In his second and final season with the Bloomington Thunder of the United States Hockey League, Jake Slaker served as the team captain. While some team leaders choose to assert their authority vocally, Slaker instead led by example.
Now, with the Michigan hockey team, the freshman forward is far from the team’s most prominent leader in the locker room. Still, his position on the team calls for responsibility.
“When you’re a top-six forward, you’re a leader on this team no matter what class you’re in,” said senior forward Alex Kile. “(Slaker) kills penalties, plays on the power play and he’s important for us in all aspects of the game. Whenever you have a player who can contribute in all three areas of the rink, you’re gonna be a leader no matter what.”
It’s high praise coming from Kile, one of the two Wolverine captains. Through the first 22 games of the season, Slaker’s play has justified Kile’s comments — he ranks first in points and assists for Michigan with 14 and 10, respectively.
But it didn’t always appear that easy for Slaker. In his first few games, he acknowledged the difficulty that comes with the transition from the slower-paced USHL to the quicker gameplay at the NCAA level.
While at times — much like Michigan’s entire lineup — Slaker appears to lose concentration or struggle on special teams, Kile recognizes the strides his teammate has made since the first game.
“He’s not a player who really talks about offense or talks about scoring goals,” Kile said. “He wants to get better defensively, and I think he’s struggled a little bit if you’re looking at plus-minus, but he’s a player that wants to get better. He wants to be that shut-down centerman that (former Michigan forward) JT Compher was and (former Michigan forward) Andrew Copp was. He aspires to be them and he has told me that he wants to be like that.”
Because of the Wolverines’ inconsistent play this season, Slaker has seen different linemates every few games. In the early part of the season, he played in the first grouping with Kile and fellow-freshman forward Will Lockwood, but has also played on the second and third lines. Slaker’s flexibility earned a commendation from Michigan coach Red Berenson. Berenson explained that injuries and suspensions to Slaker’s linemates causes him to reshuffle the lines every so often.
“Jake is a competitor,” Berenson said. “He comes to play, most every game you’re going to get everything he’s got. Now there’s been the odd game when he wasn’t as invested in the game, or lost his focus or we needed a centerman on another line. … But it didn’t change his ice time.
“The thing I like about him is that he brings a line together. Whoever he plays with, he’ll try to get that line organized and play the right way and play together. He’s an organizer even though he’s a freshman.”
According to Kile, Slaker’s best assets include his energy, his confidence and his constant desire to learn from veteran players. Slaker, for one, believes he has improved his decision making. As the season continues, Slaker is still working with the Wolverines’ coaching staff to improve some of the intangible aspects of his game that are not easily recognized.
“I want to improve my physicality with the puck,” Slaker said. “To try not to get knocked off with the puck as much, win my one-on-one battles. I don’t think people notice that all the time, it’s sometimes just a stick play or me getting better positioning with the puck. My goal is to get a little stronger with and without the puck.”
Perhaps the most important facet of Slaker’s game — especially as a center — is his success on faceoffs. Currently, Slaker leads Michigan in faceoff victories with 201 and ranks third in winning percentage — boasting a .510 mark. Berenson constantly discusses the importance of winning faceoffs and maintaining possession of the puck afterward with his team. It’s an area the Wolverines have struggled with, posting just a .483 winning percentage.
As one of the few Michigan players that has found success in that aspect of the game, Slaker has a unique approach to faceoffs.
“My main job is not to lose (the puck),” Slaker said. “To get a 50-50 battle between myself and the wingers where we can battle out and try to get the win. Overall my mindset going into faceoffs is try not to lose it clean.”
Currently, Slaker practices on a line with Lockwood and sophomore forward Brendan Warren, and whether that holds for the rest of the season is up to Berenson. What can be said for sure, though, is that Slaker will show a positive attitude and desire to adapt with his teammates.
And while he clearly no longer commandeers the locker room as he once did for the Thunder, it’s obvious Slaker still plays a vital role in the Wolverines’ success.
“He communicates well with his teammates and linemates,” Berenson said. “He knows how to play with a sense of responsibility for our team in key situations, whether it’s a big faceoff, or a second effort play. He wants to be that guy that will do that because he’s done that before.”