Four weeks ago, Cooper Marody, Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone were rolling.
Michigan’s first line of forwards teamed up for 15 points over the course of two games to lead the Wolverines to a split at then-No. 15 Penn State, proceeding to kick-start and set the tone for a much-improved offense.
“You have a little bit of everything,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after the Wolverines routed Ferris State 7-2 on Nov. 2. “You have Cooper who can slow things down and see the ice so well, make great plays and he can shoot it too. You got Dexter as a bigger guy who works hard, likes to play a physical game and he can get there and skate. And then you’ve got Tony Calderone who’s a pure goal scorer.”
But after the Wolverines stumbled to just three total goals as they were swept at home by No. 15 Ohio State last weekend, Pearson noticed that the top line had fallen off pace.
“They’ve been going pretty good,” he said after Saturday’s 5-1 defeat. “But you get to a point — you can’t break them up when they’re rolling, so this might be a good chance to experiment and see where we’re at.”
That’s why Michigan’s exhibition game against the United States National Team Development Program this Saturday comes at such an opportune moment.
In Monday’s practice, Calderone — who leads Michigan with 10 goals — was moved onto a line with freshman Josh Norris and junior Brendan Warren, while sophomore Jake Slaker will share the ice with sophomore Adam Winborg for the near future.
Pearson’s philosophy toward line combinations, however, remains the same. The reasons that Marody, Dancs and Calderone had been having so much success — balance, talent and natural chemistry — are areas that he hopes to recreate this week in practice with these changes.
“You try to look for different things on each line,” Pearson said. “You’d like to have some speed, you’d like to have some playmaking, you’d like to have some physical presence and some defensive awareness. You’re just trying to get a little bit of that on every line. You’d like every line to have a chance to score. You’d like every line to be able to play against any of the teams on their top line.”
Another reason for Michigan’s line changes this week is depth, as Pearson stated Saturday that Marody and Calderone had been “pulling the cart” on offense as of late. The Wolverines’ new setup would allow them to have Marody — who has registered 17 assists this season — Calderone or Slaker — who ranks second with seven goals and has the versatility to play both center and on the wing — on the ice most of the time, giving them three lines with substantial offensive punch.
Pearson also hopes that the changes spark other players as well. Norris, who has played alongside Slaker and sophomore Will Lockwood most of the season, has seen his production drop off after a strong start, recording just three points in his last nine games.
Placing Norris between two upperclassmen in Calderone and junior Brendan Warren could possibly help him ease into his role. Pearson explained that the impending selection of the United States’ roster for the World Junior Championship, which takes place next month, has weighed heavily on the highly-touted freshman forward, as well as others.
“Tony’s a great mentor and as a captain he’s got a great way about him,” Pearson said. “I think putting a young player like Josh Norris, who’s got a ton of pressure on him being a first rounder — the upcoming World Juniors team going to be announced in a week, so some of these guys have an immense amount of pressure on them during the season. So I think having a guy like Tony would be really good and Tony can just settle him down a little bit.”
While Norris and Calderone haven’t been skating together for long, Norris is excited for the opportunity to grow with Michigan’s captain at his side.
“He’s our leader and he’s been a great mentor for me this year too, even when I haven’t been playing with him,” Norris said. “Obviously, he’s a had a pretty good start so far and it’s been great for me to learn from him for the past couple days. First day there wasn’t really much going on, it was just compete stuff and things like that, but today we’ve gotten a little more into line combinations and things like that.
“He’s a pretty good goal scorer. Just pick up some things here and there and just communicate with him. He said that I shouldn’t be afraid to play with him just because he’s a senior.”
While Saturday may not count towards the Wolverines’ record, it’s still a competitive game against a legitimate opponent. And on the heels of a disappointing weekend sweep, the contest comes at the perfect time for Michigan to not only experiment and implement new looks, but gear back up for Big Ten play.