When Michael Pastujov took the ice on Jan. 8, he had a blue ‘A’ newly sewn onto the front of his jersey.
The senior forward has been a key contributor to the Michigan hockey team’s offense all season, and over the break, he was rewarded by being named an alternate captain.
While the leadership core is typically voted on by the team long before the start of the season, the current group — captains Strauss Mann and Jack Becker and alternates Jimmy Lambert and Nick Blankenburg — approached Michigan coach Mel Pearson about making a mid-season addition.
Pearson said he’s made mid-year additions before, but it’s an uncommon occurrence. In this case, though, it just made sense. Mann and Lambert are both juniors, so Pastujov adds another senior to the group. Lambert, meanwhile, has been out with a lower-body injury since the beginning of the second half of the season, leaving just three members of the leadership core on the bench.
While the other four captains live together, Pastujov typically spends time with another subset of the team, another reason Pearson thought the addition made sense.
Most importantly, Pastujov leads by example.
“Pastujov competed every day,” assistant coach Kris Mayotte said. “He brought energy to practice every day. … Then, once he established the example part of it, it allowed his voice to grow.”
Pastujov has made his presence known in front of the net, too. He currently leads the team in goals and shots with six and 39, respectively — statistics that are even more impressive when looking at his career as a whole.
Pastujov first found his footing as a sophomore, when he scored nine goals and 10 assists. He followed that with a surprisingly quiet junior campaign, where he was held to just three goals and six assists.
Now, though, he seems to be back on track.
“He’s grown up,” Pearson said. “He’s matured, and I think that’s why he’s having the year he is.”
Pearson thinks Pastujov’s success can be traced back to choices he made over the summer — choices to work harder and be someone his team could look up to.
During quarantine, Pastujov trained with his older brother Nick, who graduated from Michigan last spring and is currently playing with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Islanders. Nick couldn’t point to any specific monumental change Michael made, but thinks of it more as a shift in mindset. He started eating a little better and training a little harder.
“Over time, those little details get compounded,” Nick Pastujov said.
According to his teammates, Pastujov has been a loud voice in a generally quiet locker room, but he hasn’t always been the vocal leader his teammates have described. Growing up, Nick remembers Michael as a fairly quiet kid.
“If something needed to be said that wasn’t being said, or if he was put in a spot where he had to speak up, he would,” Nick Pastujov said. “But I think for the most part, he’s a very observing guy.”
Nick saw his brother grow up a lot during their three years in Ann Arbor together, possibly because of how much time Michael was spending with the older players. Though he was living in the dorms at the time, Michael spent a lot of time at his brother’s house his freshman year, getting more exposure to that year’s leadership core.
Last year, Michigan was anchored by its senior class — all three of the Wolverines’ top scorers were seniors and, as a class, they contributed 37.8% of all offensive production. When they graduated, it was clear there would be a void to fill, especially with only four new seniors on the roster.
“I think it’s been important for those guys to step up,” Nick Pastujov said. “And I think you can see regardless of whether or not (Michael is) going to get a letter, he’s stepped up in a big way on and off the ice.”
Though Nick wishes he could be in the locker room to see the leader his younger brother has become, he’s still able to see how much progress Michael has made from his new spot in the stands.
And he isn’t alone. It’s been clear to anyone watching this season how vital Michael Pastujov is to Michigan’s operation.
Now, he has the ‘A’ to match.
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