When Alex Kile came to Michigan, he wasn’t expected to be a leader. He entered his freshman year side by side with JT Compher and Tyler Motte, two forwards who donned ‘C’ and ‘A’ patches on their jerseys in their tenures and now find themselves in NHL training camps.

His sophomore year, all of the buzz surrounded Dylan Larkin, a player who is now an All-Star forward for the Detroit Red Wings. And as a junior, his fellow recruiting class members — Compher and Motte — were joined by Kyle Connor to form the most lethal offensive line in the country. Connor won the Big Ten Player of the Year award, and, you guessed it, has now moved on to the NHL.

After Sunday’s exhibition win against Windsor, the Wolverines announced that they will be without even more talent from last season. Sophomore forward Cooper Marody, the team’s second leading returning scorer, has been deemed ineligible for the first semester of the season.

But Kile remains. And on a team that is laden with freshmen and questions of where production will come from, he has been thrust into the spotlight — named co-captain along with senior defenseman Nolan De Jong. Now is his time to take center stage.

Kile has taken on the role with grace. The senior is clearly aware that he is being watched more closely now — and not just by outsiders waiting to see what the Wolverines can do this year, but also by his own teammates.

“The biggest thing for me is just leading by example on the ice and off the ice,” Kile said last Thursday. “I feel like these guys all look up to me, and they look up to all of the seniors. So you just have to bring it every single day — work hard in the weight room and work hard on the ice.”

And it’s not as if the senior isn’t physically equipped to take over his heightened role. Last season was the best of Kile’s career at Michigan. He appeared in 38 games for the Wolverines and notched 34 points in total, good enough for fifth-best on the team.

But Kile certainly has a different cast around him now. The senior is flanked on the first line by freshmen Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker, a line that head coach Red Berenson knows is vital to the success of the team. 

“I think it’s really important who he plays with because he has to be a factor in this year’s team — a big factor.” Berenson said after the team’s exhibition win against Windsor Sunday. “And we thought the best fit right now was for him to play with these two freshmen: Slaker and Lockwood. They’re coming in with a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence, and they seem to have fit with Alex Kile.”

Even if Lockwood and Slaker are able to surpass expectations and make strong contributions, they will surely need some time to adjust to the speed of college hockey. And Kile will be expected to aid in their transition and anchor the first line while the freshmen get comfortable. 

The line had a fairly good debut against the Lancers. Though they weren’t involved in either of the team’s goals, Kile, Lockwood and Slaker combined for 12 of Michigan’s 36 shots on goal.

But that performance won’t be enough to quell the concerns of where the Wolverines will replace last season’s production. For without former classmates Compher and Motte, without former leading scorers Larkin and Connor, and now without Marody, Alex Kile is the face of the program.

And if he is unable to fill those shoes, the Wolverines will be once again searching for somebody else to produce — something the team likely can’t afford to do.  

Persak can be reached at mdpers@umich.edu and on Twitter @MikeDPersak.

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