On a roster as deep as the No. 2 Michigan hockey team’s, players know they need to maximize their time in the lineup to maintain their spot on the depth chart.
This weekend against Michigan State, the Wolverines knew they’d be without senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg due to injury which created a hole in their lineup. Steve Holtz was the next man up.
The sophomore defenseman suddenly found himself debuting on the first pairing with sophomore defenseman Owen Power in a tough rivalry series against the Spartans. In the Wolverines’ series sweep, Holtz cashed in on his opportunity.
“He’s getting the most of his debut,” junior forward Nick Granowicz said after Saturday’s win. “Second game and he looks like a regular.”
In unsheltered ice time, Holtz rounded out Michigan’s defense with a sound physical game. He can be a reliable option for the Wolverines’ defense, whose bottom pairing has been a revolving door between junior Jay Keranen, freshman Ethan Edwards and senior Jack Summers.
All weekend, Holtz delivered punishing hits to the Spartans’ forecheckers. Like many physical teams the Wolverines have played, Michigan State tried to dump the puck in and force bad passes but Holtz’s 6-foot-4 frame meant he could take those hits and make the right play on defense, buying time for his teammates to get in position.
“I take pride in (my physicality),” Holtz said. “When I’m looking to hit someone, I’m looking to separate them from the puck and then that way I can create some space and some time for my partner.”
But it’s not just his large body that creates physical success — it’s how he uses it. Skating next to Power, Holtz looked small despite being only an inch shorter. However, he skates with his center of gravity held lower than most other skaters, and his body acts as a spring to leap out onto an opposing player. His stout hockey stance makes him practically immovable.
That showed itself on Friday, when he leveled Spartans forward Erik Middendorf with a hit in front of the Michigan State bench. As Holtz sent Middendorf halfway over the boards to the eruption of the Children of Yost, he not only took his man out of the play but also pushed the momentum further in the Wolverines’ favor.
By delivering punishing hits and playing with an edge, Holtz rounds out the offensively-gifted top four defensemen. On such a skill-heavy roster, Holtz diversifies the units that the Wolverines can send on the ice.
“(Holtz) brings a little bit of an edge, a little grit that we don’t have,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “Especially the way teams are playing against us (is) so aggressive, physical, and he brings that physicality.”
Not only does his size offer a different look for the defense, but Holtz is one of three right-handed defensemen on the Wolverines’ roster — Blankenburg and junior Keaton Pehrson being the others. Lefties have a harder time pinching along the right side boards without exposing themselves to big hits, but those three have an easier time handling that workload than most.
Holtz proved he’s a good shutdown defenseman against Michigan State, and it’s a role that helps solve Michigan’s unsettled bottom pair. While he doesn’t have the offensive prowess of the top four, he shuts down opposing rushes and throws his body around. That’s something Pearson will look at when he calls Holtz’s name.
“We always talk about players having money in the bank so to speak,” Pearson said. “ … (Holtz) made some deposits, so when he goes to try to get some money out or has an off night or tough game, at least he knows he can go in there and get a deposit, get another chance to play.
“He made a huge deposit this weekend.”