Michigan’s defensemen strive for consistency
Wherever Mel Pearson goes, offense follows.
When Pearson became the head coach at Michigan Tech in 2011, the Huskies were coming off a 4-30-4 campaign in which they averaged just 1.97 goals and 24.9 shots per game. But after only one season, the Huskies were outshooting opponents and scoring nearly one more goal per contest than they had the previous year.
As the head coach of the Michigan hockey team, Pearson has worked similar wonders. The Wolverines have gone from 51st in the country in shot attempts in 2016-17 to fourth this season and are tied for 10th in scoring.
Pearson’s teams have always been quick to grasp his up-tempo brand of hockey. While watching sophomore forward Will Lockwood blast down the ice or the first line of seniors Dexter Dancs, Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody work in perfect harmony, it’s easy to forget all about last season.
For Michigan’s defense, however, the learning process hasn’t been quite as smooth.
“We’ve got to buy in and make a total commitment to team defense,” Pearson said after the Wolverines’ 5-4 loss to Penn State on Oct. 27. “We’ll score goals; we’ve got enough guys that can score goals. But we’ve got to play a lot better defensively.”
Michigan allowed three goals in the third period and overtime of that contest, as well as 54 shots on goal. The following day, Pearson and the coaching staff arranged a longer-than-usual video session, which involved watching the game’s last five minutes and identifying defensive mistakes. This paid off, as the Wolverines rebounded with a 5-2 win over the Nittany Lions to split the series.
“The last three goals in last night’s game, we had the puck possession and we just gave it away. Just poor puck management,” Pearson said after that game. “We (watched video) not to be overly critical or to pick on anyone but just as a learning process going forward, so when we get in a tough game somewhere down the line, we can play with that composure.”
But giveaways in the defensive zone have still plagued Michigan. Against Ferris State last Thursday, the Wolverines allowed just two goals, and both came as a result of avoidable turnovers — junior defenseman Nicholas Boka slipped and lost control of the puck, and Ferris State forward Lucas Finner stole the puck from sophomore forward Jake Slaker to score the Bulldogs’ second goal.
Pearson understands that eliminating what he terms “unforced errors” won’t happen overnight, and that one strong performance doesn’t mean that process is complete. On Thursday, he chalked many of the Wolverines’ defensive lapses up to the competitiveness of the blueliners in always wanting to make an outstanding play, even if one isn’t available.
“Just watched an NHL game this weekend and those defensemen, (if) they don’t have a play, they just gotta get it out and live for another day,” Pearson said. “I think that’s one of the big things. We have to just understand the situation.”
The Wolverines do have defensemen with the ability to contribute on offense — freshman Quinn Hughes, junior Joseph Cecconi and senior Sam Piazza have all tallied at least four points.
But priority number one still lies in the defensive zone, as Pearson has used statistics as motivation for the unit to perform.
“You call them together as a group to take pride in our statistics nationally,” Pearson said. “It’s a good reflection on your defensemen, your goals-against. ... We want to encourage them to do some things offensively but we want to be rock-solid defensively.”
Sophomore defenseman Luke Martin — one half of Michigan’s top defensive pairing, along with Hughes — also stressed developing a rapport with other defensemen as a unit is key for improvement.
“It’s a lot in practice and a lot in preparation, but the big key for me is communication,” Martin said. “Always talking with your partner, always dissecting shifts or plays and whatever it is and just getting on the same page and getting used to the way people play. Quinn and I — we’ve been talking so much and I think it shows that our chemistry and our togetherness. It’s gotten so much better and I think we still have so much left to build on.”
The aspect of chemistry has been hugely important to Pearson as well. While the Wolverines may lack experience or veteran presence in many areas, defense is not one of them, and Pearson has taken advantage of this, going as far as seating underclassmen next to upperclassmen in the locker room to aid their development.
“A lot of these guys won the Big Ten championship a couple years ago,” Pearson said. “So they’ve been through it, they understand what you need to do to have success and win championships. They have it, they experienced, it, they earned it. They understand what it takes. Even during the game, most players, they’re sitting right next to each other, they can add some advice to them or even in the locker room between periods and all these practices.”
Michigan’s transformation into one of the most dynamic offenses in the country took place quite rapidly. Building consistency behind this attack, however, has taken a bit longer. But through communication, video sessions and a strong focus on the defensive zone, Pearson and the Wolverines believe that stability will emerge in time.