Preseason expectations for Josh Norris were as lofty as for anyone on the Michigan hockey team.
A bit unfair for an 18-year old kid who had yet to play one minute of college hockey? Perhaps. But expectations tend to be heightened if you’re a first-round NHL Draft pick of the San Jose Sharks and an alumnus of the prestigious United States National Team Development Program, where Norris scored 61 points in 61 games last season for the U-18 team.
After one of the Wolverines’ first practices back in September, coach Mel Pearson did nothing to quell the hype surrounding Norris and Michigan’s other highly-touted newcomer, defenseman Quinn Hughes.
“Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris are two high-end freshmen,” Pearson said on Sept. 26. “They’re worth the price of admission…They’re dynamic players, they’re very good players and we’re lucky to have them here.”
Norris was never projected to be just another freshman. That much was clear when the Wolverines took on Western Ontario in their exhibition opener on Sept. 30. The Oxford, Mich. native centered the first line, flanked by sophomores Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker — Michigan’s most productive offensive players from last season.
Three weeks later, Norris scored two goals in a 4-1 win against Vermont to help put the game away.
But Norris hasn’t reached those same heights since. In his last nine games, he has recorded just three points and one lone goal — a tap-in finish with a man advantage during garbage time against Ohio State.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, veterans such as junior Cooper Marody and senior Tony Calderone have provided most of the scoring output, allowing Norris to make notable contributions in other areas, such as his skill in winning pucks — Norris is sixth in the Big Ten in faceoff percentage at .571.
“You can play him in any situation, put him on the floor for faceoffs in our own zone or play him on the power play,” Pearson said after Saturday’s 7-3 exhibition win against the USNTDP U-18 team. “He’s playing a lot of those minutes.”
Norris is yet to start piling on points at the level he did with the USNTDP last season, but he has still fully earned Pearson’s trust, thanks to his intelligence on the ice and his all-around game. While Norris may not possess defining traits such as Lockwood’s lightning speed or Calderone’s fierce shooting ability, he does exhibit a wide range of many of those skills.
These attributes have given the Wolverines a boost on both ends of the ice, even while many of Norris’ contributions aren’t immediately apparent.
“He’s got a good set of hands, he’s smart and he’s got a real good work ethic,” Pearson said. “He can play physical, and he’s a whole 200-foot player. Can play any way you want.”
To Pearson, the next step for Norris is simply to settle down into his role and adjust to the rough-and-tumble nature of college hockey. While Norris was able to win many individual battles at a lower level, that hasn’t been the case against older, bigger and stronger opponents.
“He’s got to start sharing the puck a little bit more,” Pearson said. “At times you want to hold on and beat guys one-on-one, (but) at this level it becomes difficult to do that and going forward it’s going to be more difficult.”
Through 14 games this year, Norris has registered just eight points. If one had envisioned this scenario before the season, it would have set off alarms for Michigan’s offense. Surprisingly, though, the Wolverines are tied for fifth in the country in goals per game mostly because of their productive upperclassmen.
While Michigan certainly wants Norris to start putting pucks in the net at some point this season, Pearson is more than content for now with what he has seen out of his prized freshman.
And as long as Norris maintains a strong work ethic and continues his current contributions, Pearson is confident that more goals will come in the future.
“I like the way Josh is playing,” Pearson said. “He’s doing a lot of the little things you need to do to win hockey games.”