If all things had gone according to plan, Michigan would still be playing hockey. The Wolverines would be two days removed from playing for a Big Ten Tournament championship, and even if they’d lost that game or the semifinals against Ohio State, they’d likely be preparing for an NCAA Tournament appearance this coming weekend.
But COVID-19 happened. In one fell swoop, the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships and the Big Ten suspended play for all sports.
Now, instead of preparing for the NCAA Tournament, Michigan coach Mel Pearson is preparing to have exit meetings with all of his players. For some, that means figuring out if they’ll be returning to Ann Arbor next year or signing with their NHL teams.
Freshmen Cam York and Johnny Beecher — 2019 first-round draft picks of the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins, respectively — have a decision to make about their futures. After the University encouraged everyone in the dorms to return to their permanent residences, both returned home and are taking time to reflect before having exit meetings with Pearson and his staff.
With the NHL season on pause, there’s no huge rush to sign for either the players or the teams, but Pearson knows the decisions are still coming sooner rather than later.
“It’ll probably be good for them to go reflect a little bit,” Pearson said. “When we have our meetings, I think we’ll all be calmed down a little more over what happened and have a chance to reflect on some things and what we need to do to get where we want to go. I expect both of them to be back.”
For many of the Wolverines’ seniors — players like Luke Martin, Griffin Luce, Will Lockwood, Jake Slaker, Jacob Hayhurst and Nick Pastujov — things are a little trickier.
Lockwood, Martin and Pastujov were all drafted, and Lockwood has already signed with the Vancouver Canucks. But the Carolina Hurricanes, which drafted Martin in the second round in 2017, and the New York Islanders, which drafted Pastujov in the seventh round in 2016, haven’t made any signings at all after the college season ended — leaving the players in limbo.
Pastujov finished tied for second on the team in goals with nine and was third in points with 18. Martin led Michigan in plus-minus at plus-10 and finished second in the nation with 85 blocked shots, while playing huge minutes and forming the backbone of the top penalty-killing unit.
“I think you see some teams sign guys they’re interested in, some teams kinda slow things down,” Pearson said. “It’s hard. It’s hard on a guy like Luke Martin, who had a tremendous year.”
It’s especially hard for players like Slaker, Luce and Hayhurst, who weren’t drafted and thus are free agents. Some NHL teams have continued to sign free agents — there have been nine such signings across the league — but for the most part, talks have slowed down significantly for most teams.
Slaker is Michigan’s most attractive prospect, having led the Wolverines in goals, assists and points this season with 31 total points in 33 games — topping his previous season-high of 27, in seven fewer games. Luce has attended a couple of NHL development camps as a stay-at-home blueliner, and Hayhurst’s second-half goal-scoring surge will likely attract some attention, perhaps from teams at the AHL level.
For now, though, all they can do is wait.
“A few of the free agents have signed,” Pearson said. “It’ll be interesting. … Slaker had his best year. I know Slaker’s had some interest and some offers, so we’ll see what goes on there.”
Adding an even deeper layer of complexity to these decisions is the question of whether winter sport athletes will get an extra year of eligibility from the NCAA. It seems highly unlikely at this point, but Pearson suggested it’s enough of a possibility that it’s keeping some players from signing deals until there’s a final, official decision.
“Some guys have slowed things down a little bit to wait to see what happens there, in case they might get another shot to finish what they started, so to speak,” Pearson said. “I think you’ll see another rush of signings once that comes out, hopefully in the next week or two.”