Things look very different on the blueline for Michigan this year.
Last season, the Wolverines were led defensively by Quinn Hughes, Joseph Cecconi and Nicholas Boka. Hughes was drafted No. 7 overall by the Vancouver Canucks in June 2018 and spent the vast majority of last season playing on the top defensive pairing with Cecconi, who joined the Dallas Stars after the season ended. Boka, while not the headliner that Hughes and Cecconi were, held down the right side of the second pairing and headed for the AHL’s Iowa Wild after graduating.
With three of its staple defensemen off to play professional hockey, Michigan now has to figure out how to fill their roles.
“We’re going to lose a little bit of everything,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson on Tuesday. “Some offense I think for sure with Quinn and Cecconi. Nick didn’t add a lot of offense, but he did log some minutes on the power play. I think that’s an area that we have to make sure we find someone to come in.”
Senior defenseman and alternate captain Luke Martin put things a bit more simply.
“We’re just losing a lot of minutes.”
Martin and classmate Griffin Luce should fill some of the void left by Hughes, Boka and Cecconi, but two players can’t fill the hole left by three. And the Wolverines’ other returners are sophomores Nick Blankenburg, Jack Summers and Jake Gingell, all of whom needed to take serious steps in the offseason to be ready for their bigger roles.
Gingell, in particular, had work to do to be prepared for a bigger role this year. He dressed for only one game last season and didn’t see any time on the ice in that matchup. Last December, Pearson said the biggest area Gingell needed to improve upon was his skating, and Pearson likes what he’s seen thus far.
“He’s made leaps and strides from where he was last year at this point,” Pearson said. “He’s fit, his footwork’s gotten better, he’s leaner. To me, the biggest thing was the skating and his ability to move and his quickness. He’s gotten so much better there. … He just looks so much more confident and good for him. You can tell he’s worked hard.”
Blankenburg and Summers filled larger roles than Gingell did last year, but going from freshmen with minimal expectations to sophomores who are expected to carry some of the load is a big step.
“That’s really up to them to decide, you know, how good do they want to be?” Martin said. “I think those are three guys that bring it every day and are really passionate about the culture here and bettering this program. And they’re in a great position here to really see some big opportunities.”
To bolster its thin defensive core after three key departures, Michigan added three new defensemen — two freshmen and a graduate transfer — this offseason.
Freshman Cam York headlines the incoming blueliners, as would be expected for the No. 14 overall pick. But Pearson is nearly just as excited about freshman Keaton Pehrson and graduate transfer Shane Switzer, both of whom should fill some of that stay-at-home blueliner role that Boka left behind.
Despite his enthusiasm about the new defensive additions, Pearson made it clear that he doesn’t want to put undue pressure on the freshmen, especially early in the year. His expectation is for the returners to shoulder the load, and the newcomers are expected to fill in the gaps.
“They’re not coming in to replace (the returners),” Pearson said. “It’s our returning guys who have to take bigger roles, like Summers and Blankenburg. Gingell, he’s going to get an opportunity. Those guys have to take bigger roles now this year. The freshmen have to be a good supporting cast, they don’t have to lead.”
Two weeks and change into practice, both Pearson and Martin are pleased with the growth they’ve seen from the returning players and the contributions the newcomers are making.
But the loss of two seniors and a first-round pick isn’t an easy one to absorb, especially for a team with limited depth defensively. On any given night, Pearson will dress six or seven defensemen — and the Wolverines have just eight defensive options on the roster. That leaves little room to breathe if there’s an injury and means that Michigan will be relying on all of its defensemen to step up and fill their designated roles.