Michigan hockey coach Mel Pearson chuckled when asked what he’s liked about his team’s power-play unit in practice.
“You must have our office bugged, because we were just talking about the power-play.”
Last season, the Wolverines converted on 19% of their opportunities when up a man, good for a mediocre 28th in the country and fourth in the Big Ten. While those numbers aren’t necessarily bad, they’re also losing their top three power-play scorers this season — forwards Nick Pastujov, Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood — so they’ll need other players to step up on the man advantage this year.
Luckily for Michigan, there’s plenty of experience to fill those gaps. Junior defenseman Nick Blankenburg and sophomore defenseman Cam York each earned time on the top power-play unit last year, where they notched two goals each. This year, they’re both poised to take on an even greater role and make up for the special teams talent that was lost.
“We like Nick Blankenburg and Cam York,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “They really did a nice job running the power-play. They had the puck a lot on our top unit last year. … Currently we have them separated on different units just to put one of them on each group to sort of be the leader.”
As with everything else this season, a lot of the Wolverines’ power-play will revolve around a plethora of talented freshmen. Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson — Michigan’s two most highly-touted freshman forwards — have had a lot of success in practice on a power-play line with junior forward Jimmy Lambert, according to Pearson. They’ve been working with a defensive pairing of Blankenburg and freshman Owen Power.
For the second unit, Pearson indicated that freshmen Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau have been working with sophomore Johnny Beecher and a senior — either Michael Pastujov or Jack Becker — on a potential four-forward unit alongside York on defense. At 6-foot-3, Beecher should cause problems for opposing goalies from in front of the net, and Pearson has been really impressed with Brisson’s shooting ability in practice.
If these lines are the same on Nov. 13, they’ll feature an interesting mix of youth and experience. Even with all the talent the freshmen bring, there will likely be some early-season hiccups as they adjust to the college game, so matching them up with more experienced teammates can help minimize the impact of any miscues. If the freshmen can find a rhythm, both units have the potential to be dangerous.
“We’ve added skill,” Pearson said. “So what happens on the power play is you have the basic idea or some ideas of what you want to do, but then you need to freelance. You need players who can read the situation in a hurry and then make the best plan, and sometimes freelance off of that.”
In reality, last year’s 19% success rate isn’t something the Wolverines should lose too much sleep over. Even with the personnel losses, they return two key players in York and Blankenburg, and they’ve brought in plenty of new faces to give the unit a fresh look.
At the same time, making the leap on special teams could go a long way toward winning the Big Ten this year.
“At the end, we liked the movement, we liked the shots we took, we liked the net-front presence,” Pearson said. “We had a lot of bodies in front of the net at the end of the year, and we’re gonna need that this year. That’s where you’re going to score your goals.”