris announced earlier this summer that he will forgo his remaining two years of eligibility and make the jump to the National Hockey League. As a result, the duo of Lockwood and Pastujov figure to be spearheading the offense this upcoming season.
“Next year a lot of the things that I’m going to look forward to bringing to the table is more or less just controlling the game, definitely being a dominant force out there,” Pastujov said. “I think my specialty is being able to center players that can definitely produce — guys like Will (Lockwood). Last year we had a lot of success because I think my specialty is being out there and being able to shut down a lot of the defensive aspects of the game and get guys like that the puck to where they can kind of go on offense and do their thing.”
On top of losing one of their most dynamic forwards in Norris, the departure of top-assist man, sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes, leaves another hole on offense — making Pastujov’s role as a table-setter even more essential for Michigan.
“This year we have a good core of our group coming in,” Pastujov said. “And I think the guys that left are not necessarily going to be replaced by a lot of the good freshmen, but we have a good freshman class coming in.
“I think this last spring term and summer, looking forward, the guys are working hard … it’s a night and day difference just the confidence guys have in their own game and ability to kind of control the puck and make plays.”
Last year’s team fell short of expectations for a program coming off a Frozen Four appearance and one that is accustomed to making deep tournament runs. They bowed out early in the Big Ten Tournament and failed to secure a spot in the NCAA tournament. This offseason, the team has addressed that disappointment.
“I think last year the guys that were on the Frozen Four team that made it two years ago know that it’s going to take a lot more than what we had going last year,” Pastujov said. “… the team as a whole has come together and realized it was not necessarily a fluke but that’s just something that can’t happen again. We all kind of got together and realized we’re going to have to work a lot harder to dial it in on this upcoming year.”
Pastujov is one of 12 players remaining from that Frozen Four roster. With less than three months remaining before the Wolverines’ season kicks off with an exhibition game against Windsor, the team’s sights are set on returning to the Frozen Four. If there was any extra motivation needed to get there, it will be hosted pretty close to home for Michigan this season.
“I think we have a unique opportunity,” Pastujov said “It’s not only my senior year but having the Frozen Four in Detroit — I think that’s a huge motivator for the team and everyone. … I don’t see any reason why we can’t make it to the Frozen Four and take it all the way.”