After the Michigan hockey team’s quest for a National Championship fell short in the Frozen Four, multiple offensive contributors departed for National Hockey League gigs.
Sophomore forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson, sophomore defenseman Owen Power and senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg signed professional contracts over the weekend. All told, 141 points departed the program and they won’t be easy to replace.
“You look at all the NHL draft picks and you look at all the guys who are gonna have successful NHL careers,” Blankenburg said after Thursday’s loss to Denver. “It means the world to me … just to be a Michigan guy and be able to be the captain of this team and be able to lead these guys.”
But that group of guys couldn’t stay together forever, and its breakup began soon after Thursday’s loss. While all four departures were expected, they constitute a significant loss for Michigan’s offense — the third-best in the country this past season.
No loss looms larger than Beniers. He was a top 10 Hobey Baker finalist as one of the best two-way centers in college hockey, and his leadership on the ice carried the Wolverines through many tough games.
The signing also takes another pillar from one of Michigan’s strongest units — its centermen. With Beniers gone, sophomore forward Thomas Bordeleau and junior forward Johnny Beecher expected to sign NHL deals and senior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Jimmy Lambert graduating, Michigan will lose its five primary centers from this season.
While centers like incoming freshmen Frank Nazar, Rutger McGroarty and Adam Fantilli will fill some of those absences, the Wolverines will lose irreplaceable experience down the middle.
Incoming recruits can shoulder some of the missing offensive load, but it’s unlikely that they can completely replicate what that center corps did this season. Even if Bordeleau or Beecher choose to stay, multiple seasoned centers that played instrumental roles in Michigan’s success will still leave the program.
The same applies to the wings. Johnson signed with the Columbus Blue Jackets the day after losing to Denver. He showed improvement in his sophomore year as a visionary playmaker who created high-danger looks on the power play. After proving his effectiveness on the international stage at the World Junior Championship and Olympics during the season, it’s likely that Johnson will make an impact as a top six scorer.
Replacing Johnson’s cerebral play is almost completely off the table. He consistently created offense from seemingly harmless opportunities, and that’s not a skillset that freshmen automatically come in with. Johnson’s experience over two seasons developed those read abilities, and the Wolverines can’t just replace them.
Defensively, Michigan has less to worry about. Even with Power headed to Buffalo and Blankenburg signed to Columbus, the rest of the defense can replace their shutdown abilities. Freshmen Luke Hughes and Ethan Edwards and sophomores Jacob Truscott and Steve Holtz are expected to return and that top four should be able to handle most opponents next season.
Still, losing those two defensemen takes away key contributors on the back end, especially Power. His 12 power play assists led the Wolverines and he contributed 32 points in total.
“He’s driven, he’s a game changer and he wants it,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said on Thursday. “His game from last year where he was to where he is now, this year he’s just grown exponentially. Buffalo is gonna get a real good hockey player.”
Those offensive losses could continue to pile up. The Wolverines are likely to lose more than those four skaters, as Beecher, Bordeleau and sophomore forward Brendan Brisson could sign their entry-level deals this offseason. If all three move on, Michigan would lose even more weapons from its potent offense.
While the full effect of those losses won’t be seen until next season, it will be difficult to replace so many ingredients to a deep postseason run. The Wolverines built their success from scoring all season, but they might need a new recipe with next season’s roster.