Continuity is the key for the Michigan hockey team.
Coming off of a Frozen Four appearance, expectations remain high even for a team who lost key skaters, including the talented line of Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone. However, the leadership of Michigan coach Mel Pearson, the addition of 10 freshmen and the return of players who played prominent roles last season have earned the Wolverines a No. 4 ranking coming into the new season.
With eyes set on replicating last season’s success, Michigan will open up the season against Vermont on Saturday and in an exhibition against Waterloo on Sunday.
Fans will catch their first glimpses of several freshmen who look to make their collegiate debuts, including freshman forward Jimmy Lambert who has impressed coach Mel Pearson thus far.
“Lambert is a player I think people will recognize and notice him on the ice because of his skill level,” Pearson said.
Keep an eye out for freshman forward Garrett Wan Wyhe as well. The six-foot-two Seattle-native who “continues to get better every day,” according to Pearson, will look to be a mainstay in the center of the offensive-attack this season. In his three seasons in the USHL, the 21-year old lefty showed a knack for winnings draws, excelling in the penalty kill and brings a combination of size and speed to the center of the ice.
Pearson also plans to give ice time to freshman goaltender Strauss Mann this weekend, a teammate of Van Wyhe last season with the Fargo Force of the USHL.
The 10 freshmen embarking on the start of their collegiate careers will look to make an impact, earn their minutes and carve out their roles on the team beginning this weekend.
Given the potential debuts of several freshmen, it’s not to say that much of the focus doesn’t remain on the skaters who played prominent roles in last season’s success –– a season in which Michigan fell one game short of competing for its first national title since 1998.
Despite being drafted seventh overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL Draft, sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes cited “unfinished business” in his decision to return for his second season in Ann Arbor.
Senior defenseman and now-captain Joseph Cecconi, too, decided to put off playing in the NHL for the Dallas Stars, who will now have to wait a third season to see their 2015 fifth-rounder play, to return for his senior year.
Pearson made it clear that despite knowing who some of the top skaters on the team will be this season, minutes are still up for the taking.
“Our top players –– we’ll make sure we get them a lot of ice time,” Pearson said. “Right now, we’re just trying to sort through who those guys are. We know some of them, obviously, but we just want to make sure that everyone is competing, and they’ll get the minutes that they earn.”
For Pearson, the familiarity in his players is the biggest difference coming into his second season at the helm. It lends to the sense of continuity the program hopes to instill.
“(The biggest difference this year is) knowing the players,” Pearson said. “Last year, I knew who they were, but I didn’t necessarily know how they reacted or engaged in different situations. This year –– I’m much more comfortable … just more comfortable with the players and what they can do and what they’re capable of and what their ceiling is.”
As the Wolverines look to build off of their Frozen Four birth from last season, the expectations are to compete for a national title.
“You come to Michigan to win championships, and that’s the way it always should be,” Pearson said. “ … Expectations should be high, and we should live up to that standard. We’ve won more national championships than any program. We’ve been in more Frozen Fours than any program. So, you know, absolutely the expectations are high this year and they should be.”
Whether or not Michigan will live up to those expectations remains to be seen when the puck drops Saturday night at Yost.
“It’s a process,” Pearson said. “So, we have to continue to do A, B, C, D, E, and so forth and so on. If we continue to do all those things on a regular basis, the winning will take care of itself, and the championships will take care of themselves also.”