Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson has a new problem: he has too many qualified defensemen.
Compared to last season, when Berenson had to lean heavily on his top pairings, this season there aren’t enough spots for each defenseman to dress every night.
“We’re still going to have a tough decision every game putting our lineup together on defense,” Berenson said. “We’ve got eight defensemen who can play, and we’re not going to dress eight — we’re either going to dress six or seven.”
Part of the crowded defense stems from the addition of two highly touted freshmen: Joesph Cecconi and Nicholas Boka. Both played well in the Wolverines’ exhibition game against the University of Toronto, and look capable of logging considerable minutes.
And with juniors Michael Downing and Cutler Martin — as well as sophomore Zach Werenski — already locks to play every night, there are just one or two spots left on defense.
Look for junior Kevin Lohan, junior Nolan De Jong and sophomore Sam Piazza to vie for that spot or spots.
De Jong has been particularly noticeable thus far. He notched the first goal of his career against Toronto, played the point on the power play and made good zone reads.
“He’s a junior now and a leader on the D-core,” Werenski said. “We don’t have any junior defensemen, so the juniors will have to step up. And he’s got to step up. Even though it was an exhibition, he scored and got that monkey off his back. I know he hasn’t scored here yet.”
Berenson, however, said De Jong still hasn’t reached his full potential. But Berenson is starting to notice glimpses of De Jong’s ability that he saw when he recruited him.
De Jong credits that to his strenous lifting and conditioning routine this summer for his improvement, which has also made him “more comfortable on the ice.”
If De Jong becomes the player Berenson believes he can be, he could be a top puck-moving defenseman who can run the point on the offensive attack.
And while he might not be there yet, he’s well on his way, giving Berenson a tougher decision every night.
GOALTENDING CONUNDRUM: The goaltending situation still remains an enigma.
In the exhibition game against Toronto, Berenson opted to start junior Zach Nagelvoort in the first period, senior Steve Racine in the second period and freshman Chad Catt in the third period.
“We’re just starting,” Berenson said. “This has been really good, and the coaches have only been on the ice for a week. We’re just getting a feel now with (goaltending coach Steve) Shields on the ice everyday. So we’ll see who plays Friday.”
LARKIN’S NHL SPLASH: Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year is already forming an impressive résumé for NHL Rookie of the Year.
Dylan Larkin, who left Michigan after one season, made the Detroit Red Wings’ opening-night roster and has wasted no time making a splash. The former Wolverine notched a goal and an assist in his first game.
He became the first Red Wings player to score in his NHL debut against the Toronto Maple leads since Gordie Howe — 69 years ago.
“I was surprised, but I wasn’t,” Werenski said. “It’s pretty cool for him to score his first goal at (Joe Louis Arena). I was on the glass actually, and he looked over at me a few times.”
Added Berenson: “It was a perfect storm for Dylan, playing in Detroit, playing on the first line, scoring a goal, and then they won.”
Larkin has a goal and two assists through two games played.
BRIEFLY: Junior defenseman Michael Downing is now all-systems-go after injuring his hand just under two weeks ago.