If you walk into the offices of the Michigan hockey team’s coaching staff, you’ll see a dry erase board full of numbers in groups of two or three.
If you walk in a week later, the board may look completely different. Erased and rewritten, tinkered with countless times until the perfect combinations are found.
To someone unfamiliar with hockey, these numbers may seem meaningless. But for the coaching staff, they represent some of the most difficult choices that will be made during the entire season. Each number represents a player, and each group is either a line or a defensive pairing — and they’re constantly changing. So much so that they’re on Michigan coach Mel Pearson’s mind nearly all the time
“That’s how I put myself to sleep every night,” Pearson said. “I’ve seen these things about counting sheep or doing these other things. I start putting the lines together and I get about a couple rotations through and I usually fall asleep. But seriously, you think about it, not 24/7, but a lot.”
Putting together effective lines may be the most difficult decision a hockey coach has to make. Lines that don’t mesh well together can result in a team’s most skilled players underperforming, while the best teams get the most out of even their third and fourth lines — typically made up of its less-talented players.
That’s why it’s imperative that Pearson determines the optimal lineup prior to the fast-approaching start of the season — just over two weeks away. Of course, lines can be tinkered with throughout the season. But finding effective lines early allows players to get comfortable with their linemates and their tendencies throughout the season.
For Pearson, the process begins with identifying players who have chemistry. This often comes back to who has played well with each other in the past, but with nine freshmen skaters on this year’s team, Pearson doesn’t have that intel. As a result, players constantly rotated during early practices.
“They’ve been switching every week,” senior forward Dakota Raabe said on Oct. 16. “They said not to really look into it right now, just kind of seeing where guys can play, what positions they can play and if anything gels with certain guys.”
But as of late, lines have begun to form. Pearson has identified his centers and built out from there.
“What do those guys do really well, and what do we need to add to (sophomore forward) Johnny Beecher here so he can have success?” Pearson said. “What you’re trying to do is always have two guys on each line. Two guys and then build off of (it). Two guys who can play well together.”
For Beecher, that second player could be sophomore forward Eric Ciccolini. The duo impressed Pearson with their play together at the end of last season, prior to Ciccolini’s season ending shoulder surgery. Early signs from practice have given Pearson more confidence in Ciccolini entering the season.
“He’s got tremendous talent, Ciccolini does, and he can skate, he can shoot, he sees the ice, makes good plays,” Pearson said. “He’s just got to pick up his competition level. I think that that’s one thing that will come. … He’s got to play with a little more sandpaper. Go get the puck. It’s not always going to come to you. … He looks like a stronger, more confident player.”
Forming defensive pairings, Pearson also looks for chemistry between players. With only two players, as opposed to three on a line, pairing players that complement each other well is of the utmost importance.
Take sophomore Cam York, who projects to slot in at the top of the Wolverines’ defensive lineup. York is a puck-dominant, offensive defenseman who often jumps up on the play. In order to provide him with more leeway in the offensive zone, Pearson looks to pair him with a more defensive-minded player who will feed him the puck.
Experience is also a major consideration for Pearson. It often takes freshmen some time to get acclimated defensively to the college game, and while freshman forward can take less defensive zone responsibility, defensemen have to be on their game at all times. Because of this, Pearson likes to pair freshmen with his upperclassmen who he has the most trust in.
This year, that freshman is Owen Power, who is widely regarded as an elite NHL prospect. While Power has the potential to be great for Michigan this year, Pearson has paired him with junior Nick Blankenburg — who leads all defensemen on the roster in games played.
“The freshmen are going to get their eyes opened,” Pearson said. “As good as they are, there’s always things that can be thrown at you that you weren’t maybe used to or haven’t seen before, and you need someone. They’re going to make some mistakes, so you need that calming influence with them.”
With the season on the horizon, the Wolverines’ lineup is coming together, but the work is never done for Pearson. He emphasized that his lines are never set in stone, and at some point, injuries will likely throw a wrench in his plans.
While Pearson feels confident in the talent he has on this year’s team, he’ll still spend nearly every night going over his lines until he falls asleep.
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