Grading Michigan's hockey season

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 - 11:04pm

Nolan De Jong is the Daily's vote for Michigan's most improved player.

Nolan De Jong is the Daily's vote for Michigan's most improved player. Buy this photo
James Coller/Daily

 

After making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, the Michigan hockey team ended its season with a 5-2 loss to North Dakota on March 26. Before we turn the page to next season, the Daily evaluates the Wolverines’ performance in 2015-16.

Offense: A+

The Wolverines boasted a historic offense this year, averaging 4.76 goals per game. That mark was good for first nationally, and no team has scored at that clip since at least the 1999-2000 season.

Michigan was held under three goals just seven times in 40 games — one of which came in the NCAA Tournament against eventual national champion North Dakota.

The CCM line — composed of freshman forward Kyle Connor and junior forwards JT Compher and Tyler Motte — led the prolific attack, combining for 83 of the Wolverines’ 181 goals.

Connor notched 71 points, while Compher and Motte tallied 63 and 57, respectively.

The trio was among the top four nationally in points. Additionally, Connor led the country in points and Compher earned the No. 1 spot in assists.

The power-play unit was exceptional as well, ranking first nationally with a 32-percent conversion rate.

After losing Andrew Copp, Dylan Larkin and Zach Hyman last year, the expectations for Michigan’s offense were on the modest end. That trio accounted for more than 25 percent of the team’s points, but the Wolverines made it look like they didn’t even miss them this year.

Still, Michigan will be faced with another retooling process on the offensive end next season, as Motte and Connor have signed professional contracts and Compher’s decision has yet to be announced.

Defense: B-

It was essentially the same story but a different season for Michigan’s blueliners.

The Wolverines strung together some stout defensive performances throughout the season, but those stretches didn’t come nearly often enough. Frequently, Michigan’s potent offense carried the team to victories even after conceding four to six goals.

The team tied for 38th in team defense nationally — averaging 3.03 goals against per game. In that category, Michigan regressed a bit from last season, when it conceded an average of 2.9 goals.

That’s not to say there weren’t flashes of success. The Wolverines ended the regular season with a sweep of No. 14 Penn State, in which the Nittany Lions mustered just two goals. In November, Michigan also held then-No. 11 Boston University to four goals in two games.

But there were always hiccups, such as the penultimate series against an unranked Ohio State team when the Wolverines conceded 13 goals.

Sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski headlined the defense, accumulating 35 points with 11 goals and 24 assists. His point total was good for fourth on the team behind the CCM line, and the next-highest scoring defenseman was junior Michael Downing with 20.

Now, Michigan is tasked with finding answers in its defensive zone, as both Werenski and Downing left for the NHL. The impacts that freshmen Nicholas Boka and Joe Cecconi had, in addition to the emergence of Nolan De Jong, are encouraging for future success.

But the Wolverines certainly still have plenty of room left for improvement.

Goaltending: A-

The goaltending situation was shaky to begin the season, as senior Steve Racine and junior Zach Nagelvoort looked poised for yet another position battle. Racine picked up an injury early in the year, and Nagelvoort took over the starting duties.

But Racine returned from the injury in the Great Lakes Invitational and firmly seized a spot between the pipes for the remainder of the season.

For the most part, the senior netminder seemed to get better with each weekend, culminating with two exceptional games in the NCAA Tournament. He played like a man possessed, making sprawling save after sprawling save.

Racine notched 28 saves against Notre Dame and played with the pressure of a 2-1 deficit on his shoulders for nearly two whole periods before the Wolverines scored an equalizer and sent the game to overtime.

Though the final score didn’t indicate it, his performance against eventual national champion North Dakota was even more impressive.

Racine allowed five goals, but that was largely due to the fact that Michigan was outmatched all over the ice. Without him, the Wolverines could have found themselves in a 5-0 hole as early as the first period. The Fighting Hawks peppered him with 49 shots, and two of their goals came on the power play.

He finished the season with a .914 save percentage and a 2.89 goals-against average, and given his performances to end the season, Michigan has a void to fill in between the pipes next season.

The Michigan Daily hockey beat also voted for Michigan’s Offensive MVP, Defensive MVP, Most Improved Player, Unsung Hero and Comeback of the Year.

Offensive MVP: Kyle Connor

Defensive MVP: Steve Racine

Most Improved Player: Nolan De Jong

Unsung Hero: Cutler Martin

Comeback of the Year: Red Berenson