If you’re reading this, you’ve probably already heard about the freshmen.
Beside the pandemic, the Michigan hockey team’s top-ranked, 10-man freshman class has been the biggest story entering the Big Ten-only season. In Mel Pearson’s fourth year as head coach, he’ll have one of the most talented teams in the conference at his disposal as he works to replicate the Frozen Four run he helped orchestrate in 2018.
With expectations as high as ever despite the uncertainty of COVID-19, The Daily breaks down each position group to see where the Wolverines’ greatest strengths lie for the 2020-21 season.
In a world of uncertainty, the Wolverines can rest easier knowing they have junior Strauss Mann in goal. After a breakout sophomore season, he won Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and was a finalist for Big Ten Player of the Year and the Mark Richter Award, given to college hockey’s most outstanding goaltender. His six shutouts last season tied a Michigan single-season record.
With weekday games cutting valuable rest days from the COVID-abbreviated season, Michigan will likely need a second reliable candidate between the pipes, and freshman Erik Portillo seems like the best option. The 6-foot-6 Swedish goalie led the USHL with a 2.11 GAA and was selected 67th overall in the 2019 NHL Draft. The team’s third goalie, junior Jack Leavy, did not see game action in his freshman or sophomore campaigns.
Bottom line, Strauss Mann will start most games, and he’ll be pretty good at it. Without a non-conference season to get back into game shape, having a strong, experienced player in net should help make up for any defensive hiccups early in Big Ten play.
The big story on defense this year is freshman Owen Power. After a couple weeks of drama surrounding his status with Team Canada at World Juniors, the 6-foot-6 blueliner is set to suit up for the Wolverines on Saturday. His combination of size and speed has drawn comparisons to Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman and earned him top-five NHL Draft projections. He’ll be a key cog in a defense that will likely be more offensively focused than in previous years.
Sophomore Cam York will also be central to that effort. He was one of the Big Ten’s best offensive defensemen last season, notching 16 points that he’ll hope to build off of this year. Junior Nick Blankenburg — one of the team’s more physical players despite his 5-foot-9 frame — added another 16 points from the blue line in the 2019-20 campaign. According to Pearson, York and Blankenburg will lead Michigan’s two power-play units.
Freshman Jacob Truscott brings a more purely defensive skill-set to the Wolverines. The fifth-round NHL Draft pick has both the skating ability and awareness to fill gaps and be disruptive in the defensive zone. And, although his name might get lost among all the young talent, junior Jack Summers was one of Michigan’s most reliable defensive players last season, when he played in all 36 games and blocked 49 shots.
Keaton Pehrson is the last remaining defender with significant in-game experience, so expect him to fill out the team’s third pairing. He’ll compete for the spot with freshman Steve Holtz, junior Jake Gingell and sophomore Jay Keranen.
The Wolverines’ biggest losses from last season come at forward. Each of last year’s top three scorers — Jake Slaker, Will Lockwood and Nick Pastujov — have graduated, leaving major holes for the Michigan offense to plug.
Luckily for the Wolverines, there’s plenty of talent coming in to fill those holes. Kent Johnson brings great stickhandling and offensive IQ — skills that enabled him to lead the BCHL with 101 points in 52 games last year. He projects as a high first-round pick in the 2021 NHL Draft, alongside fellow freshman Matty Beniers.
Beniers stands out in his ability to win tough puck battles, and Michigan coach Mel Pearson has indicated that he’ll spend some time at center this year. Last season with the U.S. National Team Development Program, he finished second on the team with 41 points.
The only player to outscore him was Thomas Bordeleau, another probable center for Michigan. Though a bit undersized at 5-foot-9, Bordeleau has great vision and can move quickly on his skates. He was drafted 38th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, nine picks below Brendan Brisson, who brings a strong shot and should be a major threat on one-timers this season. Philippe Lapointe, who tallied 55 points as captain of the BCHL Trail Smoke Eaters, can also expect to be a contributor in his freshman campaign.
In addition to the freshmen, Michigan has a wealth of returning forwards to rely on. Johnny Beecher netted nine goals as a freshman last year and is set to take on a greater role at center in his sophomore campaign. According to Pearson, he has great chemistry with fellow sophomore Eric Ciccolini, who picked up 10 assists in 26 games last season.
Jimmy Lambert and Nick Granowicz are two other sophomores Pearson is excited about. Lambert has impressed on the power play in practice and should see more ice time on special teams, while Granowicz — who got off to a slow start his freshman year after a personal tragedy — could make an immediate impact after finding his rhythm late last season.
Junior Garrett Van Wyhe was reliable in the face-off circle last season and will likely reprise his role at center. Senior captain Jack Becker will likely be a vocal leader on the offense this year, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him or senior Luke Morgan paired up with one or two of the freshmen.
The Wolverines have other options, too. Senior Dakota Raabe and junior Nolan Moyle both saw significant minutes last season and will get plenty of ice time this year. And, though he’s not as highly touted as the other freshmen, Josh Groll put up a strong 42 points in 41 games last season with the USHL Lincoln Stars.
Despite losing some significant contributors to graduation, it’s tough to find spots where the Wolverines aren’t deep. Their biggest challenge will be in getting their freshman class ready to jump right into Big Ten play, because they can’t afford to make too many early-season mistakes. But even if they do, Strauss Mann should help cover for them. With all this talent, there’s no reason why this team can’t compete for the Big Ten and make a run at the Frozen Four.
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