Coming into its hundredth season, the Michigan hockey team has the chance to do something special. But that doesn’t come without pressure.
The Wolverines’ 2021-22 roster is more an all star team than a typical Division I program.
Four Wolverines were selected in the top five picks of the 2021 NHL Draft. The group will have targets on their backs going into every Friday and Saturday night puck drop. Ignoring all the talk is easier said than done, especially when Michigan has the No. 1 and No. 2 Draft picks in sophomore defenseman Owen Power and sophomore forward Matty Beniers adding to an already-star-studded roster featuring 13 drafted players.
But with all the pressure, it’s the entire team that will bring the Wolverines success — not just the stars.
“We’re more than seven or eight guys,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said Monday. “We’ve got a pretty good hockey team, but I think we need to make sure we can control what we can control, keep our eyes on the prize and continue to play.”
The Wolverines are in an unprecedented situation. Never before have the top two players been drafted from the same NCAA team. For the first time in 14 year years, the No. 1 pick will return for another year of college hockey. History was also made when sophomore forward Kent Johnson was selected fifth overall, making Michigan the first team to have three current players drafted in the first round.
The draft was a momentous occasion, not just for Michigan, but for college hockey. But for the Wolverines to pocket that many picks shows just how special of an opportunity is at hand for this team.
With the young prospects on the bridge of shutting their Michigan lockers forever and signing NHL contracts, learning to focus their attention entirely on Michigan comes with its own tactics.
“We try not to talk about the Draft,” Pearson said. “That’s over and done with now. We’re trying to move forward. The less we focus on that, the better.”
Sixteen out of the 29 players on the 2021-22 roster have not been drafted, nine of whom are seniors or graduate students. Having strong leadership on and off the ice to guide the underclassmen could be crucial to a successful season for the Wolverines.
The COVID-19 pandemic squandered many new opportunities for playing in high-pressure away games and the NCAA Tournament. Experienced players like senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg, who has seen a lot in a Michigan uniform, will be pivotal to guide the underclassmen in the right direction.
“We’re just so focused on the first game or the next practice,” Blankenburg said. “Throughout a long year, it’s going to be really important to focus on what’s next and not getting too far ahead.”
Keeping the outside noise from getting into the locker room is a clear first step for this team. Much of what’s expected of the high-profile roster will be out of the players’ control. After adapting to its newfound celebrity, the Wolverines will have all the pieces for what will likely prove to be a memorable season on the ice.