Back in December, Mel Pearson leaned back in his chair at Yost Ice Arena and reflected on graduate transfer forward Jacob Hayhurst’s first-half performance.
At the time, Hayhurst had only one goal through his first 20 games — after Pearson picked him up as a graduate transfer because of his offensive ability. In each of his last two years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Hayhurst led the Engineers in points with 23.
But when he started at Michigan, the offensive output dried up. In game after game, Hayhurst found himself with Grade-A scoring chances, but just couldn’t find the back of the net. It took until Nov. 8 for him to light the lamp, and it was the only goal he scored in the first half of the year.
“I thought he’d be a better goal scorer,” Pearson said Dec. 11. “He’s had some great chances, even this weekend he had some. Saturday, (he had) some great looks. He just can’t finish.”
When the Wolverines came back from the mid-season break, it appeared that Hayhurst’s old issues had come back with him. In the second game back — the GLI championship against Michigan Tech — he caught the post late, when Michigan needed a goal to tie things up and force overtime.
Then the Wolverines got back into conference play, and a switch flipped. After moving from center to the wing in late November, Hayhurst looked settled in his new role by the time Michigan went to Notre Dame in early January.
It was a move made by necessity — Hayhurst was injured in November and it wasn’t clear if he’d be able to play, so Pearson had him work as the extra skater instead of centering a regular line in practice — but it ended up being exactly what Hayhurst needed to find his footing.
“That’s been an awesome transition for me,” Hayhurst said Wednesday. “Wing wasn’t something that I was really used to to start the season. … I think jumping to a wing just gives you a little more space. You get to kind of observe the ice a little more instead of having a definite defensive-end responsibility where you need to pick a guy up and stay on him, so it definitely gives you a lot more option for creativity.”
Complicating the adjustment was that Hayhurst’s transition in roles at Michigan wasn’t just moving from center to winger — he went from go-to scorer to playing more of a depth role.
At RPI, Hayhurst carried the mantle of the leading scorer on a team that struggled to get wins. For the Wolverines, even when they were struggling for most of the year, the offense has come by committee, and Hayhurst has spent most of the year on the third line. Adjusting to a new role, in a new system, at a new school, took longer than anyone expected, but now it looks as though Hayhurst has fully acclimated.
“I don’t think, for me or for the coaching staff, things transitioned as fast as we would’ve liked,” Hayhurst said, “but I think now you can see that they’ve finally transitioned and I think it’s at a good point in the year where the whole team’s hot. We’re heading into playoffs, we’re kind of on a roll, so I think everything’s going really well.”
In his seventh game as a winger — after playing center for almost his entire career — Hayhurst found twine for his second goal in a Michigan sweater. Three games later, he added another. Two weeks after that, he scored a goal in each of the Wolverines’ wins over Wisconsin.
Both goals against the Badgers were highlight-reel tallies — and Saturday night’s goal was the eventual game-winner. The goal-scoring acumen Pearson saw when looking for a transfer back in the spring was finally coming to light.
“You see it,” Pearson said. “The goal he scored Friday, he just had patience. Most guys will just bang that puck right back into the pile, but he fakes, takes some time, takes a step. He’s got the net to shoot at. And then even on the goal on Saturday, it was all individualistic, but you can see the skill and the change of pace and the deception that he has.
“He knows how to put the puck in the net. I think he’s positioned to have a really good finish here.”