Cutler Martin stepped off the rink after Monday’s practice, and judging by the smirk on his face, you could get a sense that something witty was coming.
Observing Cooper Marody speaking to reporters, Martin cracked a joke that it was time for Marody to join his fellow freshmen in collecting all the pucks on the ice. Martin took the first-year forward’s spot in front of reporters, and he just couldn’t help himself from tossing one more comment Marody’s way.
“This is the spot where real forward stars are,” Martin said with a grin.
The punch line? The sophomore had never played a single shift at forward in his life until last Friday against Ferris State.
This season, Martin has played 25 of the Michigan hockey team’s 28 games. And with the exception of the matchup with the Bulldogs, he has suited up as a defenseman in every one of those contests.
But now, Martin is transitioning into a different role for the Wolverines. Michigan coach Red Berenson moved Martin into the forward slot Friday night, pairing him with junior Max Shuart and sophomore Niko Porikos on the fourth line.
The change may not be permanent, but it certainly came as a surprise.
Last Monday, Martin walked into the locker room and Berenson pulled him aside to tell him that the team needed him to add some grit up front. Next thing he knew, Martin had a white jersey in his stall — the same one every forward typically wears in practice — and his transition process had begun.
“I don’t know what the plan is,” Martin said. “I don’t know if they specifically know exactly what they want me to be. If they need a forward, I’ll be a forward. If they need a D, I’m going to be D.”
For Berenson, two factors played into the decision. The first involved looking to the future, and the second related to the present. He felt the fourth line needed a better fit for this campaign, but he also believed the team would need something more at forward in the coming years.
The defenseman-to-forward conversion process isn’t a foreign concept to Berenson, as he did the same thing with Wolverine alum Scooter Vaughn in 2008.
Vaughn made his debut as a forward in the CCHA Championship a season after spending every prior game of his career as a blueliner.
And the change was successful, as Vaughn closed out the final two years of his Michigan career as a winger. Though he notched just six points in his first season as a full-fledged forward, Vaughn boosted that total to 28 his senior year and finished third on the team in goals — all while leading the Wolverines to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinal and an NCAA Frozen Four title game in those respective years.
Vaughn’s history is evidence that if Martin’s switch is permanent, it may take some time for the sophomore to make the transition. Martin immediately recognized those growing pains Friday, but that’s not to say the experience wasn’t positive.
“Obviously at this level of the game, it’s kind of like you react to things instinctively,” Martin said. “Now, since I had to switch positions all of a sudden, I have to think about it a little more. It was definitely confusing to some extent. It was different, but it was fun.”
Yet, in the short term, Berenson sees aspects of Martin’s game that could lead to an immediate contribution.
“I like his intensity, I like his grit,” Berenson said. “And he’s got strong hands. When he goes in the corner, he goes in like a man, not like a boy. I like those things about him and I think our team needs that. … The question is, are we a better team with this lineup? It remains to be seen.”
Even if Martin’s change is only temporary, he still views time on the offensive side of the puck as a valuable learning experience. In just one game, the new forward has gained a fresh perspective on what makes playing the position so difficult — challenges like protecting the puck, moving from the defensive zone to the offensive zone and simply creating scoring chances in general.
With that new view, Martin is confident that even if his time as a winger ends as soon as the upcoming series against Minnesota, he will be able to make his teammates’ lives easier.
In his brief stint as a forward against Ferris State — he played just eight and a half minutes by Berenson’s estimation — Martin did show some flashes of offensive prowess. His line strung together some dangerous scoring chances, and Martin rang one off the crossbar while falling to his knees in the second period.
Despite the near-goal, though, his teammates still don’t think of Martin for flashy offensive abilities.
“I think he played well last game … but in my mind I still think he’s a defenseman,” said junior blueliner Michael Downing.
But, of course, the player who started an interview with some self-deprecating humor came prepared with a friendly rebuttal in his back pocket.
“I think when I come to the rink every day, I think I’m a defenseman still,” Martin said. “It’s going to be really difficult to get that instinct out of me. It’s always going to be there. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life at D.
“I think if I wind up for a slap shot in front of (Downing) and I’m on forward, he’s going to get out of the way and think I’m a forward pretty soon.”