Coming off major disappointment and a losing record for the first time since 2012-13, the Michigan hockey team seeks to rebound in a huge way this season, with expectations of an immense turnaround for the storied program. The Wolverines return an impressive 21 players looking to step up in leadership roles on and off the ice, and welcome six highly-touted newcomers determined to make an immediate impact.
With a new head coach and fresh offensive and defensive systems, there will be trial and error as the season continues to unravel. But over the first two games, Michigan has already started to show signs of renewed and reenergized play, putting more shots on goal and tightening its defense.
The Daily takes an in-depth look at the Wolverine roster by position, deciphering which goaltender will be named starter, which veterans are primed to perform to potential and which freshmen could claim instant stardom.
Michigan coach Mel Pearson has stated he isn’t one to rely on a goaltender rotation throughout a season.
Nonetheless, until a definitive starter emerges, sophomores Jack LaFontaine and Hayden Lavigne will continue to mind the net by committee, competing for the eventual starting role. At the onset, Pearson said they will split playing the first eight games, after which he plans to confidently announce a go-to goalie for the remainder of the season.
Either LaFontaine or Lavigne — the two goalies on the team with considerable game experience — will have large skates to fill. They replace last year’s third head of the three-man goaltender rotation and team leader Zach Nagelvoort, who graduated last spring. Nagelvoort ended with a 33-26-6 career record, a .917 save percentage — the second highest in Michigan history — and a 2.56 goals against average, the sixth-lowest in program history.
Last season, both LaFontaine and Lavigne saw almost identical action, but posted vastly different records while playing intermittently between Nagelvoort. LaFontaine entered 11 games and went 1-7-1 with a 3.34 goals against average, while Lavigne finished 6-6-1 and allowed 2.92 goals per game in 13 games.
But the tides may have turned this year. With the starting job still up for grabs, LaFontaine may hold the early edge. He led the Wolverines against St. Lawrence, allowing only one goal on 24 shots in a 3-1 victory. The following night, Lavigne didn’t have the same fortune, giving up three goals on 19 shots in a 3-0 loss to Clarkson.
While a clear frontrunner for the starting position has yet to materialize, once Pearson’s eight-game benchmark elapses, he will determine which goalie has risen to the occasion and can supplant Nagelvoort this season.
After a season in which Michigan held the nation’s third-worst Corsi-percentage — which measures shot differentials and puck possession — there are many promising aspects at the forward position to improve those numbers.
The sophomore class returns four forwards, headlined by Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker. Last year’s team MVP, Lockwood will be at full health following an offseason shoulder surgery. Despite missing five games last season, the speedy skater racked up eight goals and 12 assists for 20 points, all second-highest marks on the team. Slaker was the backbone of the Michigan offense, playing in all 35 games as a freshman and posting a team-high 21 points.
While returning a solid corps of sophomores spread throughout line configurations, a major loss is Alex Kile. The former team captain provided point production during his four years, totaling 78 points on 39 goals and 39 assists.
Tony Calderone will try to replace Kile in the veteran role and was named team captain Thursday. The senior forward started this season strong, netting two goals and one assist in the 10-1 rout over Western Ontario in an exhibition game and one goal on seven shots in the first two regular season contests. After recording 20 and 18 points as a sophomore and junior, respectively, Calderone will add much-needed team leadership during his final crusade. Senior Dexter Dancs and junior Brendan Warren also figure to be offensive catalysts after disappointing drop offs last season compared to previous years.
The answer to more shots on goal is likely tied to a group of highly ranked first-year players. Five of the six are forwards, and the most anticipated arrival is freshman Josh Norris. Selected by the San Jose Sharks as the 19th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, he played the past two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program and collected a team-high 51 points in 52 games last year.
Freshmen Jack Becker, Michael Pastujov — brother of sophomore forward Nick Pastujov — and Dakota Raabe, and graduate transfer Alex Roos — who spent the last four seasons at Colorado College — round out the new crop of forwards. Pearson expects Norris, along with the other newcomers, to spark the previously underwhelming offense.
Though Michigan lost captain and defensive mainstay Nolan De Jong, who now plays for the ECHL’s Colorado Eagles, the Wolverines boast eight veterans controlling the blue line.
Seniors Cutler Martin and Sam Piazza lead the defensemen. After a junior season at forward, Martin returns to his comfort zone. As a freshman, his only full year as a defenseman, he recorded 15 points and a plus-12 rating, best among Michigan blueliners and second among all defensemen in the Big Ten. Conversely, Piazza is coming off a career year with 14 points — six goals and eight assists — in 32 games and a Big Ten Honorable Mention distinction.
Freshman Quinn Hughes is the lone defensive recruit, but the learning curve shouldn’t be too difficult for the likely 2018 first-round NHL Entry Draft pick. The Orlando native played two seasons with the United States National Team Development Program — alongside Norris — and notched 47 points, including 38 assists, in 56 games. Hughes has already shown his presence on the ice, scoring his first collegiate goal in his first collegiate game against St. Lawrence.
Junior Joseph Cecconi has also looked strong coming out of the gates, tallying three assists in the exhibition game and one against St. Lawrence. Sophomores Griffin Luce, Christian Meike and Luke Martin, and junior Nicholas Boka complete the rest of the defense.
With Martin’s confidence in returning to his true position, Piazza’s evolution last year and Hughes’ track record, the back line seems destined to offset the hole left by De Jong and stay strong against Big Ten offensive juggernauts.
With a strong freshman class and experienced veterans, it’s just a matter of time the two groups mesh within Pearson’s new schemes. This weekend’s series against Vermont is the last opportunity to sync before Big Ten play commences at Penn State. If the players catch their strides at the right time and execute in the big spots, especially early in the season, lofty expectations will be met, something last year’s team didn’t accomplish.