On Monday, U.S. Hockey Online released it’s preseason poll, ranking the Wolverines No. 12, a few slots behind Big Ten competitors Penn State and Ohio State at Nos. 9 and 10.
Minnesota and Arizona State — the latter of which will be joining Big Ten competition for this season — fell in a few places lower at No. 14 and 15, respectively.
This ranking paints a very different picture from where Michigan was at this point last year. The Wolverines entered the 2019-20 season unranked, grabbing just 40 votes and trailing five of their conference competitors.
And, behind the rankings, Michigan is an entirely different team than it was last October.
The Wolverines have added a number of impressive freshmen to the roster, as we’ve said again and again and again. And a few more times. In case you’re new here, the freshman class consists of 10 players, many of whom played for elite junior teams and either have been or will be high NHL Draft picks.
As promising as that group is, having a young roster leaves more room for uncertainty than Michigan has had in previous years. The transition from junior to college hockey is notoriously difficult with the college game being faster and more physically demanding. But, if the Wolverines are going to be successful, they’ll need the younger players to produce from the first puck drop.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson thinks the team has “all the right ingredients for success,” but the question will be how quickly they can all get on the same page.
“I know we’re going to make some mistakes,” Pearson said. “There are going to be some nights where our freshmen are going to look like freshmen, but a lot of nights they’re going to look like they’re not.”
Even with all the new faces, Pearson thinks there were more question marks going into last season. Part of that belief is due to this team’s depth. When Pearson is watching practice, he notices more and more players standing out. As he starts putting lineups together in his head, it’s gotten harder to decide which seven players won’t dress for each game — a good problem to have with the first face-off two weeks away.
With junior goaltender Strauss Mann between the pipes and a couple strong returning defensemen, Pearson feels great about the defensive side of the game, but isn’t as confident about the team’s scoring ability.
This time last year, he felt just the opposite. Last season, the Wolverines returned all five of their top scorers from the 2018-19 season. It was assumed that offensive production wouldn’t be an issue, but, as the season got underway, they couldn’t get the puck in the net. In the first half of the season, Michigan went 7-2-10 and averaged just over two goals per game.
The coaches and team have been analyzing that rocky start, trying to prevent history from repeating itself. They’ve identified a couple areas for growth, both in creating scoring opportunities and maintaining a lead once they’ve got it. The players think they’ve addressed those issues in practice.
“It’s been a pretty big focus for us — just bearing down in practice.” sophomore defenseman Keaton Pehrson said. “… We’re getting a lot of opportunities on odd-man rushes in game scenarios so just trying to score every puck we can, and then just not stopping the puck. When we have a loose puck in the corner, just battle it until the end, just kind of finishing out the drills, making sure we’re playing until the whistle blows.”
But there are too many variables to know for sure if Michigan has solved last year’s offensive woes. With so many question marks, it won’t be clear whether Michigan warrants the No. 12 ranking until they have the chance to prove on Nov. 13.
“It should be called the way-too-early college hockey rankings,” Pearson said.
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