When Minnesota-Duluth’s Kyle Schmidt slashed through Michigan’s defense and scored the overtime winner in the National Championship game, all junior defenseman Brandon Burlon could do was watch — from the cheap seats.
Less than two months later, Burlon, who sat out as a scratch for the Michigan hockey team’s run to the Frozen Four, signed his first professional contract. Burlon will forego his senior season in Ann Arbor.
Burlon, a second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, tallied five goals and 13 assists this season before acquiring esophagitis in early March and missing the Wolverines’ final six games.
The defenseman practiced with the team for nearly two weeks before traveling with Michigan to St. Paul, Minn. for the Frozen Four, but Michigan coach Red Berenson elected to ride the hot lineup and keep freshman defenseman Kevin Clare on the bench, leaving Burlon scratched.
A 4-1 victory against Bowling Green in the opening round of the CCHA Tournament on Mar. 12 was Burlon’s last game as a Wolverine.
But Burlon maintains that Berenson’s decision keep him out of the lineup during the Frozen Four didn’t play a factor in his decision to sign with the Devils.
“No, no, not at all,” Burlon said Monday, quickly refuting the notion. “I wasn’t going to let something like that affect a decision of that magnitude. There’s been a lot of skepticism about the situation — opinions offered — but no, not playing didn’t have a bearing on my decision whatsoever.”
But whether Berenson knew it or not, his defenseman had very nearly made his decision already to jump to the pros. Burlon said he’d been “thinking about it for a while,” but there was no timeline.
Word escaped soon after classes ended that Burlon had moved back home to Toronto — where he is now — effectively expressing that he intended to sign with New Jersey. The process finally was finalized on May 29.
“Whenever it got done, it got done,” Burlon said. “I wasn’t going to stress about it. I was just enjoying the summer and waiting for it to happen.”
Burlon notified Michigan’s coaches of his decision while they attended an NCAA coaches’ conference in Florida. He broke the news to then-associate head coach Mel Pearson, who passed it on to Berenson.
“They got everything sorted out before spring term so they could get their recruiting situation — the money situation — figured out from there,” Burlon said.
Berenson often expresses his displeasure for players leaving school early, saying his fear is that they will become “hockey bums,” bouncing around in the minor leagues. Burlon spoke with Berenson days later.
“When we talked on the phone a couple weeks ago, (Berenson) expressed his concerns with the decision and whatnot, but ultimately the decision was made and we moved on,” Burlon said.
At this point, Burlon is the only non-senior to forego his senior year to play professionally, but Michigan has also lost a senior class of seven players.
Burlon indicated that he intends to complete his degree during upcoming off-seasons, something Berenson is certainly pleased with.
“I felt like three years of school was a good thing,” Burlon said. “Some guys leave after their sophomore years. Junior year of school, I think that’s a big hump to overcome, I think with just a year left I can chip away slowly and eventually get my degree.”
According to the Devils’ organization, the decision was completely up to Burlon.
“That’s more his decision than ours,” New Jersey Director of Scouting David Conte said. “If he’s feels he’s ready and we’re willing to try and nurture him, we think there’s promise there.
“He’s a very good college defenseman, and if in his mind he wants and is ready for another challenge, frankly … it’s what the player thinks rather than what the team thinks. If they’re ready and hungry to prove things, then for sure the skill set’s capable of meeting those challenges. That’s what it looks like for Brandon.”
The Nobleton, Ont. native collected 47 points and a plus-43 plus/minus in three years as a Wolverine defenseman, and will leave a second hole in the defensive corps, the other left by graduating senior Chad Langlais.
“He has pretty much the total package,” Conte said Thursday. “He’s got reasonable size, he’s aggressive, he’s intelligent, he’s smart and he’s evolved appropriately over three years at Michigan.”
Burlon’s likely first stop in professional hockey will be the Albany Devils of the American Hockey League, but he won’t be content just staying there.
“Hopefully I get my chance to play (in the NHL) earlier rather than later,” Burlon said. “And if I’ve got to put my time in wherever I have to to achieve my goals and my dreams, so be it.”
And while Burlon says that there has been “no backlash” from teammates over him leaving Michigan early, he openly acknowledges that the fan base may not be as forgiving.
So No. 6 gave one last message to Michigan.
“It’s been a great three years while I was there and it would’ve been great for a fourth,” Burlon said. “They’re definitely the best fans in college hockey. I’ve been fortunate to play in some pretty cool rinks, but Yost is definitely in a league of its own.
“I’m not going to be the last defenseman to leave, but hopefully they enjoy the new faces that come in and keep the tradition alive.”