With five skaters from the No. 6 Michigan hockey team named to World Junior Championship rosters, fans buckled in for two weeks of Wolverines dominating the national stage.
Instead, they had to settle for three days.
The World Junior Championship fell victim to COVID-19 protocols as players from multiple teams tested positive, leading to the event’s cancellation. Although the two teams carrying Michigan skaters on its rosters — the United States and Canada — totaled just three games before the cancelation, the Wolverines nonetheless left their mark throughout the brief spectacle.
“It’s a huge honor,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “I think it’s a great experience … anytime you get a chance to represent your country, (and play with) the best players in that age group in the world.”
Leading Michigan’s World Juniors delegation was sophomore defenseman Owen Power, who finished the showcase tied for the third-most goals — all scored during a hat trick in Canada’s opening win versus the Czech Republic. Sophomore forward Kent Johnson scored Canada’s first goal in its final game of the tournament, and sophomore forward Matty Beniers assisted freshman forward Mackie Samoskevich on a bar down, laser beam goal for the United States.
Those developments carry significance as Michigan enters the back half of the season. Having scored only once in his last 11 games, Samoskevich is sure to see a boost in his confidence as he returns to the Wolverines’ lineup. While missing those skaters, Michigan won just one of its three contests during December. With the five skaters now back, their experience figures to aid the Wolverines in the long run.
With multiple skaters on Team USA, for example, the Michigan coaching staff could evaluate lineup pairings and personnel roles that the Americans used, which the Wolverines don’t typically experiment with in the heat of competition. National teams constructed rosters with unorthodox groupings for the Wolverines’ skaters, such as Beniers and Samoskevich playing on the same line.
Those varied responsibilities — however limited their duration — yielded promising results.
“It was good to watch that and see the chemistry,” Pearson said. “It gives us some ideas. We tried (Beniers and Samoskevich) together a little bit, but maybe that’s something we have to try again. So it’s nice to see them in different roles, different positions and what they can do.”
Despite World Juniors being cut short, Michigan skaters got plenty of time to practice with their respective national teams leading up to the first puck drop, deploying them in unfamiliar positions. That new environment only increases their versatility and adaptability upon their return to Michigan.
Power — who typically facilitates the power play from the point — found himself on his offhand wing at times for Canada’s man advantages. His loosened offensive reins unleashed an aggressive, attacking role. The same went for freshman defenseman Luke Hughes, who saw a wide assortment of assignments that leaned on his quick stride and confident stick during his stint with Team USA. His usage provided plenty of new experiences that can spur improvement as his promising freshman campaign continues.
As Michigan’s season wears on, it will face key conference foes for third and fourth meetings. With greater familiarity between teams, establishing new looks will be crucial to top the Big Ten standings. Having skaters who competed in altered roles on the world stage can prove to be a seismic advantage.
Participating in World Juniors also provided young, developing players the chance to absorb new perspectives from different coaches, a rare mid-season opportunity that can help keep things fresh. The skaters get a break from their ordinary practice habits, competing in new drills and unpacking new communication styles. Techniques they find effective can be imported to the Wolverines’ philosophy.
“Anytime you can learn from someone else, maybe different ideas that are going to help expand your game and make you a better player,” Pearson said. “I think it’s awesome.”
As Michigan’s full roster reunites for the first time in over a month, it will look to quickly reestablish rhythm and chemistry with a key matchup against Massachusetts looming.
And with many of its top skaters expanding their skills and knowledge at World Juniors, the Wolverines should hit the ground running.