At first glance, the Michigan hockey team’s upperclassmen forwards don’t contribute much to the team’s success. Their stats don’t jump off the page, they don’t dominate on the power play and they aren’t highly-touted draft prospects.
But box scores and stats don’t tell the full story.
Fifth-year forward Michael Pastujov leads his classmates in scoring this season, tallying nine goals and seven assists through 27 games played. The next closest senior forward is Nolan Moyle, who has recorded four goals and five assists thus far. Trailing closely behind are senior forwards Garrett Van Wyhe and Jimmy Lambert and graduate forward Luke Morgan, who have not yet reached double-digit points on the season.
So, if they’re not elite scorers, what makes these veterans so valuable?
“They’re good penalty killers first and foremost,” Michigan coach Mel Pearson said. “We’ve asked them to take ownership in that role and they’ve done a really good job. They understand how important it is to be able to kill penalties. They’ve been fantastic.”
In last weekend’s loss to Minnesota, Michigan’s streak of 23 consecutive penalties killed was snapped. The feat wouldn’t have been possible without the likes of Van Wyhe and Moyle. Both are listed at 6-foot-2 and use every inch of those frames to intercept passes, win uneven battles down low and block shots.
But it’s not just their relentless defense that makes an impact. Of the Wolverines’ four shorthanded goals this year, three have come from seniors (Pastujov, Moyle and Van Wyhe) and the other was courtesy of junior forward Johnny Beecher. Despite being a year younger, Beecher possesses much of the same traits — he’s big, physical and plays a complete game.
Many of these players have been middle or bottom six forwards for the entire year. They ease some of the pressure off the top scorers and provide the team with energy and hustle.
Beyond these roles, their versatility makes this a particularly impactful group of upperclassmen.
“They all came in as proven scorers,” Pearson said. “Then when you get here, your role changes a bit. But, they can score and we’ve asked them to, just don’t be happy, don’t be satisfied, push yourself out of your comfort level.”
Although Michigan’s underclassmen draw most of the attention, players like Moyle, Beecher and Van Wyhe allow Pearson to load up his top forward line. They not only survive against opposing top lines, but often frustrate them with their tenacious play.
When Beniers, Johnson, Brisson and sophomore defenseman Owen Power head to the Olympics, Pearson will have to lean more heavily on his older players. All four of the Olympians are integral to the Wolverines’ success. They all play major minutes — both even strength and on the power play — and seemingly whenever the team has needed a big goal, one of those stars has delivered.
For most teams, losing four of its top players would be a disaster. For Michigan, it’s just another challenge.
“I’ve been here four years, we’ve always had guys leave for World Juniors,” Moyle said. “It’s gonna be a huge challenge for us but a great opportunity for a lot of guys, that next man up mentality… It’s obviously really special for those guys to be going to the Olympics. We wish them luck and we’ll miss them, but we have a job to take care of here.”
The added responsibility will be daunting at first but should benefit Michigan in the long run. The more players that Pearson can trust in the big moment, the better.
“Everyone in that room that gets an opportunity will be ready to go” Moyle added.