Filling in the lineup each night will be quite the task for Mel Pearson this season.
The Michigan coach will be forced to narrow down the 17 forwards on the roster to just 12 for each game, possibly 13 if he chooses to dress an extra forward as opposed to an extra defenseman. And when you look down the list, there are few — if any — players that are easy to leave out.
Since practice began three weeks ago, Pearson has focused on getting the Wolverines’ five new forwards up to speed on Michigan’s systems on the forecheck and in the defensive zone. But while doing that, he’s put together different line combinations every few days to try to get a sense for which players fit where in the lineup.
“You’re just trying to see what type of plays they can make offensively and if they can read off each other,” Pearson said Thursday. “You’re just looking for chemistry on the line, and you can see it. You can tell guys come down the ice and there’s just nothing there. No creativity, no passes, just (nothing).”
Chemistry can be a fickle thing to pinpoint. Sometimes it’s visible right away, as Pearson says, and sometimes it takes time to develop. If there isn’t chemistry right away, it’s hard to know if it will never come or if it’s just going to take more time to develop.
“It could take a week or two before you start clicking with someone, so the biggest thing is to have that open mindset of just trying to figure out and get rolling with who you’re playing with,” said senior forward Nick Pastujov. “If right from the bat you’re like, ‘Me and this guy don’t mesh,’ every single time you mess up, you’re just gonna be looking at that (as proof).
“If you look at it in a more positive light like, ‘OK, we messed up this rep but why was that?’ and try to get to the root of the problem, you can progress a lot faster.”
By moving the forwards to different lines in practice, Pearson has the opportunity to see how a wide range of combinations work. It also affords players who only played on one specific line last year a chance to test out other groupings.
Sophomore forwards Garrett van Wyhe and Nolan Moyle spent the vast majority of last season on a line with junior forward Dakota Raabe, and the trio finished the season as one of Pearson’s favorite lines. But it’s a new year, and Pearson doesn’t want any of them to feel like they can only play together.
“The thing about that line is you could put them together tomorrow and they’d be great,” Pearson said. “You know you have that. You know you have that in your pocket so to speak, where the other guys, if you put them together, you don’t know what you’re going to get. So, we’ll always have that.
“I don’t know if they’ll be together or not. I don’t want to pigeonhole anyone to think they only can play on that line or they only can play in a certain role.”
With just under a week until the Wolverines face the University of Windsor in an exhibition matchup, Pearson has time to figure out his line combinations. Adding intrigue to the puzzle of which players go where is freshman forward Johnny Beecher.
Beecher was selected No. 30 overall by the Boston Bruins in this year’s NHL Draft and is known for his size and speed, as well as his ability to shoot the puck. But Beecher is only in his first season of college hockey, so the players Pearson surrounds him with will need to have the ability to both keep up with him and show him the ropes of college gameplay.
“You’d like to play with him an upperclassman or two that can talk to him,” Pearson said. “It doesn’t need to be, and shouldn’t be, always the coach that is coaching the player. That’s when you have a really good team, you’ve got the seniors and juniors who can take a player like Johnny and work with him and coach him on the bench.
“…I think that’s really important that you find the right guy that he will listen to and someone who can communicate with him, almost like a player-coach.”
Pearson pointed to senior forwards Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood as players who have communicated well with Beecher thus far. It isn’t hard to imagine a situation in which Slaker, Beecher and Lockwood fill out Michigan’s top line.
The question then becomes which of the other 14 forwards get the nine remaining spots up front for the Wolverines. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s one Pearson will need some time to solve.