Heading into its first exhibition game of the 2016-17 season, the Michigan hockey team has a new look to it. After losing most of its top contributors from last season to the NHL, the Wolverines welcome 11 freshmen to the mix and will likely rely on them heavily throughout the year.
Sunday’s matchup with Windsor will serve as a perfect opportunity for head coach Red Berenson to see exactly what those freshmen bring to the table. But that’s not all he will be looking at.
“I think it varies from year to year, but this year we’ll be looking at our goalies,” Berenson said. “I’m sure we’ll see more than one goalie in the game, and our freshmen goalies will get a chance to play in their first game. And then all of the other freshmen as well — how they feel in a game situation here, and how they look. Because before you know it, we have a short week next week and we’ll be playing a real Division I game that counts.”
It’s not like Michigan is entirely without experience, though. Senior forward Alex Kile, the leading returning scorer, will be expected to lead the Wolverines’ attack along with junior forward Tony Calderone and sophomore forward Cooper Marody.
But for Kile, Sunday’s game represents more than just an opportunity to tune up for the rest of the season. The senior has been playing on a line with two freshmen, Will Lockwood and Jake Slaker, so facing the Lancers is his first opportunity to lead by example in live action.
“It’s going to be a little bit sloppy,” Kile said. “We’re still trying to find our chemistry. It’s new lines. We’ve got 11 freshmen who are going to be a little bit nervous. For me, I’m going to play it like any other game, except where I’m just going to have to lead by example and help these freshmen get acclimated quickly.”
On the defensive end of the ice, Michigan will also be testing out some new freshmen. In addition to the new faces in goal, returning senior defenseman Nolan De Jong will be joined by a host of freshmen hoping to heal the attrition on the back end.
But it’s hard to predict what the Wolverines will get in terms of freshman production. Even if the newcomers have played a lot of hockey up to this point, Sunday’s game may start to separate who can keep up at this level.
“The big difference is how ready they are for this,” Berenson said. “Like last year, we saw Kyle Connor come in, and he was ready for this. He led our team — he led the whole country — in scoring as a freshman. We knew he’d be an impact player, but we didn’t know how good he would be. And then you get other players that aren’t ready at all. Like this is a huge wall for them to climb so soon. Now, they become good players, but right off the get-go, this is the time of year I want to see who’s ready to help our team right now.”
Sunday will be the first step in deciding who is and isn’t ready, as even the returning Wolverines haven’t played the types of roles they will fill this season. Either way, Michigan should be able to get past Windsor based on talent alone. But Sunday’s game means much more than that in the long run. After all, it’s the Wolverines’ first and last chance at in-game action before the regular season begins.