If you ask someone on the Michigan hockey team how a game went, you’ll almost certainly hear them tie it back to one thing: identity.
“Playing really fast, playing hard defensively, being physical, moving pucks and having a really good transition game,” sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes described that identity Tuesday. “And then making plays in the (offensive) zone and scoring goals, having really good special teams, and I mean that’s kind of the stuff that we’re pretty good at.”
Six weeks into its regular season, the Wolverines are still figuring out how to play to those strengths every night. Through their identity of speed and winning the transition game, for the most part they’ve handled their opponents. But after Penn State showed how vulnerable Michigan can be by stifling that transition play and smothering their speedy breakouts. After those scuffs, there’s plenty for them to buff out.
In doing so, identity is everything. Every time they step on the ice, they’re thinking about how to reach it.
“It’s a decision that that we have to make every day when we come to the rink — how we want to play,” sophomore forward Dylan Duke said. “I think that team identity is hard to play against, and when we’re going through guys, finishing checks, being hard on pucks, winning puck battles, I think that’s when we’re at our best.”
Right now, they have the players to reach that identity, Duke and Hughes included. But at the same time, Michigan coach Brandon Naurato is trying to build the future, recruiting players who will fit that mold.
“An NHL team, you’ve got your upper management, you’ve got your coaches, you’ve got your American League coaches, you have your scouts, you have your player development,” Naurato said. “If we want to play a certain style of hockey, you have to recruit a certain style of player and a certain style person to play to that identity.”
Of course, Naurato doesn’t have an AHL affiliate to instill an identity. He has to recruit for it. In a game that evolves quicker than department stores put out Christmas decorations, planning out future rosters is a difficult puzzle to approach — especially for a first-year coach. Programs have a rough idea of the image they want to create, but the key is finding all the pieces.
However, Naurato still has an interim tag dangling from his title, which should make that process even more difficult. But so far, Naurato has lived up to the task. Last week, he landed a commitment from Chicago Steel forward Nick Moldenhauer; he followed that up Tuesday with a commit from Shattuck St. Mary’s forward Aidan Park.
In the future, Naurato wants to find players to fit each role on the team, whether that’s a scholarship first-line star or a walk-on depth defenseman. Using his analytics background and looking at the right compiled statistics, he wants to use that to find recruits to play to Michigan’s identity.
If his past is any indication, Naurato can walk the walk.
All the hype about him taking the reins of Michigan hockey stemmed from his talent at synthesizing data. He tracked 49,000 goals as a consultant with the Detroit Red Wings, and he used that perspective to create an app that tracked effective scoring for them.
He’s also brought that to Michigan. And back in October, Naurato gave reporters a tour of a new system he’s building for Michigan. Built off the work of his newly expanded analytics department, he showed off data sheets that boiled down all the data into pretty red and green boxes. Green meant the Wolverines did fine in that category; red meant they had some work to do. All that data fed his adjustments for the week.
So it’s no wonder that he wants to use that same reliance on data to drive the future of his team’s identity. Certain indicators can tell him someone is a penalty kill specialist, while others can tell him someone is a scoring weapon. Finding undervalued talent through those metrics can stack the cupboard with identity players.
But data isn’t perfect. And just like the Wolverines’ early season results, Naurato knows that the data can be skewed by intangibles. He isn’t someone who blindly follows what his data tells him. Rather, he lets it point his eyes in the right direction to see.
“Sometimes data is manipulated because of the way another team plays,” Naurato said Tuesday. “We have to find a way to play our game all the time knowing that it’s not always going to be perfect, but that’s what you’re fighting for.”
So while the Wolverines work to match their identity in the present, they’re also trying to create it in the future. With an information arsenal at his fingertips, Naurato is prepared to fight both battles.