After 36 years of coaching college hockey, Michigan coach Mel Pearson is learning something new.
For the 2018-19 season, the NCAA increased the number of skaters each team is allowed to have dressed for a game from 18 to 19. So, for the first time, Pearson has to balance an extra level of decision-making when he’s setting his lineup.
“I’ve gone 36 years in college hockey with a certain way, and now all of a sudden you have an extra body,” Pearson said. “I think it’s taken me and will take me a little time to learn how to really maximize that position and get the most out of them.”
Five games into the season, the No. 12 Michigan hockey team (3-2) has had different lineups almost every night. Other than keeping the same skaters for two games against Western Michigan, Pearson has made a different decision about his 19th skater for the other three games.
In the first game against Vermont, freshman forward Jack Randl saw his first collegiate action as the 13th forward. Against the Broncos, freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg earned his first two starts. And in last weekend’s series against St. Lawrence, two different forwards — freshman Jimmy Lambert and junior Adam Winborg — saw time as the extra man on the line chart.
Lambert was listed as the 19th man on Friday night, after playing on the second and third lines in the previous four games. Saturday, he was back in his spot as the right winger on a line with senior forward Brendan Warren and redshirt sophomore forward Luke Morgan and Winborg made his season debut.
The frequent changes are all part of Pearson’s plan to figure out the best way to use the extra skater and create competition amongst his players.
“We just want to give everyone an opportunity to see what we have,” Pearson said. “We just want to create some competition and some players have played well, so we give them the opportunity to get in the lineup.”
In Saturday’s game, Pearson scratched freshman forward Nolan Moyle, sophomore forward Dakota Raabe and junior defenseman Griffin Luce. And while Pearson wanted to reward players who deserve an opportunity, he has a hard time taking players out of the lineup.
“You have to reward guys who have played well in practice,” Pearson said. “It’s always hard taking somebody out. It’s easy to throw somebody in, but it’s always hard to take somebody out.
“The guys we took out didn’t necessarily have a bad game, like I thought (Moyle) had maybe his best game for us. We just want to continue to create some competition and get them to push each other and one of the best ways to do that is by changing the lineup.”
The addition of a 19th skater complicates the already-difficult process of setting a lineup. It gives an extra chance to play someone who has worked hard and is ready for an opportunity, but it also creates more ambiguity. Adding a forward without a line or a defenseman without a partner adds a layer of complexity to the decision of who to play at what times.
That difficulty showed itself Saturday night, as Winborg — dressed for the first time all season — was listed as the 13th forward. Pearson planned to play him on the penalty kill, but the Wolverines were penalized only one time in the game.
“We thought he was more of a specialty player that’s gonna kill penalties for us,” Pearson said. “Then we had one penalty again, and I didn’t get (Winborg) in the game, which I felt bad about.
“He’s earned a chance to play. He played last year for us in the Frozen Four, so he’s not a bad hockey player, we just gotta find a way to get him in and get him involved. That’s on me.”
The addition of the 19th skater offers Pearson more opportunities to get players like Winborg involved. It gives space on the bench for a penalty kill or power play specialist but figuring out who those players are takes time.
And after 36 years as a coach, Pearson is taking his time to figure out the best way to use his extra man.