Freshman forwards to fill offensive void left by seniors

Tuesday, September 1, 2020 - 7:59pm

Forward Kent Johnson is one of many freshmen poised to boost the Michigan hockey team's offense.

Forward Kent Johnson is one of many freshmen poised to boost the Michigan hockey team's offense. Buy this photo
Courtesy of Geoff Fontes

At first glance, the Michigan hockey team’s problems look simple. 

Last year’s three top scorers — forwards Jake Slaker, Will Lockwood and Nick Pastujov — are all gone. 

Combined, the trio contributed 72 of Michigan’s 267 points last season. And they weren’t the only offensive engines in last year’s senior class. Adding in contributions from players like graduate transfer Jacob Hayhurst, and last year’s seniors, they accounted for 37.8 percent of all offensive production. 

But while those holes won’t be easy to fill, the freshman class knows how to get the puck into the net. 

Michigan has recruited some of the most elite scorers in the country in their freshman forwards, four of whom have been speculated to be first-round NHL Draft picks in 2020 or 2021.  

Thomas Bordeleau has already started proving his merit at Yost, racking up three assists for the U.S. National Team Development Program in last season’s exhibition game against Michigan. Bordeleau led the NTDP last season with 46 points in 47 games. Fellow NTDP product and current freshman, Matt Beniers, was right behind him with 41. 

Kent Johnson led not only his team, the Trail Smoke Eaters, with 101 points but the entire British Columbia Hockey League — and it wasn’t close. Second place trailed Johnson by 30 points. 

“(Johnson) is one of the most talented offensive players and creative offensive players Michigan has had in a long time,” Jeff Tambellini, former Trail Smoke Eaters general manager and head coach, said. “He's very unique in his style. There’s not a lot of guys that play his way.”

Brendan Brisson, meanwhile, fell one point short of leading the Chicago Steel — which dominated the U.S. Hockey League last year — and was named USHL rookie of the year. 

The talent of the freshmen class is undeniable. So in theory, replacing the seniors’ production is simple: 

“(We) feel they’re really gonna fit in and plug some of the holes we lost by losing nine pretty good seniors,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson told The Daily in March. “And we’re gonna need that. We’re gonna need those guys to come in and contribute right away.”

Michigan lost three dominant scorers. It’s gaining a group of elite forwards. Essentially, an even trade.

But this article wouldn’t go on for another 300 words if it were that simple.

The jump from Junior league to college hockey is notoriously difficult. In Junior leagues, players are facing competition their own age. Once they reach the college level, they’re up against bigger, stronger, more experienced players. 

Therein lies the real challenge for Michigan’s offense: The Wolverines have one of the youngest freshman classes in the country. And they’ll be relying on them to produce immediately. 

For every other Big Ten school, the average age of the incoming class falls somewhere between 19 and 21 years old due to years spent in juniors. Michigan’s freshman average just above 18. Three — forward Matt Beniers, Johnson and defenseman Owen Power — are still 17. 

The question will be how fast the young players can adapt. 

“There’s going to be some big roles that need to be filled,” Tambellini said. “I think you’re going to see a lot of these young kids come in and fill that space pretty quickly.” 

Former NTDP coach Seth Appert said Beniers and Bordeleau are ready to hit the ground running. He thinks they’re “battle ready” from their tough practice and game schedule in prior seasons. 

With all of Michigan’s top scorers and team captains gone, the new players may naturally come into those roles to fill the vacuum. 

On the other hand, the combination of their youth and a lack of established upperclassman leadership could trouble the new Wolverines, especially early in the season. 

Appert summed it up well. 

“Time will tell.”