Wolverines' youth playing pivotal role

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 6:41pm

Freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes has been a key player for Michigan this season.

Freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes has been a key player for Michigan this season. Buy this photo
Max Kuang/Daily

For teams poised to make a postseason run, youth is not always the best recipe for success. With 16 of the 27 members of the No. 11 Michigan hockey team being underclassmen, there’s cause for concern.

But for the five freshmen on the roster, they have already seen big time matchups. While they haven’t had much postseason experience, they’re not shying away from the challenge of the NCAA Tournament.

“As much as you can try to prepare them, it’s different,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson. “It’s different than the regular season, it’s different than the Big Ten Tournament, but all you can do is try to prepare them as best as you can.”

Take Quinn Hughes, for example. Boasting the third most points on the team with 28, the freshman defenseman has consistently proven that his skating prowess and affinity to offense are invaluable.

“I think we’re very ready,” Hughes said. “We’re here to play. We’ve had a good week of practice so far, and we’re gonna have, I think, six or seven (practices) so we’re excited, we’re looking forward to it and I think we’re really ready.”

In the Wolverines’ (11-10-3 Big Ten, 20-14-3 overall) overtime loss to then-No. 6 Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinal — undoubtedly the team’s biggest matchup on the biggest stage thus far — Hughes could be seen carving up the slot, letting two shots fly that found iron.

“The young guys have played in big games,” Pearson said. “You don’t want to say it’s just another game because it’s not, but at the same time we need to play how we need to play.”

While Hughes has been on everyone’s radar throughout the season, it’s the rest of the freshman class that has shown how a workhorse mentality is pivotal in high-stakes matchups.

Forwards Jack Becker, Josh Norris, Dakota Raabe and Michael Pastujov have consistently proven their worth by killing penalties and adding a new dimension to Michigan’s defensive front.

Norris leads the group with 22 points, the others not lagging far behind. But generating points isn’t where they have found their niche in Michigan’s dynamic.

In junior hockey and high school, there’s no doubt that all of these players have found some level of experience in pressure-cooker games. However, they haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament.

Will they be able to rise to the challenge?

Pearson believes they can and will.

“A lot of the young guys have made good strides,” Pearson said. “Some of it you can measure it by their points and others you just measure it by their day-to-day work ethic and what they do on a daily basis in practice and it carries over to the games.

“But I just think they understand now what it takes to be on a good team and to be a good player.”

With the guidance of the upperclassmen, many of the underclassmen glimpsed what it’s like to play on such a stage. Players like junior defenseman Joe Cecconi took a mentorship role with Hughes, providing a stellar example of how to defend under pressure.

Cecconi is no stranger to it all, playing in the 2017 U-20 World Junior Championships and an NCAA Tournament.

In the coming week and a half, it’s clear that on the offensive side of the ice, senior Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody will have the spotlight on them in terms of scoring.

What’s also clear is that the underclassmen will also be taking a driver’s seat role in pressuring opponents’ defenses, killing penalties, blocking shots and all of the other gritty work that goes into creating success on the ice.

And in the end, that could be even more valuable.