Michigan falls well short of expectations after last year's Frozen Four run

Thursday, March 14, 2019 - 8:04pm

Mel Pearson and the Michigan hockey team failed to make the NCAA Tournament this season.

Mel Pearson and the Michigan hockey team failed to make the NCAA Tournament this season. Buy this photo
Katelyn Mulcahy/Daily

The Michigan hockey team’s season hasn’t ended before Mar. 10 in at least 19 years. Records on MGoBlue.com begin with the 2000-01 season and since then, the earliest the Wolverines have hung up their skates for the year was Mar. 16, 2017.

This year, after a heartbreaking last-second loss in the 2018 Frozen Four, Michigan entered the season with expectations. The Wolverines wanted to build on their run from the previous season and maybe, just maybe, win a championship.

But despite being ranked No. 4 in the country to begin the 2018-19 season, Michigan started the year off with a home loss to Vermont, which finished the season 12-19-3 and tenth out of 11 teams in its conference.

The Wolverines swept just two series on the season: one against St. Lawrence, which finished the year 59th of 60 teams in the Pairwise rankings, in late October, and one against Michigan State in February.

Wins over top-ranked teams like Ohio State and Notre Dame were interspersed between long stretches of mediocrity, and the Wolverines’ season came to an end in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament for the third time since the tournament’s inception in the 2013-14 season.

The Daily looks back at Michigan’s season by breaking down the performance of each unit and offering superlatives before looking ahead to next year.

Offense

The Wolverines’ offense appeared to suffer a precipitous drop-off from last season's, which was headlined by Cooper Marody and Tony Calderone, who finished 2018 with a combined 96 points.

But while Michigan lacked the true top line that last year’s “DMC” line became, the 2018-19 Wolverines finished with just below half a goal per game less than their predecessors — down to 3.04 goals per game from 3.4. Michigan finished eighth in the country in Corsi percentage, which measures even-strength shot attempts, including shots on goal, blocked shots and misses.  

For the first half of the season, the “SNL” line of forwards Jake Slaker, Josh Norris and Will Lockwood appeared to be a valuable replacement for Marody and Calderone’s production. But Norris suffered a season-ending shoulder injury at the World Juniors and missed the entire second half of the season, causing the lines to be jumbled up once again.

Lockwood found success on a line with junior forward Nick Pastujov and sophomore forward Jack Becker. He put up a team-high 16 goals and finished second on the team with 31 points. Just five of those 16 tallies came before Norris’ injury.

Despite missing half of the season, Norris still finished fourth on the team in goals and sixth with points, which says something about the impact he had on the offense. His impact didn’t just come at even strength, either.

With Norris, Michigan’s power play converted at a 19-percent clip. Without him, that conversion rate dropped to just 10-percent.

Sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes tallied a team-high 28 assists, and his defensive partner, senior Joseph Cecconi, added 17 helpers of his own. The Wolverines didn’t get many goals from its blueline — just 14 on the season came from defensemen — but Hughes and Cecconi were instrumental in setting up their teammates for scoring opportunities.

Michigan’s offense started the season fairly well and was largely carried by Norris. After Norris went down, the offensive production went with him.

Lockwood, Slaker and Pastujov attempted to carry the load for the second half, but the Wolverines’ offense struggled down the stretch.

Defense

Michigan allowed 3.17 goals per game on average, up from the 2017-18 average of 3.02. In nine of their 36 games, the Wolverines allowed five or more goals and had a 1-8 record when they gave up that many goals.

Hughes, the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NHL draft, brought quite a bit of offense to Michigan’s group of blueliners but somewhat struggled to provide that same level of impact on defense. He finished the season with a minus-two plus-minus rating — a rating that became minus-four when combined with his partner, Cecconi.

Freshman defenseman Nick Blankenburg led the team with a plus-11 plus-minus rating, while also playing a handful of games at forward.

Hughes and Cecconi were the Wolverines’ top defensive pairing on the line chart, but juniors Griffin Luce and Luke Martin were Michigan’s best true blueliners.

The duo tallied just ten points combined on the season but had a combined plus-five rating, the second best of any of the Wolverines’ defensive pairings. Martin missed the last eight games of the season with a forearm injury and was clearly a loss for Michigan.

The Wolverines gave up more than two goals in six of those last eight games and had a 2-5-1 record without Martin in the lineup.

Michigan finished 44th in the nation in both scoring defense and penalty-killing percentage out of 60 teams.

Goaltending

While neither the offense nor the defense was particularly excellent, the goaltending is where things really got ugly.

Junior Hayden Lavigne backstopped the Wolverines to the Frozen Four last season and was one of the best netminders in the country during the second half of the year. Two freshmen — Strauss Mann and Jack Leavy — were Lavigne’s competition for the starting job this season, so it was expected that he’d be the starter out of the gate.

But in Michigan’s first two games of the season, Lavigne allowed a combined nine goals. Michigan coach Mel Pearson elected to start Mann in the third game, and he wasn’t much better.

The two split starts for the majority of the year, with neither netminder truly asserting himself as the go-to starter. Lavigne and Mann started 19 and 17 games, respectively, though Mann appeared in four additional games in relief of Lavigne.

In the last nine games, Lavigne started just three games to Mann’s six. He went 1-2 in those games and was pulled for the fourth time of the season on Feb. 12 against Notre Dame after allowing four goals in the first two periods.

Mann let in only one additional goal in the third period and started the next three games. But after Michigan lost, 5-4, in overtime to Wisconsin on March 1, Lavigne earned the nod the next night.

Pearson chose Lavigne because of his experience in big games — a win would’ve given the Wolverines home-ice advantage for at least the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Four goals and another overtime loss later, it became clear that Lavigne wasn’t a better option.

Mann started between the pipes for Michigan’s final two games of the season, but his performance wasn’t enough to help the Wolverines extend their season.

By the end of the year, Lavigne’s cumulative save percentage of .884 ranked 74th of 75 eligible goaltenders. Mann, despite looking better off the eye, finished just eight spots better in a tie for 66th.

Season Awards

Offensive MVP: Josh Norris

Defensive MVP: Joseph Cecconi

Breakout Player: Will Lockwood

Freshman of the Year: Nick Blankenburg

High Point: Sweep of Michigan State, Feb. 8-9

Low Point: 4-2 loss to Merrimack on Jan. 8

Best Individual Performance: Nolan Moyle’s game-tying and game-winning goals against Ohio State on Feb. 22

Up Next

Hughes signed with the Vancouver Canucks a day after Michigan’s season ended. Cecconi, along with senior defenseman Nicholas Boka and senior forward Brendan Warren, is no longer with the team.

And after a disappointing campaign, the Wolverines will be looking for improvement next year.

Hughes is a hard player to replace with his skating and offensive upside, but U.S. National Team Development Program defenseman Cam York figures to replace at least some of what Hughes brought to the team. York is expected to be drafted in the first round this summer.

Michigan will also add forward John Beecher from the NTDP and forward Emil Ohrvall, who is currently the eighth-leading scorer in the USHL with 52 points in 48 games played.

Norris, Lockwood, Martin and Slaker could potentially leave for the NHL, though Pearson said on Inside the Huddle on Thursday that he’s optimistic all four will be back.

If those four do return, the Wolverines will have a talent-laden — and experienced — roster. Michigan added ten freshmen ahead of the 2018-19 campaign and was the fourth-youngest team in college hockey this year. Getting Norris, Lockwood, Martin and Slaker back would bode well for the Wolverines’ expectations next year.

But if those four don’t come back, Michigan will be in trouble. Its returning leading scorer would be Pastujov, who had a 14-game goal-scoring drought and finished the year with 24 points.

Goaltending remains a question no matter what happens. The Wolverines, at this point, do not have a netminder in the incoming class. Mann looked good toward the end of this season and will be the likely starter in October, but there’s also a chance Lavigne could re-elevate his game to the level it was during last year’s Frozen Four run.

After last season, Michigan was expected to — and expecting to – build on its success. But with a 13-16-7 final record and two sub-.500 seasons in the last three years, it seems like saying Michigan hockey was back after last year may have been premature.

Next season’s expectations are largely still to be determined, depending on what happens with Norris, Lockwood, Martin and Slaker. But one thing is for sure.

Based on the rollercoaster from last season to this one, it’s going to take more than one good season for Michigan hockey to be officially back.