From Jacob Trouba to Tyler Motte to Zach Werenski, there has been no shortage of talented players that Michigan coach Red Berenson has recruited from the USA Hockey National Team Development Program. It’s a relationship that has been beneficial for both sides, especially recently. This year’s Wolverine squad features eight former NTDP players, including five of the freshmen — forwards Will Lockwood, James Sanchez and Nick Pastujov and defensemen Luke Martin and Griffin Luce all played for the NTDP’s Under-18 team last year.
The two teams will meet Friday night at Yost Ice Arena in an exhibition game, a yearly tradition that has taken place for more than a decade.
The NTDP moved to Ann Arbor in 1996, signing a lease to practice at the nearby Ice Cube. Players attend local high schools and live with billet families if they weren’t from the area.
But according to Berenson, the proximity between both programs hasn’t provided much of a recruiting advantage over the years. He has recruited players he would’ve gone after even if they weren’t part of the NTDP — recruits who were either from Michigan or the surrounding area, or some who already had ties to the program (like Sanchez, who grew up rooting for the team). Most of the time, Michigan has already received verbal commitments from NTDP players before they even join the program.
“We’ve recruited kids from that program, but when you look at the rules that we’re under as coaches, we can’t see them play any more than the coaches from Wisconsin or North Dakota can,” Berenson said. “We can only go to so many games each year. You’d think we have a big advantage, but we found out early in the process we don’t.
“For a lot of kids, it’s changed their lives, (and) it’s given them a great opportunity. We’re just one of the many schools that benefit from the program.”
Added Pastujov: “I don’t think it made a huge difference (in my commitment), but I think it helped just being close. We got to go to a lot of the games (and) talk to the coaches.”
If anything, being so close to the NTDP allowed Michigan to continue building relationships with players already verbally committed. Recruits can take as many unofficial visits as they want, getting a taste of Ann Arbor at football or hockey games, while Wolverine coaches are able to keep in close contact.
This year’s NTDP under-18 team features four players in the 2017-18 class who have committed to Michigan: goaltender Dylan St. Cyr, defenseman Quinn Hughes and forwards Josh Norris and Michael Pastujov — the younger brother of Nick. Norris and Pastujov signed their letters of intent earlier this week, officially joining the program, while Michigan still waits upon signatures from St. Cyr and Hughes.
Berenson had high praise for the two early signees, who are both expected to be taken within the first few rounds of the 2017 NHL Draft.
“I like (Norris),” Berenson said. “He’s a good-sized centerman. Good skater, good worker, good two-way player. I think he’ll come in and be a solid player right from the get-go.
“Michael (Pastujov) is a little bit like Nick (Pastujov) in that he’s had some shoulder problems. Right now, he’s on the injured list, so we’re not going to see him tomorrow. But I think he’s going to bring skill to our team, and he’s a player that should be able to provide offense and become a real good Division I player.”
Added Nick Pastujov: “I really like (Michael’s) game. I think he’s definitely a smart player. He’s got a lot of skill, and he can definitely finish. So I think he brings a lot to the table, and I’m excited to play with him next year.”
Michigan’s continued recruiting presence within the NTDP signals that the ties between each program remain strong, even if the NTDP moved from Ann Arbor to Plymouth about a year ago.
The NTDP has beaten Michigan in the past, and even though the Wolverines win most years, the competition is still intense between both sides — perhaps an effect of younger players trying to prove themselves to future teammates or opponents.
“The atmosphere (last year) was definitely cool,” Pastujov said. “We stuck with (Michigan) for two solid periods. The crowd was really into it … It was a really physical and fast game. Third period (Michigan) kinda pulled away, and they ended up winning, but it was still a really fun game the whole time.
“It’s the first time you run into your future (teammates), and it’s kinda like a first impression — your first impression of them and their first impression of you on the ice as a player. It’s your first chance to prove a little bit about yourself.”
After splitting a series against No. 5 Boston University last weekend, Michigan has just three games left — including the exhibition — before the start of Big Ten play. And while tomorrow’s result won’t count in the record books, Berenson is hoping to see marked improvement from his squad.
“We have to play this game like we’re playing a Division I program,” Berenson said. “We have to take a step from (playing) Boston University and put it on the ice against this team. And the (NTDP) will do the same thing. They’ve played a lot of good programs. We’re just another game on their schedule, except we’re more of a home game. I think it’s a little special for them. All the billet families will come to the game and cheer for them, so there’ll be a mixed crowd here.
“I think we’ve got to capitalize on our chances when we get chances in the offensive zone, and I think we’ve got to be stingier defensively. It’s not just our goalies, but it’s our defensemen and our forward in our zone. We can’t give up unearned goals because of poor defensive zone play. We’ve got to be better without the puck.”