Everybody knows the big names on the Michigan hockey team: Power, Beniers, Johnson and Hughes.
The Wolverines are loaded with NHL talent. The roster boasts 13 draftees, including four of the top five selections from the 2021 draft. Sophomores such as Owen Power, Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson draw much of the opposing team’s attention. Rightfully so, the trio is terrific, constantly producing on both ends of the ice for the Wolverines.
However, to categorize this team as top-heavy would be a severe underestimation of its depth.
Players like Beniers, Johnson, and fellow sophomore Thomas Bordeleau figure to light up the score sheet, but they can only carry this team so far. Hockey is a depth-reliant sport. It’s not like basketball, where teams can ride a player or two for a championship. A productive power play and flashy goals will not result in a championship. Michigan coach Mel Pearson knows this better than anyone.
“One of the things we’re trying to create here is to have four lines that can score,” Pearson said. “We’ve got a number of players who have good experience, that play hard and do a really nice job. We’re just trying to get them to create some offense.”
Among those experienced players are senior forwards Mike Pastujov, Jimmy Lambert and Garrett Van Wyhe, along with junior forwards Eric Ciccolini and Nick Granowicz. Pastujov, Ciccolini and Granowicz were particularly productive last year. The trio combined for 19 goals and 32 points, primarily operating with the middle six forwards. If they can recreate those numbers, they will ease some of the load on the top lines.
Pearson will have plenty of opportunities to mix and match his forward lines.
“We’ve got some different combinations of chemistry,” Pearson said. “We’re deep. I want to get us down to a point where any line can score so we almost have a top 12. Who are you going to try and shut down?”
There is another player who, despite being a first-round pick, should be a major piece on the middle lines for Michigan.
When he arrived in Ann Arbor, junior forward Johnny Beecher, who stands in at 6’3 and weighs over 200 pounds with deceivingly good speed, was a highly-touted prospect. The Boston Bruins selected him with the 30th pick in the first round of the 2019 NHL draft. Beecher is currently nursing an upper-body injury, one that will, unfortunately, keep him out upwards of four weeks. His presence will be missed.
Beecher has put up solid statistics, tallying 13 goals and 11 assists through two seasons. However, Beecher was not selected to two USA U-20 World Juniors rosters for his goalscoring. Rather, he was selected for his unique combination of size and speed. He hopes to influence the rest of his teammates with his physicality.
And it seems that he has.
In Saturday’s exhibition game against Bowling Green, sophomore forward Brendan Brisson, who recorded a hat trick, showed off his own physicality. Moments after his second goal, Brisson delivered two big hits in the offensive zone. This type of balance is crucial for Michigan. If they rely too heavily on their skill, complete teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin will pick them apart.
This team expects to compete for a national championship, and senior defenseman Nick Blankenburg knows his team must remain level-headed for this to happen. He recognizes the importance of skill, but a physical breed of hockey is necessary in big games.
“I think that’s a good start, to continue to be physical,” Blankenburg said. “Especially down the line in playoff hockey, that’s how you win games, is being physical.”
Blankenburg is a bit undersized at 5’9, but he more than makes up for it with his aggressive and courageous play style. In addition to his two goals, he also blocked two shots against Bowling Green. When the rest of the team sees their captain sacrifice his body, it usually resonates.
Blankenburg added: “We can’t be a soft team.”
Considering the pressure on this team, there will be a giant target on their back. Each opponent will give them their very best. If they want to make a deep run, being soft is not an option.
Daily Sports Writer Sam Bernardi can be found @SamBernardi on Twitter.