Jacob Shames: Back to normal
It’s a sweltering September Tuesday in Ann Arbor, the kind of day where the heat just seems to slow down the pace of life itself.
Students stroll down State Street in t-shirts, shorts and sandals on their way to class, trying to soak in as much summer as they still can. Hockey sticks, heavy sweaters and ice skates are surely the last thing on their minds.
But even inside Yost Ice Arena, where the Michigan hockey team runs through an afternoon practice 18 days before the start of its season, you can sense that same mood. There’s an air of calm and ease, if not necessarily tranquility — this is hockey, after all.
An air of normalcy, if you will.
Mel Pearson projects this same air. The Wolverines’ second-year coach displayed an even demeanor throughout his first year at the helm, through blowouts, nail-biters, joy and heartbreak alike.
On this afternoon, it doesn’t appear as if anything’s changed. Pearson walks into the Yost media room, greets a group of reporters, takes a seat and says the same two words he used to start so many press conferences and interviews last year.
Of course, nothing about Michigan’s 2017-18 season was normal.
The Wolverines won 13 games in Red Berenson’s final season. They ended up doubling that total only one year later. The Big Ten’s coaches picked them to finish ahead of only Michigan State. They placed third in the conference. They hadn’t made a Frozen Four since 2011. In what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, with the third-youngest team in the nation, Michigan came within six seconds of playing for a national title.
But Pearson and his team had almost no time to savor this unexpected success. Dexter Dancs, Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone — the high-scoring “DMC” line — broke up just days after the semifinal loss to Notre Dame. Calderone and Dancs graduated, and Marody signed with the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers, foregoing his last year of college eligibility.
And so began a tumultuous offseason, even for Michigan hockey standards.
Junior defenseman Joseph Cecconi had a career season, with five goals and 22 assists as part of the Wolverines’ top defensive pairing. The Dallas Stars, who drafted him three years ago, wanted in on this success and pushed hard to sign him.
But Cecconi had unfinished business. He wanted to finish his degree. He didn’t want to, in his words, “let down” his class. And he wanted to win a national championship.
In April, shortly after he decided to stay for his senior year, his teammates named him captain for 2018-19.
“Once we found out that he was going to stay, it was pretty obvious,” Pearson said. “ … We thought if we had a leadership group, we can do that early, especially when we had our spring workouts in May and June. We thought it’d be good to have that in place if we could.”
Cecconi’s decision brought some stability. But uncertainty still loomed, and important pieces were still moving.
In May, top recruit Oliver Wahlstrom committed to Boston College over Michigan. In June, prized prospect Bode Wilde decommitted from the Wolverines. Later in the summer, the possibility of Jack Hughes — the projected No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft — leaving the United States National Team Development Program early to play at Michigan fizzled out.
And on June 22, Quinn Hughes was drafted seventh overall in the NHL Draft by the Vancouver Canucks. For the Wolverines, a nervous month ensued, all eyes fixated on whether the electrifying defenseman, who scored 29 points as a freshman, would return for his sophomore season.
A month later, Hughes gave the answer Michigan fans wanted to hear: He was staying in Ann Arbor.
“My heart’s obviously still at Michigan,” Hughes told MGoBlue.com on July 28. “… When I look back at my season last year, I had a great year. But I didn’t win a national championship. So, that’s my goal next year, and anything less than that would be disappointing.”
A roller-coaster season had been followed by a roller-coaster offseason. But with Hughes’ choice, the makeup of the current roster was finally settled. Pearson’s second season could proceed.
Pearson is seemingly always even-keeled, but he states he is more “at ease” than he was at this time last season. He speaks in a measured, conversational tone, never showing any signs that he’s not as relaxed as he says he is.
He knows his team didn’t escape the offseason unscathed. The “DMC” line accounted for 34 percent of the Wolverines’ scoring a season ago. But the attrition doesn’t worry him.
He anticipates a breakout year from sophomore Josh Norris. He’s excited about junior Jake Slaker taking another step forward, thrilled at the prospect of having junior Will Lockwood for a full season, ready to see how brothers Nick and Michael Pastujov can build off their strong finish last year. He can’t wait to see what Luke Morgan, a transfer from Lake Superior State who sat out last season, can do in a real game. He has high hopes for the 10-man freshmen class joining the team. And he has Hughes — perhaps the best returning player in college hockey.
“I don’t think scoring’s going to be a big issue on this team,” Pearson said. “We’re going to score goals, we’ll just see where they come from.”
It’s understandable why Pearson is more comfortable now. Last year was one of transition, but this year, Pearson is familiar with his team, and his team is familiar with him. His plan, his system and his expectations are all in place.
“We know (players’) weaknesses and the areas we had to push them and prod them to get better,” Pearson said Tuesday. “And they’ve done that, they’ve made a commitment to get better this summer, almost to a man. I think we’re in the best shape I can remember a team being in physically.”
When Pearson took the job at Michigan, he heavily invoked history. He compared the program to a prized family car that he had inherited. He called his role that of a “gatekeeper,” protecting the legacy that past great coaches Vic Heyliger, Al Renfrew and Red Berenson had created.
He took the reins after the Wolverines’ worst season in 30 years and led them back to national relevance in only one season. He and his team emphatically declared that Michigan hockey was back.
And the expectations that come with that are back, too.
Recently, Pearson had a conversation with Michigan basketball coach John Beilein. Among the things they discussed was the similar situation their respective programs are in. As Pearson noted, both teams went on unexpected, underdog runs last year, and both teams lost key talent afterwards — Moritz Wagner’s early departure mirroring Marody’s jump to the pros.
“We talked about it — what’s the message? How do you handle that?” Pearson said. “Going from maybe being underdogs or no one’s talking about you, to now you’re one of those teams that people might pick to finish near the top of the conference.”
Pearson and Beilein will talk again soon to share their thoughts. Figuring out how to handle the increased pressure is an ongoing process.
But the expectations themselves, and what they imply, are just what Pearson desires.
“Those are the expectations that you want at Michigan,” Pearson said. “That’s why you come here as a player — to win championships. … But having said that, again, it’s the process. You have to go through the things, make sure you’re taking care of all the little things and the championships will take care of themselves.”
Expectations are a funny thing. Fans, media and other observers have one set of expectations, but a team often has another.
“Last year, the expectations were to win a national championship,” Cecconi said. “And they’re going to be the same this year.”
For a player, it’s an understandable sentiment — why play if you don’t believe you can win the ultimate prize? But for anyone else, it’s a bold expectation, one that not even the most optimistic supporter would have believed in last season.
This year, however, things have changed. Expectations are aligned once again.
Maybe the Wolverines won’t return to the Frozen Four this year. But there is a foundation on top of which Pearson can go about adding to the program’s legacy.
That air of calm emanating throughout Yost Ice Arena? It’s not an illusion.
For Michigan, things are back to normal.
Shames can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Jacob_Shames.