For its most important series yet this season, the Michigan hockey team will be without five of its key players against Minnesota next week.

Monday afternoon, USA Hockey released its preliminary roster for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship. It includes three Wolverine freshman forwards — Matty Beniers, Thomas Bordeleau, and Brendan Brisson — as well as sophomore forward Johnny Beecher and sophomore defenseman Cam York. All five will be unavailable for Michigan’s Dec. 8 and 9 home series against Minnesota, which will be missing three of its own players. 

The tournament will take place from Dec. 25 through Jan. 5 in Edmonton. Though teams were initially told that players would not have to report until Dec. 13 — a factor that played into the Wolverines’ and Gophers’ decision to compete on the preceding Tuesday and Wednesday, according to Michigan coach Mel Pearson — USA Hockey recently mandated that players enter its bubble in Plymouth on Dec. 6 to comply with IIHF rules. The decision coincided with a pair of positive tests at Team Canada’s selection camp in Red Deer, Alberta. 

Without its key players, who have combined for 21 points in six games this season, Michigan will need more production from elsewhere on the team. Much of that production should come from players already in the lineup — players like freshman forward Kent Johnson, who leads the team with eight points. 

Johnson might have to step up even more, but there’s plenty of room for others in the lineup to make their mark as well. Sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini has shown flashes in four appearances, scoring two goals and earning a plus-minus of +3. The series against the Gophers will be an opportunity for him to prove he deserves more time on the ice. 

“There’s some guys in the lineup that you’re just expecting to do more,” Pearson said. “Eric Ciccolini has been in and out. He’s proven he’s ready to have a really good sophomore season. We expect more out of him on a daily basis.”

But with five players missing, the Wolverines will need to dig deeper into the roster and rely on players who haven’t yet seen much of the ice. In Michigan’s loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, sophomore defenseman Jay Keranen appeared in his second game this season after not playing his freshman year. There’s a good chance he’ll fill in for York in the Minnesota series. 

Things will be even thinner at forward, where the Wolverines will lose four players to World Juniors. And with just 16 forwards on the roster, Michigan will have to rely on every player at that position. As of now, freshman Josh Groll has yet to see ice time, while freshman Philippe Lapointe appeared Nov. 15 against Arizona State, but did not record any points. Groll tallied 42 points in 41 games with the USHL Lincoln Stars last season, while Lapointe notched 55 points in 36 games with the BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters. 

“(Groll) has looked really good in practice,” Pearson said. “He had a bit of a setback (a couple of weeks ago), that’s why he hasn’t played at this point … but he’s ready. Phil Lapointe’s an outstanding player. He’s gonna be a really good player for us here. We’ll look for him to come in the lineup.”

In any situation, depth is a necessity for a hockey team to be successful. It’s normal to lose a few players to injury throughout the season. Teams can plan around that. 

Less predictable is losing five players at the same time. The Wolverines have a deep roster; such a deep hit in a series against the No. 5 team in the country will put that depth to the test. 

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