On a Tuesday afternoon, with over a week to go before the first puck drop of the year, Yost Ice Arena feels alive.
Not in a conventional sense, though. The bleachers stand vacant, devoid of the student-section buzz that will inevitably return to the rink in upcoming weeks. But off the ice, Mel Pearson and his players radiate an unmistakable energy.
Just days away from its first exhibition match against Western Ontario, the Michigan hockey team is anxious for its season to launch.
“Overall, the energy (has been) a lot higher,” said sophomore forward Jake Slaker. “Having a new coaching staff, everybody’s starting off at 0-0, so we’re all pretty excited to be on the ice and to try to make a name for ourselves.”
At their official team media day last week, the Wolverines spoke optimistically about their upcoming season after their 2016-17 season fell flat. They finished bearing a losing record for the first time since the 2012-13 year. Michigan struggled tremendously on the offensive front, lacking firepower and holding the third-worst Corsi-percentage in the country. As a result, the Wolverines failed to make the top 20 in the preseason rankings.
Moving forward from that point, Michigan has had to start putting in the work to convert its confidence into performance.
Luckily for the Wolverines, the past season and a fresh coaching staff are assets that can be used as motivation to defy expectations this year. Not to mention, Michigan has an abundance of potential leaders up and down its roster.
In addition to the Wolverines having a chip on their shoulder, Pearson has taken it upon himself to combat last season’s most pervasive problems. His objectives include revamping Michigan’s style of play. The Wolverines want to possess the puck, they want to be fast and they want to be aggressive.
Though confined to two hours per week on the ice leading up to the exhibition game, Pearson utilizes these short practice increments efficiently.
“We’re trying to play with more pace in practice so when we get in the game it will seem easier — not that it will be but mainly just the pace and attention to detail,” Pearson said. “They’ve been good. We’ve seen great improvement from week one when I thought they were — I don’t want to say lazy, but I’ll use the word relaxed a little bit. We’re just trying to jack up the intensity.”
With Pearson at the helm following Red Berenson’s 33-year tenure as head coach, a novel dynamic — where players are vying to make a positive impression on the new coach — is becoming the defining factor of the preseason.
The dynamic fosters a competitive atmosphere at practices, as every player gives his all in order to stake his claim for playing time. In turn, the players reap the benefits when their performance sharpens.
“Guys that had solidified their spots in the lineup last year are now back to fighting for their spots again,” said sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne. “There’s big question marks as to who’s going to play with who, who’s going to be on special teams’ time, stuff like that. It really forces guys to come to practice every day and fight for their position.”
Slaker — who saw action in all 35 games as a freshman last season and led Michigan’s offensive campaign with a team-high 21 points — echoes this mantra.
“I think I just need to elevate my game more,” Slaker said. “I think there’s higher expectations of me this year, being an upperclassman, so I’m excited about that. Overall, expectations for myself are just to do whatever I can to help the team whether that’s getting points, blocking shots, playing first line or fourth line or even just being positive in the locker room.”
Not only have returning players contested each other for positions, but they have been competing with freshman forward Josh Norris and freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes as well. The former was a first-round NHL draft pick, and the latter is a likely first-round draft pick in 2018.
“Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris are two high-end freshmen,” Pearson said. “They’re worth the price of admission, I’m telling you right now.”
The strength of the freshman class illustrates the depth of the Michigan roster this season. From a robust six-senior class, to four dominant sophomore forwards, to Hughes and Norris, the Wolverines have some big boxes checked even before their season commences.
The competitive atmosphere and intense energy that Pearson and his players alike have brought to Yost so far makes one thing clear: Michigan is keen to avenge its lackluster season. The ability to harness this energy during games will be key to whether it can succeed.
“Coach Mel is very enthusiastic and very upbeat,” said sophomore goaltender Jack LaFontaine. “And I think the guys are responding well to it, and I think we’re seeing that a lot on the ice right now. He’s very positive and good vibes are going around the dressing room.”