There’s only one word to sum up Michigan’s 2018-19 season — disappointing. Two seasons ago, Michigan was moments from playing for the national championship. But last year, the team struggled in every aspect. This offseason, the roster suffered some shake ups when Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris left for the NHL.
This season for the Wolverines is about bouncing back. It’s about proving that two years ago wasn’t a fluke occurrence. The team is talented and wants to prove it’s a force to be reckoned with. The return of 19 players from last year’s roster is evidence of that hunger. In addition to the veterans, there’s a five man freshman class, including two first round draft picks, Cam York and Johnny Beecher.
But recruits and returnees aside, Michigan’s roster has questions that need addressing and lines need to rise to the occasion. The Daily provides an in depth look at where the answers to the questions lie, what can be expected of the veteran players and who could breakout.
Last season, the Wolverines found themselves plagued by a serious goaltending problem.
It wasn’t an issue stemming from lack of talent. Sophomore Strauss Mann and senior Hayden Lavigne have both shown their ability in between the pipes. In his sophomore season, Lavigne proved his talent by leading his team on a Frozen Four run. During his 2017-18 junior hockey season, Mann led his team to the USHL Clark Cup.
But last year, none of those accomplishments mattered. The Wolverines went through the entire season without a dependable goaltender. The role flip flopped between Mann and Lavigne. Often, one would start the weekend series Friday, only to be swapped out for the other on Saturday. Lavigne finished the season with a .884 save percentage. Mann barely edged out Lavigne with .895. Both stressed improving their mental game during this offseason.
However, this season, the absence of a starting netminder will be no longer.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson wants a definite starter though he hasn’t committed to one yet. And right now, the scale tilts in favor of Mann. In last week’s exhibition against Windsor, he played 30 minutes, faced five shots and turned them all away. The other half of the game belonged to Lavigne. Facing 12 shots, he turned away 10.
When Michigan’s season ended after a first round elimination in the Big Ten Tournament, Pearson was prepared for the inevitable. Quinn Hughes was leaving for the Vancouver Canucks. And when he left, there’d be a gap in blueline. But the hole will likely be unnoticeable courtesy of one man — Cam York. Along with York, Michigan welcomes another promising freshman, Keaton Pehrson. With a mixture of newcomers and returnees, the Wolverines defense looks to find success.
Luke Martin-Cam York
The top defensive pair combines York’s two-way play with veteran senior Luke Martin’s sharp game vision. This duo is set to replace last season’s top pairing Cecconi-Hughes. Hughes and Cecconi largely contributed to Michigan’s offense, together tallying 45 assists. But Martin and York shouldn’t have any issues. While Martin isn’t the most offensive-minded defender, he adds physicality and experience. Last year, when Martin suffered a season-ending broken wrist, his absence was felt. Healthy, and ready for his final season, the Wolverine defense is better off with his presence.
Last season with the United States National Team Development Program, York set the record for most points in a season with 65. And in his debut, he gave Wolverine fans a taste of the offense he brings from the blue line. Scoring two goals and finishing the night with a plus-2 rating, York was nothing short of impressive. His offensive gameplay is rooted in passing rather than skating the puck through center ice like Hughes would. With Martin’s defensive-focused style complimenting York’s offensive moments, Michigan’s top defensive pair will likely make a big impact.
Griffin Luce-Keaton Pehrson
The second defensive pair mirrors a similar set up to the top line — a veteran paired with a freshman. Senior Griffin Luce is a very defensive focused defensemen. That’s why he pairs so well with a rookie player like Pehrson. Luce’s experience will allow Pehrson to make offensive zone rushes and trust Luce is covering him. Beyond his size and strength, Luce proves to be one of the team’s best backcheckers.
Jack Summers-Nick Blankenburg
Michigan’s third defensive pairing features returning sophomores Jack Summers and Nick Blankenburg. Last season, Blankenburg finished with a plus-11 rating — the highest on the team. With the level of physicality he plays with, it’s hard to believe he’s the smallest on the team. His quickness will compliments that of his linemate’s. The offensive outbursts stem from the time Blankeburg spent as a forward in juniors. Summers had a strong finish to last season, earning three assists on Feb. 1 last season. His physicality could be increased, but overall, he provides a stable defensive partner for Blankenburg.
The Undressed: Shane Switzer-Jake Gingell
Shane Switzer, a graduate transfer from BU, adds another veteran presence to the blueline. The other remaining defenseman is sophomore Gingell. In the Wolverines’ exhibition game, Gingell played minutes for the first time in his college career. And Pearson’s been impressed with the work Gingell put in during the offseason. He’s leaner. He’s quicker. He’s made strides with his skating. Should a spot open in one of the defensive pairings, it’ll be an interesting conversation to see which seventh man takes the role.
Having senior captain Will Lockwood back, after declining to go pro and join the Canucks, is an automatic boost for the Wolverine’s offense. Lockwood led the team with 16 goals and finished second in points with 31. In addition, the roster returns two other seniors with Jake Slaker and Nick Pastujov. The loss of Norris is the most notable gap here, playing center on the top line with Slaker and Lockwood last season. Despite a .500 record, Michigan offense didn’t sputter. It scored 110 goals, only four fewer than allowed.
Jake Slaker-Jacob Hayhurst-Will Lockwood
Slaker and Lockwood return for one last go. The pair have a lot of chemistry, seeing as they’ve played together on the same line since their sophomore seasons. When Lockwood and Slaker are on the ice, Michigan is instantly a better team. Lockwood’s biggest asset is his speed. With Slaker, it’s his shot that makes him a standout. Adding Jacob Hayhurst, a graduate transfer from RPI, to the mix may just be the missing piece the pair’s been searching for to make the jump from great to elite.
Eric Ciccolini-Nick Pastujov-Jimmy Lambert
This line holds so much potential. A lot of it relies on sophomore Jimmy Lambert and freshman Eric Ciccolini rising to the occasion. Through three seasons, Pastujov has time and time again showed his worth. He’s a great puck distributor, a talented skater. Among the top five point getters on the team. Ciccolini, on the other hand, is a bit of a question mark. He missed the exhibition due to an upper body injury. But Pearson likes his elusiveness, speed and hockey IQ. For Lambert, his freshman season was filled with highs and lows. His first goal didn’t come until the second half of the season on Jan. 12. Once it came though, his play really picked up. He went on to lead all freshmen in points with four goals and nine assists. If he can keep the momentum from last season building, this could be his breakout year.
Michael Pastujov-Johnny Beecher-Jack Becker
The third line mixes two veteran players with Beecher, another player from the USNTDP. He was drafted 30th overall by the Boston Bruins in this year’s draft. On this line, what one skater lacks, another provides. Pastujov is a skilled puck handler who packs a powerful shot. Becker adds size and physicality, but lacks quickness. He’s the player willing to stand in front of the net for redirects and tip ins. With Beecher, the sky’s his limit. He’s got size, strength, speed and a shot.
Dakota Raabe-Garrett Van Wyhe-Nolan Moyle
This is the Wolverines’ only complete returning line from last season. Each player brings something unique. Raabe hustles, relentlessly following the puck as it zooms around the ice. Van Wyhe is arguably the fastest player on the roster. Moyle serves as a big body to screen the goalie. Like Becker, he hangs around the crease hunting for rebounds. Pearson has expressed how well he thinks this line works. He’s even gone as far as to say he’d match them up against any line in the NCAA.
The Wolverines have all the pieces needed to assemble a team that can go deep in the postseason. Their biggest challenge is finding a consistent goaltender. If wild card players like Ciccolini and Hayhurst find a rhythm with their lines, the goals will come. When, and if, these pieces click, Michigan’s senior group can take control and lead the team far.