It’s a lot like chainsaw art.
All season, Michigan’s offense has chopped up opposing defenses with puck movement from its back end. In broad strokes, the puck dashes across the perimeter until someone gets open. Then, a one-timer finds the back of the net, the fingerprints of the Wolverines’ top four all over the final product.
But those sawstrokes will have to come from different skaters soon, as core Wolverines will miss games for national team duties.
Sophomore defenseman Jacob Truscott and freshman defenseman Luke Hughes were named to the preliminary U.S. National Junior team Tuesday afternoon. With the announcement of Canada’s preliminary roster expected Wednesday, the third-ranked Wolverines can likely add sophomore defenseman Owen Power to that list of missing defensive stars.
Essentially, Michigan’s defense will press on — at least temporarily — without its most prominent teeth.
The problem occurs every season, but this year stands out because Power, Hughes and Truscott will miss at least two games — the Great Lakes Invitational on Dec. 29 and 30. That poses a huge problem for the Wolverines, but it’s one they’ve already started preparing for.
Michigan showed that against Niagara, as senior defenseman Jack Summers and junior defenseman Keaton Pehrson got into the lineup Saturday night. That move seemed surprising at first because of solid two-way performances from freshman defenseman Ethan Edwards and sophomore defenseman Steve Holtz the night before. However, the move helped clarify who will fill the national team players’ roster spots.
“We just wanted to keep guys involved and in the lineup,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said after Saturday’s game. “… We’ve got to make sure that we just keep everybody involved and get them into some games and just see where they’re at.”
But putting that puzzle together could elude Michigan. Last season, playing without Beniers, now-sophomore Brendan Brisson and then-sophomore defenseman Cam York, the Wolverines lost two games to then-No. 4 Minnesota. Much of their struggles came from penalty trouble as less-used players entered the lineup.
That difficult performance came with only three — albeit integral — players missing from the roster. Bordeleau, arguably Michigan’s best player last season, laced up his skates in both games. Replacing almost half the lineup will prove an even bigger challenge.
Preparation also included ice time for sophomore forward Philippe Lapointe, a speedy backchecker who entered only his second game of the season on Friday. Lapointe played a similar role last season when players left for World Junior responsibilities, showing prowess at the faceoff dot but struggling defensively.
Losing players to national team duties came as no surprise for Michigan because of how talented its roster is. Michigan’s depth gives it the pieces to put its replacement plans into action.
“We got a lot of depth on our team,” Hughes said. “If we do the same things and just work hard and grind, I think we’re gonna be in a good spot.”
Those depth players can munch minutes while the Wolverines’ top dogs are gone, but Michigan can’t just replace the top defense pair in the country — Truscott and Hughes — who are a stellar plus-30 on the season. Both display elite puck-handling skills and make team-oriented decisions with the puck, part of why they made the preliminary U.S. Junior roster.
Still, the Wolverines saw good minutes from Summers, Edwards and Holtz, ice time that put Michigan one step closer to figuring out its roster sans stars. All three showed poise playing up in the offensive zone and avoided making the aggravating turnovers that often-scratched players tend to give up. For a team that’s struggled defending the rush all season, that puck security matters.
Pearson knows he can’t just swap in players for the missing stars and expect the results, and it’s something Michigan has planned for all season. He’s dealt with that kind of roster hole before.
The chainsaw of Michigan’s high-scoring top four will go without some of its sharpest teeth. The Wolverines have a chance to prove they can carve masterpieces without them.