Brian Burke had a problem.
It was halfway through the season, and one of the defensemen had left his Victory Honda major midget hockey team — based in Plymouth, Mich. — to go play junior hockey elsewhere. The Victory Honda coach needed a defenseman to fill that spot, and he needed one fast.
In 2016, Nick Blankenburg — then 18 years old and now a freshman at Michigan — was a forward on that team, but he had a hard time scoring. Burke decided to try Blankenburg at defense for the first time in his life.
After Blankenburg talked over his decision with his older brother Alex, a goaltender for the University of Nebraska-Omaha, he decided to dive into the new position.
“I was definitely hesitant for a little bit,” Blankenburg said. “I kind of sat — my brother, my older brother plays hockey too, so he helped me out a lot with the decision. I kind of talked to him and just kind of figured out what I wanted to do. I ended up making the decision to (play defense) and I don’t regret it at all.”
While he had never played any position other than forward at the time, Blankenburg saw defenseman as his path to junior hockey and, eventually, a spot on a Division I college roster.
And when it came time to learn his new skills, Burke said Blankenburg was ready to go right from the beginning.
“He was all in, right from the start,” Burke said in a phone interview. “Fully committed to just playing. He didn’t really hesitate or have any apprehension. He just jumped feet first, went after it and he did a real nice job.”
That commitment paid off.
Blankenburg’s success on defense with Victory Honda led to him getting a spot with the Okotoks Oilers of the Alberta Junior Hockey League — quite a change for a high-schooler who had spent his whole life playing for metro Detroit-based teams. Suddenly he was moving nearly 2,000 miles northwest to Okotoks, a city just south of Calgary.
“Coming up here, he didn’t know anyone,” said Oilers coach Tyler Deis in a phone interview. “It’s a new environment, coming to Canada and not knowing very many people. He’s a very sociable kid. He interacts really well. … It was a really easy transformation to integrate him into here just because of the social part of him.”
And it was while he was playing for the Oilers that Blankenburg caught the attention of Michigan coach Mel Pearson.
Daniel Farrell — who coached the Wolverines from 1973 to 1980 — had seen Blankenburg play at some point and passed the name along to Pearson, then the coach at Michigan Tech.
“When I got down (to Michigan), I kept following the kid and seeing his stats,” Pearson said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this kid’s pretty good, putting up a lot of numbers for a defenseman.’ That’s how we got on (Blankenburg).”
And in December 2017, just about a year after deciding to switch to defense, Blankenburg’s decision paid off when he committed to play for Pearson at Michigan. He had achieved his goal of earning a spot on a Division I roster.
Now, Blankenburg — at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds — is one of the Wolverines’ most important blueliners. He’s spent most of the season on the second defensive pairing, but when sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes missed four games because of the World Junior Championships, Blankenburg moved into Hughes’ spot on the top pairing with senior defenseman Joseph Cecconi.
“We had seven defensemen we really liked, we thought were playing well,” Pearson said. “You usually only like to play six, so when Quinn left, it was a little decision (about) who to play with (Cecconi).
“We put (Blankenburg) there because he’s a lot like Quinn in some of the skating, the puck handling and whatnot. So much like — well, in his mannerisms. Hopefully (Blankenburg) gets about half as good as (Hughes).”
Comparisons to Hughes — who was the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NHL Draft — are lofty for anyone. They’re especially lofty for a freshman with less than 100 games as a defenseman.
But it seems they may be apt.
As a less-experienced defenseman, Blankenburg is always looking to learn from his fellow blueliners.
“I think I can either be more stubborn about it and just kind of do my own thing or I can look up to those guys and I do look up to all those guys,” Blankenburg said. “I watch them, and I try to learn from them every single day.”
And the one he learns from the most is Hughes.
“I think everyone says this, but I think you just can learn a lot from Quinn with what he does with the puck and when he does have it, how he’s just so, so calm,” Blankenburg said. “The things he can do with the puck (are) just insane.
“You try to — not try to play like him, but you try to learn those little details that he has. I mean, it’s a special talent and a special gift. I try to work on those little things every single day, so I can be more effective with the puck to create, in the long run, more offense.”
You would think that because of his experience as a forward, Blankenburg would be lighting up the stat sheet offensively. But in 22 games played, he has only one goal and four assists for five total points.
Though having skills as a forward is helpful in the transition, learning the type of offense that a two-way defenseman is expected to contribute is more complicated than just transferring his previous experience.
“He’s got some savvy with the puck and he’s got quick feet,” Pearson said. “I thought he would maybe have a few more points than he does because of those offensive tendencies when he was a forward. Those are some of the things you see.”
Two years ago, when Burke decided that Blankenburg might be successful as a defenseman, one of the key parts of that decision was the strength of Blankenburg’s shot.
Against Notre Dame on Jan. 5 — one of the games Blankenburg played with Cecconi — he unleashed a cannon of a slapshot. It caught the post, but it showed signs that the skills he developed as a forward may be starting to come through in his relatively new role as a two-way defenseman.
Blankenburg originally made the switch to try to get on a Division I hockey team.
But as he continues to learn from Hughes and develop at Michigan, Blankenburg’s transition to defense may bring him to even greater heights.