Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson knew right away.
At Thompson Arena on Saturday night, he saw his players disheartened and discouraged. After battling with Dartmouth the whole game, his then-11th-ranked Wolverines let up a late goal to lose 3-2 to the Big Green. Michigan’s players looked to their coach for a message of motivation in a weekend when it lost both of its games.
“His message was that we did good things, but there’s still some things we have to get better at,” said senior defenseman Nolan de Jong. “It was a glimpse of what we can be, rather than the Vermont game where we pretty much struggled throughout the entire game — there wasn’t very much pushback from us.
“At least we kind of see the team we can be. See the energy, the legs, the enthusiasm that we can play with. It’s a good sign. We gotta keep improving every day.”
Through seven games, the Wolverines stand with a .500 record and many questions. Michigan’s lines continue to shift nearly every period, and its goaltending situation remains a mystery until just before puck drop. If the Wolverines had consistently outplayed their opponents, these aspects would be solidified. But until they do, Berenson believes it necessary to constantly tinker with his lineup and netminders.
As the third-youngest team in college hockey — with an average age of 20.9 — another coach might be easily frustrated having to teach his new system to a fresh set of players. But Berenson — in his 33rd year in Ann Arbor — is used to it.
“Even though we’ve had maybe not as many freshman, you look at the age of our team, it’s always been around 18,19 or 20,” Berenson said. “… We’re helping them develop and learn how to play at this level and they’re already ready. You’ve seen Lockwood and Slaker, they’ve already made an impact on this team. It’s not like they have to be reinvented. These kids know how to play hockey. Some of them are more ready than others. It’s our job as a group to help them all make the adjustment on where to fit in.”
In De Jong’s freshman year, the team struggled at times, including a four-game losing streak and a month when it won just four of nine games. As a first-year player, he looked to his older leaders (former Michigan defenseman Mac Bennett and former forward Derek DeBlois) for guidance.
“They were the guys who no matter what happened, whether we lost 10-1 or we won 10-1 they were always in here putting their work in,” De Jong said. “Doing extra things in the weight room or on the ice, they were always trying to get better, which is something I looked up to a lot.”
Now as a senior leader and captain, De Jong says he “absolutely” sees himself in that role.
“It’s not always going to be things that I say, but it’s going to be things that have to show,” De Jong said.
“That’s going to be if we have a conditioning skate at the end, even if I’m not the fastest guy out there, I’m gonna be the guy that’s gonna push it all the way to the goal line or get those extra few strides in. Whether I have to block a shot in practice or whatever to kinda show guys that I’m all in.”
The Wolverines have spent these first seven games constructing their own identity, one that already looks drastically different from last season’s, in which its prolific offense had an immediate impact in games. This year, though, Michigan is still in the midst of developing its own distinct character.
The growing pains that the Wolverines inevitably have faced are simply a part of the game, according to Berenson. He will keep readjusting and focusing in order to find groups that work and succeed together.
“This is our team now and it’s about creating an identity and creating the personality for our team,” De Jong said. “I think we have a lot of youth and that should bring a lot of excitement and I think at this point in the season, we can’t be using youth or a young team as an excuse.
“(It is) time to push forward. We’re going to have to be a hard team to play against. A fast team, stingy defensively and I think goaltending is going to be a big part of our team. I think we’re still working on the identity but we’re going to get there.
Added Berenson: “We haven’t really played the kind of hockey that I think our players think we can play, or the coaches think we can play. We gotta build whatever identity that is. Our next game is our best chance to take a step in that direction. You’re not gonna do it all in one game, or a week or a weekend, but I think if we start seeing the same results, better results in certain areas then we’ll start getting an identity that we can believe in as a group.”