After the Michigan hockey team defeated American International in the NCAA regional semifinal, melancholy Yellowjackets coach Eric Lang sat sadly at the podium. He spoke in a dejected tone, a disappointed man who made speaking look like a chore.
His demeanor was understandable after having just been eliminated from the NCAA Tournament. The grind of a long season wore on him after it came to a crashing halt.
But his opponent wore on him, too.
“When you fast forward the tape here, in five or seven years, when you can see this thing play out, you may be looking at one of the best college hockey teams ever assembled,” Lang said after the regional semifinal.
That team — a roster loaded with NHL talent — wasn’t assembled overnight, and its creation was never guaranteed. Securing five players who would become first-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft, four of whom constituting the top five overall selections, was no easy feat.
In a day and age where players want to be stars, Michigan coach Mel Pearson recognizes that he managed to pull off quite the stunt by attracting so much talent onto a single roster. In fact, he admits that grabbing the top crop of NHL talent wasn’t even his goal while securing commitments.
“I don’t think we went out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to recruit this all-time greatest class,’ ” Pearson said. “Like (sophomore forward) Kent Johnson was a 10th-round draft pick in the British Columbia draft. He’s just grown so much from there.”
Indeed, the story of the Wolverines’ loaded roster — built around their dominant sophomore class — isn’t linear. Players like sophomore defenseman Owen Power were always at the top of draft boards and projections, but others — like Johnson — were hidden gems.
Sophomore forward Matty Beniers — the second overall selection in the 2021 NHL draft — wasn’t even planning to attend Michigan prior to his freshman season. He originally committed to Harvard, nearby his hometown of Hingham, Mass., but flipped to the Wolverines when Harvard Athletics did not field teams for his upcoming freshman season due to COVID-19.
“There’s never this grand scheme or grand plan,” Pearson said. “We wanted to get guys who were good players, who fit into the way we play, and obviously had to be interested in the academic part of it too.”
As commitments rolled in, it became clear that a special roster was under construction. That notion, however, can stall the creation of an uber-talented group, with top players wanting as much ice time as possible. It’s why a roster like Michigan’s is so rare.
For players serious about pro hockey, college hockey can be their chance to make it over the top; it’s their chance to develop their skills and put them on full display. Doing that means being on the ice early and often, and leading a team as its go-to skater.
Fears of having to share the spotlight didn’t scare away any members of the Wolverines’ stacked sophomore class. Beniers, one of the last commitments, embodied the mentality that built the roster.
“We were all set, and all of a sudden things happen and he was interested in Michigan,” Pearson said. “And (the recruiting class) didn’t scare him away, in fact it drew him in when he could see the team that we were going to have.”
Embracing competition for ice time and depth-chart positioning helped Michigan’s raw talent improve from within early on, but that class’ first season was marred by the pandemic; eventually, a COVID-19 outbreak shut it down before the Wolverines could even play in the NCAA Tournament. That summer, the skaters’ talent and improvement were affirmed at the 2021 NHL Draft.
A draft that risked imploding the roster before they were able to accomplish anything meaningful together.
But one-by-one, things began coming together. Top-five pick Luke Hughes would certainly play his freshman season with the Wolverines, while the sophomores — Power, Johnson and Beniers — were sold on the chance to live out the true college experience and have a chance at a Frozen Four run.
Michigan’s win over Quinnipiac in the regional final on Mar. 27 confirmed that both scenarios became reality, but returning worked toward the skaters’ development on the ice as well.
“Here’s the deal: You go in there and you get drafted, nobody comes in there and sprinkles magic dust on you and all-of-a-sudden makes you into this unbelievable player,” Pearson said. “Someone feels that you have the potential at some point to be really good at the next level.
“But you still have to go out and continue to get better. You have to prove why you were drafted that high.”
Heading into their Frozen Four appearance in Boston, the Wolverines’ roster — headlined by the highly-touted draft picks — has lived up to the astronomical expectations thus far. The draftees have validated their high positions in the draft, bringing great success to Michigan in the process. Supported by depth at every position, an extra year from its stars has the Wolverines within arms reach of a National Championship.
It’s a roster that wasn’t constructed to make headlines or dominate NHL draft boards. It wasn’t charted out to be a super team. It was simply designed to win. It was built to win by bringing in players who were ready to compete and grow, no matter how much talent they already had or how much talent already surrounded them.
But is it the best roster of all time? This weekend in Boston could prove it.