Let’s build a power play.
Scouring the No. 3 Michigan hockey team’s roster, it’s easy to get lost in its immense talent. Names like freshman Adam Fantilli, sophomore Mackie Samoskevich and freshman Rutger McGroarty pop off the page as immediate scoring threats. Tantalizing options such as sophomore Luke Hughes and freshman Seamus Casey could patrol your blue line. And of course, you could put an immovable screener like sophomore Dylan Duke in front of the net.
Distracted by all that star power, you’d probably skim right over freshman TJ Hughes; And that’d be your first mistake.
But after the freshman forward’s hot start to the season — 14 points through 12 games — it’s hard to overlook him now. Most of that production has come from his crucial playmaking on the red-hot first power play unit.
Even Hughes didn’t expect this kind of role so early in his Wolverine career.
“Honestly, (I) love the opportunity,” TJ said Monday when asked about his power play usage. “They’re great guys to play with, so I just kind of take advantage of it. They’re so good; they’re some of the best players in the league so it’s been really fun to play with them, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
Hughes is being humble, though. He gives that unit as much as he takes from it, and there’s a reason his coaches trust him. To understand that role, let’s break down how Michigan’s power play works.
Structured on a dynamic platform that shifts from a playmaking 1-3-1 structure to a net front-heavy umbrella, Michigan positions its elite shooters in Fantilli and Samoskevich on their off-hand flanks. This allows them to not only see the puck better on one-timers, but also to open up more net to shoot at.
Right in the direction of their shots, Duke parks in front of the goal hunting for redirects. And of course, you can’t forget Luke Hughes at the point. Using his elite speed and playmaking abilities, he cycles the puck around to open shooters.
At the center of it all — in a position called the bumper — TJ Hughes makes his money.
As the bumper, TJ ties all the pieces together. He directs traffic from inside the defense’s shell, staying open to provide both relief for pressured teammates and simultaneous scoring threats. Depending on how much space opponents give him, TJ decides whether to pass it:
Or to shoot it:
In that chaotic role, TJ is the linchpin. Tracking the puck and making micro adjustments to his positioning, he keeps himself in play. He also decides when to shift the power play into a classic umbrella structure, skating down toward the goal to add another net-front screen. Whereas scorers like Fantilli or Samoskevich get the goals — and the praise — for power play success, TJ Hughes is right there silently tying it all together.
That role could hardly be predicted during the offseason, but it all came by design. It was the deadly combination of Michigan’s observant coaching and even stronger development. TJ was a late May addition to the freshman class, coming out of the AJHL’s Brooks Bandits. After a 127-point season — second only to teammate and Western Michigan freshman Ryan McAllister’s 139 — the Wolverines added TJ with one thing in mind:
“He has an elite hockey IQ and makes players around him better,” Michigan coach Brandon Naurato said when TJ was signed. “TJ knows what it takes to win championships, and Michigan is looking forward to him making a major impact offensively and on the power play.”
The Wolverines made an intentional move to pick up a power play weapon. So far, TJ has more than held up his end of the bargain. Half of his 14 points — that is, three goals and four assists — have come with that first power play unit. Two of those came this weekend, including a goal Friday and an assist Saturday. It’s a role he probably won’t relinquish soon barring major line shuffling. Michigan’s power play ranks second in efficiency at 33%.
Because after all that success, you can’t overlook TJ Hughes. Just like his role on the power play, he’ll make you pay for it if you do.