Nobody needs to sell Michigan hockey.
It’s a legendary brand — the Block ‘M’ donning jerseys and merchandise, the history of nine national championships and the banners that fill all sides of Yost Ice Arena’s rafters. As such, just about everyone wants to skate for the Wolverines.
But with that massive talent pool to draw from, things sometimes get tricky. Because as many star scorers and Hobey Baker hopefuls fill the line charts, they also need to furnish the roster with penalty kill specialists and bottom six checkers. But what happens when your roster doesn’t have those guys?
You get Rob Rassey — both his past and his present.
“I was more of an offensive player growing up,” Rassey told The Daily. “And going into the team that I went into at Northeastern, we struggled to score. And we were struggling to win games. So there was a lot of trying to find consistent ways to be impactful in the game and I just kind of naturally gravitated toward the penalty kill.”
After joining Michigan coach Brandon Naurato’s staff back in August, Rassey migrated back to the penalty kill in a new way: as its coach. With his background coaching special teams during a six-year stint at Harvard, he knows how to build an effective unit. Through a passion for analytics that grew from his love of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball, Rassey knows how to find unique insights into the game.
Equally important, he knows how to build continued penalty kill (PK) success through recruiting. While the Wolverines have managed to deliver an adequate PK this season by playing some of their best skaters on the kill, that isn’t a position they necessarily want to put themselves in when it comes to future seasons.
Although it develops a full range of abilities for talented skaters like freshman forward Adam Fantilli or sophomore forward Mackie Samoskevich, they can’t skate every second of a PK. While coaches want their best players on the ice as much as possible, they can’t always do that; players like freshmen forwards TJ Hughes and Jackson Hallum, for example, have prided themselves on the PK, skating in key situations for the Wolverines.
But none of them are players who make their living killing penalties. Rather, it’s an adaptation. Sitting at a 78.8% successful kill rate that ranks 41st in the country, there are intangible lessons that skaters simply have to learn to adopt. And by circumstance and age, those lessons aren’t fully grasped yet.
“We didn’t have a lot of guys back that killed penalties for us last year,” Rassey said. “So I think there’s a learning curve for some of the new things that we’re trying to implement. But there’s also a learning curve of some penalty kill intangibles that are involved in.”
Making the most of that roster comes down to incrementally teaching them the assets critical to being a penalty killer.
But through recruiting and development, Rassey can build a roster already equipped with those learning experiences. And if the pit stops in Rassey’s career are any indication, he’s more than capable of doing so — just ask his former bosses:
“Rob certainly added an analytics piece that we really didn’t have,” Harvard coach Ted Donato told The Daily. “… The other thing is, I think Rob really worked hard at his craft. He watched a lot of NHL video, used his connections in the hockey world to enhance his knowledge all the time.”
And he instilled those lessons in his team. While Harvard’s penalty kill wasn’t nation-leading during his tenure, it used analytical lessons to make its mark. Consider the 2016-17 squad, which scored 11 shorthanded goals to tie for the nation’s best total. He also applied research into when to pull goaltenders and where skaters found high opportunity shots on the ice.
Between those data-driven conclusions and coaching multiple red-hot power play units ranking among the nation’s top units, Rassey’s success with the Crimson shows what he can do when given time to shape a program.
That construction starts on the recruiting trail, somewhere Rassey’s experience recruiting New England hockey teams helps. But Rassey isn’t a New Englander. He hails from Shelby Township, Mich., and he’s both played, coached and scouted across the Midwest’s USHL.
“I think a good recruiter, his ears are always open,” Donato said. “Whether it’s a coach or player representative that’s calling on behalf of a kid, you can use your connections. And Rob, certainly because of his experience in the USHL, has a lot of connections in the USHL.”
Rassey’s open ears are already paying off. Just look at the recent commitment flip of forward Tanner Rowe — a top penalty killer for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers who Rassey coached last season toward the end of the season. Previously committed to UMass, Rowe is now set to bring those talents to the Wolverines.
“(Rassey) said that I’d be a good penalty killer, be a heavy center because I’m good at winning draws and a good 200-foot player,” Rowe told The Daily. “Coach Naurato said he thinks I can bring offense to the team too, so that’s always good to hear.”
And judging by the team Rassey helped build at Harvard — a roster still covered in his fingerprints — that vision seems likely to make an impact. Armed with all his special teams experience, all those tools can help him build his vision with the Wolverines.
“For me, I just always try and learn, and I always try to adapt and find new and better ways of doing things,” Rassey said. “I think being able to have your hand in as many different things as possible and be responsible for (them) is just really overall great for personal growth.”
So to answer the question of what can Rassey build when given the time and tools, look no further than the visitors’ bench on Friday night. Harvard’s roster is full of forwards that he recruited, and it’s still implementing the lessons that his analytics-based background brought.
While the Crimson might be in his past, they might also be a snapshot into Michigan’s future.