Michigan hockey is sick and tired of hearing the prevailing storyline.
On the back of shaky defense and inconsistent goaltending, the Wolverines have missed the NCAA tournament for three consecutive years after previously appearing in 22 straight postseasons. The 2015-16 season kicks off with a strong core of returning players, a few new and improved pieces and lingering unknowns. Even after major departures like Dylan Larkin, who is now racking up points for the Red Wings, it is apparent that Michigan has shored up significant deficiencies.
The Michigan Daily breaks down the Wolverines’ 2015-2016 roster below:
A question mark that remains more or less unchanged from last season is the situation in net. Senior Steve Racine and junior Zach Nagelvoort split time last season, each experiencing major slumps. The Wolverines chose to address that concern over the offseason with conditioning conducted by a new goalie coach, former Michigan goaltender and NHL journeyman Steve Shields.
Nagelvoort has looked like the strongest candidate early in the preseason, but Berenson made it clear that no goalie has won the starting job yet. With decent size and good quickness, Nagelvoort has been a consistent performer throughout his career. The Michigan native posted a .920 save percentage through his first two seasons and was drafted by Edmonton in 2014.
Nagelvoort outshines his peers on Michigan’s roster when he plays at the top of the crease and challenges shots. Though a bit slower than Racine, his steady performances may win him the permanent starting job this season.
Racine, though slimmer than Nagelvoort, has great size and speed. 6-foot-3 and surprisingly quick jumping out of his butterfly, Racine is more likely to deliver dazzling saves, but at the cost of consistency. Racine mishandles the puck and kicks out long rebounds more frequently than Nagelvoort does.
Hailing from New York, Racine has produced three solid years at Michigan. In 58 games, he has a .905 save percentage and a 2.81 goals-against average.
Freshman Chad Catt is the new addition to the netminders this season, but he doesn’t look likely to see action any time soon. At 5-foot-10, Catt is quite a bit undersized, especially compared to the two goalies ahead of him. More importantly, he hasn’t quite settled into the speed of the college game, fumbling pucks that he should direct with much more ease. Catt will improve as the season continues, but for now he remains solidly in third on the depth chart.
Some of the most exciting additions have come at forward, where a trio of freshmen looks ready to step into large roles alongside elite returners. The Wolverines were saddled with the task of replacing Larkin this offseason — the Big Ten Freshman of the Year netted 15 goals and 32 assists in 2014 — but countered with another top talent in freshman Kyle Connor. A veteran top two lines should also help Michigan establish a strong tone early in games.
Justin Selman – Cristoval “Boo” Nieves – Kyle Connor
The top line is built to do one thing this season: score, score, score.
Selman and Nieves are both seniors playing alongside Connor, and the puck movement couldn’t be prettier. These three find each other along the sideboards, behind the net, or at the top of the circles with ease. Nieves called it a possession line, and it will be surprising whenever the top line turns the puck over this season.
Connor does have work to do, though. The 19-year-old freshman can look lost on the penalty kill and is a bit light. He’s listed, generously, at 175 pounds. Still, his handle on the puck is unbelievable and he has a special ability to create space even in tight situations. Connor could be a leading scorer on this team if everything clicks seamlessly, but it is more realistic to expect some jitters as he adjusts to the physicality of Division I hockey.
Selman had 11 goals last season, while Nieves notched 21 assists. Both will look to improve on those numbers on this high-octane line. Nieves will also have to carry the physicality. Tall with a good build, he should be up to the task, but he won’t get too much help from either wing.
Alex Kile – JT Compher – Tyler Motte
This is the crew that no opponent wants to line up against early in the first period.
Brash, physical playing styles contrast this line with the one centered by Nieves, though they still should score at a good clip. Each of the three juniors has tallied over 15 goals at Michigan, and captain JT Compher has 55 career points.
Berenson commented that this line needs to play “the right way” — that is, mistake-free and charging hard into the corners. The Wolverines’ tone and pace of play will come from this line and from the captain.
Compher, a second-round pick for the Buffalo Sabres, walks and talks with a chip on his shoulder. It shows in his play too — he is a hawk on opposing defenders and takes a lot of penalties by charging in with reckless abandon. It’s not so much undisciplined play as it is a desperate need to win every battle. That is something Michigan needs to bring to the ice in order to finally snap the streak of vacationing during the postseason.
Brendan Warren — Cooper Marody — Tony Calderone
There is a lot of youth on this line — the oldest players are sophomores — but also the most upside. Berenson commented that this line could be better than a third line as the season goes on.
That potential has a lot to do with the production that Brendan Warren has been able to generate early this season. The 18-year-old played for the U.S. National Talent Development Team in Ann Arbor and was drafted in the third round by the Phoenix Coyotes. Where he stands out from his linemates, and potentially even Connor, is in his ability to sniff out pucks around the net. Warren charges hard after rebounds, displaying great vision and strength on the puck uncommon for a freshman.
Cooper Marody, a freshman, is also an NHL draft pick, selected in the sixth round by Philadelphia. Marody is smaller than Warren, but it doesn’t appear to hamper his playing style. The Michigan native played in the USHL last year.
Sophomore Tony Calderone is also a Michigan-born talent. In 28 games last season, Calderone didn’t contribute too much, recording three goals and nine assists. Those totals should jump up this year, playing alongside Marody and Warren.
More than anything, this line might take the jump to second line because they are hungry. Always chasing after pucks in practice and digging for rebounds, these three seem to be likely picks for most improved halfway through the season. And if Brendan Warren isn’t on your dark horse list to be a top-three scorer this season, he should be.
The Max Shuart Line
The two remaining spots on this fourth line, anchored by junior center Max Shuart, are still up for grabs. It is possible that sophomore Dexter Dancs could take over a spot when he comes back from injury next week, but he has been ruled out for this weekend. That leaves sophomore Niko Porikos, junior Evan Allen and sophomore Alex Talcott to battle for wing spots in the opening weekend. Allen is the only one of the three to have played a regular-season game, but nothing is set in stone and Berenson will put the best performing player on the ice.
The improvements to Michigan’s roster start on defense, where perhaps the most notable offseason victory is the return of sophomore Zach Werenski. It was thought to be a forgone conclusion that Werenski would jump to the NHL after being drafted eighth overall by Columbus. The defensive unit as a whole is starting to gel early in the season. Quick to the puck and with more than a few players who like to throw the body around, this is certainly the biggest step Michigan has taken since the 2014-15 campaign.
Michael Downing – Zach Werenski
Werenski is far and away the most talented player on Michigan’s defensive unit, and the likely pairing with junior Michael Downing will be a rock-solid unit.
Sophomore Sam Piazza was a nice complement to Werenski while Downing was injured during the season-opening exhibition, but Downing is a lock for the first unit after starring last season. It is unclear how Berenson will organize these pairings going forward, but this duo seems likely to stay together.
Werenski and Downing should clear the puck fast, finding fellow Wolverines down ice and facilitating offense. The most complete unit by some distance, this pairing makes it easy for Werenski to move fluidly in the offensive zone as well. The smooth-skating 18-year-old has a slick shot and awareness with the puck. Getting him to contribute on offense as well as defense will be a key to the Wolverines’ success this season, and it’s working so far. In the exhibition opener, Werenski had two goals.
Nicholas Boka – Cutler Martin
Freshman Boka played for the NTDP team last year with Warren and came to Michigan in Division-I shape. The Michigan native is a burly 6-foot-1, 200 pounds and a much-needed addition to a defensive unit that struggled with fundamentals last season. Boka has also showed a penchant for offensive contribution, flying by defenders when he gets a full head of steam.
The pairing with sophomore Martin for the exhibition opener worked fairly well. Martin, who tallied 15 points on defense last year, looked comfortable playing alongside the very physical Boka. There were some miscues throughout the exhibition game and practice, but both these players are consistently good at clearing the zone and making appropriate decisions.
Joseph Cecconi – Nolan De Jong – Sam Piazza – Kevin Lohan
The third defensive pairing is still unknown. Berenson has mentioned several times that he likes freshman Joseph Cecconi, and none of the three returners battling for a spot have displayed consistency throughout their careers.
Nolan De Jong came into camp in extraordinary shape, earning praise from Berenson in the preseason after finishing first in the run through the Big House. Still, De Jong, Lohan and Piazza are all pieces of a defensive unit that was in shambles often last year. Berenson will use the competition to help build a competent third defensive pairing. Who steps into the role likely won’t be permanently decided until midseason.
On the eve of Michigan’s regular season opener, it’s hard to say whether 2015 will be more of the same, or if a very different team will emerge.
The return of Werenski and addition of Boka on defense helps to plug one of the biggest holes that sank last season’s ship. The top three lines seem poised to score in bunches, but there is a lack of size on the third and fourth lines that could cause problems as the season moves forward.
Whether the tweaks will be enough to push this team over the hump remains to be seen, but the intangibles are there. The goalie competition in practice is healthy, as is the balance of new and old faces. The blend of enthusiasm and hardened upperclassmen may prove to be the key to a Michigan team that can play any type of opponent.
Friday is just the first test of a long season, and what this Michigan team needs more than anything else is time to keep growing together — it’s October and they still have plenty of that.