When Josh Norris decided to leave for the NHL, Michigan coach Mel Pearson knew he was facing an uphill battle to find a replacement.
The recruiting cycle in hockey runs far in advance of when players actually show up on campus. Typically, players commit while still in high school, then go play at least two years of junior hockey before enrolling. When a player like Norris, who was drafted in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft, makes his decision to leave in May, finding a replacement is challenging.
“A lot of time your recruiting is so far ahead in college hockey now, that there’s not going to be a player out there if Norris finally tells you he’s leaving, bang, you can just find a guy,” Pearson said Wednesday. “It’s usually very picked over by that point. Then you start looking like, ‘Well, OK, maybe there’s a (graduate) transfer who has decided later on (to leave).’ ”
As soon as Pearson knew Norris was leaning toward leaving Michigan, he and his coaching staff started checking the transfer portal on a daily basis. Graduate transfers have only recently become prominent in college hockey, and Pearson credits the portal with making transferring more accessible on both sides.
“This year, (the transfer portal) really ramped up,” Pearson said. “This past winter and spring it really took off. … That really became a big deal. Obviously, we see a lot of grad transfers in college hockey now, more than we did the year before. There were a few the first year, and then this year it just seems like it’s taken off.”
In April, when Pearson knew Norris might be leaving, the transfer portal was the first place he checked to find a new addition. And 600 miles away, a prominent player had just entered his name in the portal — Jacob Hayhurst, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s leading scorer from the 2018-19 season.
After three years at RPI, Hayhurst decided his best chance at playing for a national title laid elsewhere. Michigan was one of the first teams to reach out to Hayhurst, and his decision to join the Wolverines came shortly after.
“At RPI things weren’t going as planned, and we continuously didn’t put a team on the ice that had the best opportunity to win,” Hayhurst said. “I think here at Michigan, each and every year, they create a team that has an opportunity to win a national championship, and I want to be a part of one, so that’s why I’m here.
“When they called, I answered right away and could not have been happier.”
Pearson often says that they can’t replace Norris with just one player. But when looking for a player to fill the gap, Hayhurst was at the top of Pearson’s list because of his combination of offensive output, speed and game experience.
“When you’re unsure if you’re gonna lose a kid like Josh Norris, right away you’re just trying to see if there’s someone there that can come in,” Pearson said. “It’s less of a hit than maybe bringing in a young freshman who’s got a lot to learn still. You bring in a guy like Hayhurst, a senior, or a guy who’s played three years and has one year left and can come into your program, it’s more seamless. He can just come in and sort of hit it running.”
In addition to losing Norris up front, Michigan lost three experienced blueliners in Quinn Hughes, Joseph Cecconi and Nick Boka. Pearson once again turned to the transfer portal in hopes of filling the void. There he found former Boston University defenseman Shane Switzer. After four years at BU, Switzer was looking for a school with more ice time available than he had with the Terriers.
“His name came up to us through the former coach there, David Quinn,” Pearson said. “We know David really well and he’s with the New York Rangers now. He had Switzer (at BU) so we had some conversations. He really liked Shane and it just — new coaches went into BU and it just wasn’t a good fit for Shane at that point. Brought in some really high-profile players, and he just sort of got squeezed out there. He’s a Michigan kid, was going to graduate early, a year early, so it’s just a good fit.”
Both Switzer and Hayhurst have seemingly settled in seamlessly with the Wolverines. After the team’s first practice, Pearson praised both for their on-ice abilities. And off the ice, the two new additions were quick to voice appreciation for their new teammates’ efforts in helping them get settled.
“It’s really easy, honestly,” Switzer said. “It’s a tight-knit group in there, but they welcomed me with open arms and my roommates have been really helpful with the transition.”
Added Hayhurst: “It’s been great. The guys have been really helpful, caring, respectful and kind of showing me the ropes and everything, because it’s obviously different here than RPI, being at such a bigger school. Especially my roommates, they’ve really helped me out in getting prepared for classes and set up in that aspect.”
Replacing Norris and a veteran core on the blueline isn’t easy, but with Hayhurst’s offensive track record and Switzer’s ability as a defenseman, the two graduate transfers have the potential to fill in just fine.