Becker blossoming into offensive force
Jack Becker’s first collegiate goal, to put it generously, needed just a tiny bit of good fortune.
With Michigan trailing Bowling Green, 5-3, in the Great Lakes Invitational on Jan. 1, Becker launched a speculative shot about 90 feet from the net. Falcons goaltender Ryan Bednard saw it mid-flight and easily caught it over his right shoulder. Then, somehow, the puck squirted out of his grasp, falling behind him and across the plane of the goal.
That splash of luck aside, Becker’s rise over the past five weeks has been anything but a fluke. Since the calendar turned to 2018, the freshman forward from Dellwood, Minn. has scored six goals and recorded eight points in 11 games, putting him fourth among all Wolverines during that timespan.
“He’s probably grown more than anybody on our team,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “Just his level of skating, his shot, his passing, everything.”
Despite only being a freshman, Becker may have more history with Pearson than any of his teammates. In 2016, he committed to Michigan Tech to play for Pearson — then the Huskies’ head coach. But last April, Pearson took the Wolverines’ head coaching job after six seasons in Houghton. Becker followed him to Ann Arbor a month later, becoming Pearson’s first commitment at Michigan.
However, this shared history goes back even farther. As an assistant coach at Michigan Tech in the early 1980s, Pearson recruited “a big kid out of the iron range of northern Minnesota” to bolster the Huskies’ defenseman corps. That kid? None other than Becker’s father, Russ, who would go on to play 82 games for the Huskies from 1984 to 1988.
“(Russ was) nowhere near the player Jack is, so you can tell him I said that,” Pearson quipped, before extolling the elder Becker’s virtues on a serious note. “Strong character person, worked hard. Had limited abilities, but he brought it every day.”
Thirty years later, Pearson observes many of those same attributes in Russ’ son, who he describes as the “hardest worker” on his team. Both Beckers are indeed big — Jack’s listed measurements of 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds match his father’s during his time at Michigan Tech. Currently, Pearson noted, Russ is a successful Minneapolis businessman in charge of several construction companies, and in a similar vein, Pearson described Jack as a “guy you’d hire.”
“It’s the intangibles,” Pearson said. “Anybody can walk into a rink and see if a guy can skate or handle the puck or plays physical, but it’s the intangibles, all those things that you can’t measure in a person that really made Russ who he is, and his son has all those traits.”
According to Pearson, one of those traits is Jack’s extreme responsiveness to coaching, which Pearson believes is one of the most important reasons why he has developed to the extent that he has this season.
“Everything, just he’s really improved on. And that’s not by accident,” Pearson said. “He’s like a sponge, he takes everything in, he takes it to heart, he’s very coachable. Coachability in this day and age is so important. Just being able to accept what the coaches are telling you and trying to put it in your game, and some players are more coachable than others.
“And he’s a coach’s dream. ‘Yes sir,’ and ‘what do I need to do to get better?’ But he’s that type of person, he’s been raised that way.”
Last weekend’s series against Wisconsin was a reflection of how far Becker has come since October. While his two goals against Penn State two weeks earlier came as a product of pure size and strength in the crease, Becker was a dangerous, all-around offensive anchor of Michigan’s third and fourth lines against the Badgers.
On the Wolverines’ third goal Friday, Becker smoothly reeled in a stretch pass from Jake Slaker and cut right down the wing, hitting the sophomore forward with a pinpoint return pass and centering him for a close-range finish. On their fourth goal, Becker jumped on the puck behind the Wisconsin net and took Badger defenseman Matthew Freytag out of the play with a nifty fake pass while skating back around into the slot, finishing with a snipe past goaltender Jack Berry. For good measure, Becker assisted on freshman forward Dakota Raabe’s empty-net clincher and added a crucial power play goal Saturday.
“I think maybe it’s just been more gradual, the chemistry with our line and just playing better,” Becker said. “... Pucks have been going in lately, but I think that every game I’ve gotten better and our line’s gotten better.”
Added freshman forward Michael Pastujov, Becker’s linemate as well as roommate: “He brings a lot of physicality and battling in the corners. He helps get the puck, and he’s also a really good finisher and he can make plays.”
It’s easy to see why Becker, despite being a seventh-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins in 2015, might have originally been overshadowed among the Wolverines’ class of freshman. Forwards Pastujov and Josh Norris as well as defenseman Quinn Hughes all played for the prestigious United States National Development Team Program. Norris was selected 17th overall by the San Jose Sharks in last June’s NHL Draft, and Hughes appears likely to be picked even higher this summer. Even Raabe was singled out before the season by Pearson for his speed and skill.
Becker, meanwhile, didn’t arrive in Ann Arbor with a similar pedigree. His age — he turns 21 in June — doesn’t hint at a wealth of upside a la Norris or Hughes. His numbers from junior hockey don’t jump off the page — a respectable, but not mind-blowing 28 points in 49 games with the Sioux Falls Stampede of the USHL last season. And Becker himself recognizes that he has room to grow as a player.
“Just moving your feet and the speed in the first three steps are so huge,” Becker said. “That’s something I just need to continue to work on, definitely a work in progress. It’s getting better, but need to keep working on it.”
And if he does keep doing just that? If he keeps improving at the pace he is now?
“We had an NHL team come in and tell me they think he’s our best pro prospect,” Pearson said. “We’ve got Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris, and a lot of guys who I think are going to play at the next level. For someone to come in and say that about Jack, I think is a testament to where he’s headed and the future that he has if he continues to grow and get better.”