Less than a year ago, Nick Blankenburg was sitting on 42 points through 57 games — 16 goals and 26 assists as a defenseman of the Okotoks Oilers from the Alberta Junior Hockey League. The 19-year old went on to rack up six goals and six assists in 15 playoff games, which named him to the AJHL South All-Rookie Team.
As impressive as that is, the blueliner has seen crazier offensive outputs before. In high school, Blankenburg racked up 147 points through 83 games in a three-year span, one of which featured a state championship title in 2016. For Michigan, this bodes well — Blankenburg is just one of 10 freshmen, all of which come with a wide variety of accolades and talents between them.
Those 10 newcomers are in an adjustment mode, trying to figure out the transition between where they’ve been and where they are now. For some, the process started last year — in the following months after Blankenburg committed to the Wolverines in the midst of his AJHL season, he started to scope out the team’s playing style and watched them battle their way to a Frozen Four berth that was one goal away from a championship run.
“Coming in as a defenseman, I really looked more at the plays that Michigan’s (defensemen) were making and even other teams too,” Blankenburg said. “Kind of compare myself and see where I would fit in with the team at that next level.
“…Those guys are all fast players and they like moving the puck up the ice quick, and I know (sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes) likes playing that offensive style. I kind of try to play that offensive style as well, but I have to be reliable on defense as well. So, it’s kind of nice to see these older guys and what they’re doing and learn from them too.”
This season, Blankenburg is one of three additions to the blue line, including Jake Gingell — a two-season defensemen for the Youngstown Phantoms of the USHL with a plus-30 regular-season rating — and Jack Summers, who split the past two seasons between the USHL’s Tri-City Storm and the NAHL’s Springfield Jr. Blues.
Aside from the three defensemen, the Wolverines have gained five forwards and two goaltenders, including Strauss Mann from the USHL’s Fargo Force, the Clark Cup winners. And although most have extensive previous playing experience, the ten new additions have spent the last few weeks adjusting to the intensity of collegiate hockey.
“They were a little nervous the first week,” Pearson said on Tuesday afternoon. “You could sense that, you could see that, a little jumpy with the puck, not quite sure on some things, being kind — I call it being kind to the other players — but we want them to compete. We want them to come in here and force guys to play hard, force people to earn their position. There’s no entitlement here, we’ve told them that that we need them to come in and play and play a vital role on our team.
“I think every week you can see the confidence grow in them, and that nervousness has sort of subsided now and they’re just being themselves. They’re playing. They’re hockey players, and they’re good hockey players, and they have to understand that and just come out and do what they’re good at and try to get better every day.”
One of the biggest factors in getting the freshmen acclimated has been the returners. Now a three-person class after the departure of forward Cooper Marody to the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL last season, the senior trio of defensemen Joseph Cecconi, Nicholas Boka and forward Brendan Warren are heavily outnumbered by the newcomers. Along with them, the juniors and sophomores have had to step up to help the freshmen adjust.
Whether it’s pointing a freshman in the right direction to find a class building or working on systems in practice, the entire team has been a part of the adjustment period. One of those team members, sophomore forward Josh Norris, has tried to embody that as best possible.
“It’s my second year here and I’ve taken on more of a leadership role here,” Norris said. “I think, just for the freshmen, relating to them personally, there’s a lot of ups and downs your first year and you can get frustrated with things easily and take it the wrong way, and maybe be led down the wrong path. I know they’re gonna struggle at points, that’s just the nature of it, so just trying to help them with that and if they need anything I’m here for them.”
Added Blankenburg: “Off the ice, any question that I’ve had — whether it’s where the Chemistry building is or where anything is, they’ve been nice so far. Boka let me and another freshman this summer borrow his moped so that was a huge help for us. All the guys have been great, I sit next to Boka, he helps me out a lot with any questions I have. It’s just all the guys, not even just the seniors, everyone’s been helping us on and off the ice that they’ve been so helpful.”
Despite all of the stats and a quick acclimation period, Michigan is once again looking at a lopsided roster with a lot of fresh faces and few senior leaders. But, as they showed last season, the Wolverines like to blow expectations out of the water — and with all of the young talent, they just might be able to do that again.