Imagine you’ve got a job interview and you’re laying out your best clothes. But it’s the day before laundry day, and there’s nothing left in your wardrobe.
That’s the state of the No. 7 Michigan hockey team’s forward corps — right as it stares down the heart of Big Ten play. With sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich out with an injury for an unspecified time, the Wolverines will need to get creative with their top six if they want to rise in the conference standings.
“Every player has a specific skill set, and then as a coach you try to match those up,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Monday. “But then you’re also thinking about things that they don’t have. … They’re all kids, nobody’s perfect but you’re just trying to get guys with each other that they can gel and bring out what they’re great at for their line.”
But what Samoskevich offers simply can’t be found through the rest of the available skaters. His shot is among the best in college hockey, and it’s the reason he has 13 goals this season, one less than team-leading freshman forward Adam Fantilli.
So instead of replacing that unique skill set, the Wolverines are forced to experiment with different looks for its top six. Naurato hinted that he will probably keep the top line of sophomore Dylan Duke, Fantilli and freshman Gavin Brindley together. But how the second line shapes up isn’t clear.
One option is Philippe Lapointe. The junior forward played top six minutes with freshman forward Rutger McGroarty and Brindley against No. 10 Harvard earlier this season. In that limited opportunity, he looked competent in the role. He notched a goal and an assist in the series, excelling in the neutral zone with minimal mistakes. And on such an inexperienced roster, limiting mistakes makes a large impact.
Lapointe’s standout quality is his consistency, bringing smart situational awareness and skilled shot release to every line he plays on. Whether playing with scorers or checkers, he delivers a clean performance that the Wolverines can rely on.
Other options including sophomore forward Mark Estapa or senior forward Nick Granowicz. Estapa is a hyper-physical forward, while Granowicz makes few mistakes.
The problem is that Estapa has played center in recent weeks, and Granowicz is one of few others with experience there too. With Brindley moved to top line right wing, Estapa and Granowicz could be sorely needed at the faceoff dot. Granowicz did play left wing last weekend against Minnesota, but his overall experience at center still ranks high on the team.
But considering that neither typically plays center anyway, the Wolverines could counter the situation by embracing positional apathy and putting less experienced centers at the position. After all, they’ve even put the ever-versatile senior Jay Keranen — a defenseman who can play forward — at center this season. Lacking a variety of options, prioritizing other battles could help Michigan win the overall war.
The situation isn’t ideal, to say the least. Controlling faceoffs helps teams maintain possession, something Naurato’s system emphasizes. It seems unlikely that he would take Estapa or Granowicz off the faceoff dot if he has other options.
But he’s also the same coach that let freshman defenseman Seamus Casey play forward for an exhibition game. Naurato will find a solution — it just might not be an obvious one.
One solution to the top six vacancy is seemingly off the table, though. When asked if Jackson Hallum could fill that top six spot, Naurato said he probably wouldn’t. The freshman forward offers burning speed that allows him to chase pucks into the corners and outrace his opponents. However, he needs to improve other facets of his game before taking on a bigger role.
“There’s other things he would need to do to take the big step,” Naurato said. “Like he can create off the rush with his speed. He either takes it to the net or he’s getting better at pulling up. It’s just finding the o-zone offense, the forecheck, same with the power play.”
Seemingly, someone needs to take a big step to fill the void left by the injured Samoskevich. That’s doubly true considering the context of the season.
Sitting at sixth in the Big Ten, Michigan needs a surge in the next few series to elevate its ranking. With such a thin forward group, contending with that task will be even more challenging.
Of course, Samoskevich could possibly return this season, but there are no guarantees that happens. Naurato couldn’t offer much insight into a return timeline, noting that all he knows is that Samoskevich — and junior defenseman Jacob Truscott — are hurt.
The Wolverines are scraping the bottom of their dresser, having barely enough pieces to complete the upcoming six week interview of Big Ten play. How that look shakes out could determine whether it gets the job done.