With savvy veterans leading the way and skilled youngsters reunited, the No. 5 Michigan hockey team’s top two blue line pairings are confident and ready to hold down the defensive fort this season.
They aced their first test — albeit a cakewalk — in the Wolverines’ 8-1 exhibition win over Simon Fraser on Saturday. Graduate transfer Marshall Warren joined senior captain Jacob Truscott on the top line, while sophomore Seamus Casey paired up with his old teammate from the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP), sophomore transfer Tyler Duke.
With junior defenseman Ethan Edwards out for the first half of the season recovering from an offseason surgery, the success of these pairings as well as the depth of the defensive unit will likely be a determining factor in Michigan’s trajectory.
“Obviously missing a player like Ethan is a big loss to us,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said Tuesday. “(He’s) an assistant captain, a guy that’s played in two Frozen Fours, a lot of experience and a guy that I thought … was ready for a big year this year, so we miss him. But that’s why we’re excited about our depth.”
The fact that the Wolverines were able to craft a cohesive top four despite missing a key piece in Edwards speaks to their depth. And knowing Edwards’ status ahead of time as opposed to an unexpected mid-season loss allowed Naurato and company to implement and execute a strong defensive solution.
For their part, Truscott and Warren gelled immediately, creating chemistry through shared experiences. The two crossed paths during their time playing for the NTDP and are now embracing the opportunity to work together again.
“He’s a great leader, someone I can relate to on a lot of things,” Truscott said Tuesday. “Out on the ice he’s a shutdown defenseman, he moves the puck well, he’s very easy to play with. I think our games complement each other.”
Speaking of players being able to complement each other on the ice, Casey and Duke possess valuable in-game experience as partners, playing together during much of their two years with the NTDP. Michigan will rely on these two underclassmen to step up, not only to fill in for Edwards, but to replace the blazing production of now-NHL defenseman Luke Hughes and aggression of graduated Jay Keranen.
Casey has already showcased his scoring abilities, notching a goal and four assists against the Red Leafs. And for Duke’s part, the Wolverines are already familiar with his checking abilities. That was clear after he and his former Ohio State team physically dominated Michigan in the majority of their matchups last season.
Naurato expects his initial pairings to remain fairly consistent but remains open to adjusting them as the season progresses. And while the top lines do seem likely to stick, which players will fill out the bottom of the group is more uncertain. Even with that unknown, the Wolverines are confident in their depth pieces.
“I think our D-corps is really deep,” Truscott said. “Until (Edwards) gets back, I think we’ll be just fine. I think we got all the right guys. All eight of us are dialed in back there, and we all feed off each other. We’re already learning a lot in practice. I think it’s been good so far, and I’m really confident in our D-corps this year to do something special.”
On Saturday, the bottom line consisted of sophomore Luca Fantilli and senior Steven Holtz. The pair held their own, each recording an assist in the 8-1 blowout. Both carry over experience from big-game situations in their careers, so they have shown their ability to provide solid minutes rounding out the defensive corps.
If the Wolverines can protect the blue line during Edwards’ lengthy absence, adding him back into the fold in the second half of the season can serve as an additional boost to a hopefully stable defense.
But first they need to prove that their confidence in the unit is warranted.