Waltz into Yost Ice Arena any weekday afternoon, and what you see hovering around the blue line might be a bit confusing.

Morgan Morel
Jack Johnston (Photos by ZACH MEISNER and STEVEN TAI/Daily)
Morgan Morel
Matt Hunwick
Morgan Morel
Chris Summers

Future NHL players and dazzling talent swirl around the zone. But this isn’t an NHL prospects camp. This is the Michigan defense.

And while most of the backliners know their futures lie in pro hockey, the one concern right now is Michigan’s goal – and keeping pucks out of it.

Then and now

To say the Wolverines struggled with goals against last season is an understatement. Sophomore Jack Johnson refers to it as a disaster.

The young team allowed 125 goals in 41 games, including the 5-1 thrashing from North Dakota that sealed Michigan’s one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance. The previous season saw 22 fewer pucks pass over the goal line.

“Last year with our goals against, they were higher than normal,” Michigan associate coach Billy Powers said. “No one was happy about that.”

Despite a promising fall that included a stint as the No. 1 team in the nation, Michigan’s weakness showed as the year went on. Eleven freshmen and a slew of mistakes from all age groups produced a slumping team from one of hockey’s most storied programs.

They tried tweaking lines. They tried switching goalies. But the Wolverines couldn’t solve it and finished third in the CCHA for one of the program’s worst seasons in more than a decade. Their offense was the best in the conference at 3.64 goals per game. Their defense? A lowly ninth in the CCHA with 2.93 goals allowed per game.

In the end, Michigan was left with an offseason of reviewing tape and a handful of questions.

“I think our team defense as a whole wasn’t the best,” now senior captain Matt Hunwick said. “We didn’t give our goalies much help. We gave up a lot of breakaways, a lot of odd-man rushes. We can’t allow those little mistakes to happen if we want to be a championship team.”

Remembering last year’s faults, the Michigan defense has a renewed sense of what it means to protect its goal.

Perhaps most importantly, last year’s entire blue line is back to prove it’s better than before. This year, it’s stacked. Five NHL draftees, three of them first-round picks. Three mature seniors. Two superstar sophomores. Two highly touted freshman.

And everyone hopes that equals one stingy defense.

It’s said that defense wins championships, and whether or not that’s true, Powers has witnessed two of them in his 15-year tenure. The man knows an extraordinary defense when he sees one.

“This is probably our deepest and most talented group on paper – no question with that,” Powers said. “We have to make that translate on the ice. We have the potential to be a very, very special defense, as far as the Michigan history goes.”

Seasoned seniors

It’s a powerful combination.

The poise that comes after three years of college competition, and the urgency of having just one left.

With former Wolverines Al Montoya and Jeff Tambellini among the many that left town before graduation day in recent years, it’s been a while since Michigan enjoyed a non-depleted, fully developed senior class.

“It’s nice to see the seniors stay and complete their four years, become dominant players and be rewarded for it,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said. “I’m a big believer in that.”

Hunwick, drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2004, is living evidence of the development that comes from a full college career.

The Sterling Heights native started his career with a plus-14 freshman campaign, but lit the red lamp just once all season. His second year brought six goals, followed by 11 goals his junior year. Each year he maintained his position at the top of Michigan’s plus/minus list, with two back-to-back plus-15 seasons.

“Matt has become a tremendous two-way defenseman here,” Powers said. “He’s become a threat offensively, jumping into the play, carrying the puck up the ice. But at the same time he has not lost his bread and butter, being a reliable responsible top defenseman.

“When he got here we always knew we were going to have a great defensive defenseman. Now he’s become a great defenseman because he can provide great offense as well as great defense.”

The steady anchor on the blue line was awarded for his consistency and expanded skills with a “C” on his jersey. Winning the Vic Heyliger Trophy as Michigan’s top defenseman each of the last two seasons, Hunwick is no stranger to leadership.

Teammates point to his work ethic as his best quality.

“Hunwick’s just a horse,” fellow senior defenseman Tim Cook said. “He’s a really hard worker.”

Alternate captain Jason Dest has also established himself as someone for others to look up to.

The Fraser native tends to fly under the radar. To someone outside the program, he might seem an odd choice for the “A” on a team full of nationally recognized names.

But watch Dest in practice and see how he interacts with his fellow players. He’s not just Michigan’s top penalty-killing defenseman, he’s the quintessential teammate.

“He has a tremendous amount of respect from his peers,” Powers said. “He’s always taken time to help the young players develop. He’s always cared about his teammates and the program. He’s just a guy that wears the ‘M’ on his sleeve all the time.”

Boasting a newfound confidence that’s been slowly simmering over his college career, Dest appears poised to play his best hockey yet. Considering he’s riding Michigan’s longest active streak of consecutive games played (125), his reliability is an asset, too.

Like Dest, Cook isn’t making headlines for his offensive heroics. Last year against CCHA cupcake Bowling Green, he notched the first and only score of his career.

But also like Dest, the mature and dependable blue liner is coming into his own as a hockey player.

“They want to have breakout years,” Powers said.

Cook, a 2003 Ottawa Senators draft pick, is best known for his size and prowess on the penalty kill. Together with Dest, shorthanded doesn’t seem like such a disadvantage for Michigan.

It’s all part of the beauty of being a senior. And the Wolverines are glad to soak that in – three times over, with three respected veterans.

Second year of stardom

Pressure. Pressure to carry Michigan. Pressure to get drafted. Pressure to play pro hockey. Pressure, pressure, pressure.

The sophomore defensemen know it well. It’s defined their short Michigan careers.

But the awkward first practices, the nerve-wracking first games and days of NHL meddling are afterthoughts now.

Jack Johnson and Mark Mitera came in with a group of nine other freshmen. Johnson, the third overall pick in the 2005 draft, arrived in the midst of hype so loud it could put a Yost home crowd to shame.

Mitera found himself in a depleted defense that needed his physical presence to succeed. He also played up to his first year of draft eligibility.

Mitera worked as a freshman to get drafted high, and he succeeded, going 19th overall in 2006 to the Anaheim Ducks.

Johnson fought to stay in Ann Arbor after increased pressure from the NHL, and he did. Doing so meant he got traded from the can’t-wait Carolina Hurricanes to the patient Los Angeles Kings.

“His head is clear now,” Powers said. “He’s been traded, there’s no more ‘When’s Carolina going to call next and ask me to come?’ Jack’s issues are a little different than a lot of players. . It was hard on him, very difficult. Now he’s comfortable with fact that L.A. will wait.”

Both drafted and content in Ann Arbor, Johnson and Mitera can finally focus on the heart of it all: what happens on the ice.

The two sophomores had impressive first years despite all the buzz and expectations. Mitera notched 10 assists while using his menacing 210-pound, 6-foot-3 frame to be a physical force against opposing forwards.

Unfortunately for them, Powers said Mitera has added about 15 pounds to that.

“He’s not a guy you want to run into right now,” Powers said.

As for Johnson, he’s a player opponents tried to run into – but not because he’s easy to take on.

It was no secret that getting the hot NHL prospect riled up didn’t take much. Johnson racked up 149 penalty minutes for the season, more than double of any other Wolverine.

But a year older and wiser, Johnson said he’s going to pick his spots a bit more this season.

“I’m not going to say I won’t have penalties this year, because I probably will, but it just probably won’t be as many,” Johnson said.

The situation is a catch-22 for Michigan coaches. Being shorthanded often is never good, but stifling Johnson’s fire and intensity would be taking one of the best elements from his game.

The one thing that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere is Johnson’s firepower up front. A finalist for last season’s CCHA Best Offensive Defenseman, he notched 10 goals and 22 assists. In the team’s two exhibition games last week, Johnson managed three goals and five assists.

“Jack Johnson certainly lived up to all the expectations that people put on him,” Berenson said.

Considering the buildup that comes with being highest drafted Michigan player of all time, that says a lot for Johnson’s play – and he wants to improve.

“He just absolutely can do it all,” Powers said. “Everything’s been said about him, but everything’s true. It won’t surprise me if he can take his game to another level, which is not going to be easy to do because he’s already so good. But he doesn’t want to be just that good. He wants to be great.”

Fresh-faced first years

In a sea of returning roster members, it’s easy to lose track of two players new to the Michigan squad.

But then you see Chris Summers skate.

And you watch Steve Kampfer move the puck.

“They’re going to demand ice time,” Powers said. “They’re not going to take a backseat to anybody here.”

Summers, already drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round of the 2006 draft, is generating buzz for the way he moves on the ice. Powers called the Milan native’s skating “world-class, like Hunwick’s.”

Summers, like many of the Wolverines, comes from the Under-18 United States National Team Development Program. The team makes a season out of playing college teams, so for Summers, skating against Division I opponents is nothing new.

And he hopes to be scoring against them soon, too. Summer says he tries to make himself into “the fourth forward,” jumping up and joining the rush when he can.

Kampfer, newly 18 years old and the team’s youngest player, likes to get in the rush a bit, too.

“I can chip in equally at both ends,” Kampfer said. “I can pick when I want to join. It’s fun jumping into the play, but you also have to realize you’ve got to be back if the puck turns over.”

Coaches and teammates marvel over Kampfer’s puck handling and strong shot, attributes that will probably land him a spot on Michigan’s ailing power play.

But to Powers, the biggest strength of Kampfer and Summers isn’t a hockey skill. Both rookies have had their eyes set on Michigan from a young age, and to him that’s worth more than anything.

“For them, putting on that helmet and that jersey is a very, very special thing,” Powers said. “You’re not getting just good hockey players and good kids, you’re getting kids that are living out a dream. We’re seeing that every day. They’re working so hard because they’re so happy.”

These seven players are bound by a drive to return Michigan to the upper echelon of college hockey. Each of them knows that starts in one place: with them, at the blue line, keeping pucks out of the net.

Moving on up

In the game of hockey, there are defensemen and there are forwards.

And maybe some who do a little of both.

The Michigan coaches are certainly not opposed to moving players between the two ends of the ice. Just ask senior David Rohlfs, a natural forward who spent the first 23 games of last season on the blue line.

In Rohlfs’s case, the Wolverines had an ailing defense. That’s not an issue this season, as Michigan boasts a deep and talented back line. But with players like Jack Johnson and Matt Hunwick racking up ridiculous offensive statistics, it’s easy to wonder what they would be like if they moved up front.

“We definitely have talked about that issue” associate coach Billy Powers said. “They could probably really add an offensive element to a line.”

Aside from spicing up a stagnant offensive combination, moving a defenseman up might help add some defensive responsibility to a line that is dominated by offensive players.

Either way, Powers said the only way a blue liner could get moved up is if he could hold his own offensively on one of the top two lines.

One player who seems fit to do so is freshman Chris Summers, a Milan native who spent his hockey career as a forward until he switched to defense at 14 years old. He enters this season as a defenseman, but could go either way.

“Too be honest with you I wouldn’t care if I was playing goalie, just as long as I’m playing,” Summers said. “The transition to forward isn’t too big. It’s just kind of like getting on a bike again after a while. You never forget the position, you just get back in the groove of things.”

As for Johnson, who’s been seen up front occasionally during practice, he’s not opposed to shuffling things up either.

“I think it’d be kind of fun,” Johnson said. “I’m a defenseman, and that’s my first priority. But if coach wants to throw me up at forward, I have no problem with that.”

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