One is a 24 year-old who took a circuitous route to Ann Arbor. The other is an 18 year-old who has been in town the past two years with the National Team Development Program.

One is an undrafted free agent. The other is a second round pick.

But for the Michigan hockey team, senior Chad Langlais and the freshman Jon Merrill have made up the top defensive pair in the first weeks of practice as well as in the Wolverines’ season-opening tie with Mercyhurst. Together, they’re adjusting to their new roles — Langlais as a senior leader, and Merrill as a player at the college level.

“They’re both smart,” Michigan coach Red Berenson said after Tuesday’s practice. “Merrill’s got an offensive side to him, and he’s got a defensive side to him, so right now I think he’s a good fit with (Langlais). Now, we’ll see when we get into some serious competition in our league.”

The pair saw a good amount of time on the power play and both had an assist on No. 4 Michigan’s first goal of the season. But Merrill’s freshman mistakes became evident as the Lakers mounted their comeback. His errant pass up the boards resulted in Mercyhurst’s third goal. He was the on the ice for the tying goal as well.

These defensive miscues leave Merrill like many other freshmen defensemen — focused on his own zone far more than the opponent’s.

“The hardest thing for a young defenseman when they come in is just getting the puck out of our own zone and playing good defense just so you’re not on the ice for minus, minus, minus,” Berenson said. “I think that’s his focus right now is just making that first pass a good pass, playing good defense, and then if he gets any offensive chances, that’s fine.”

Merrill finished minus one against Mercyhurst. But the 38th pick in last June’s NHL Draft can learn from his free-agent counterpart. Late in overtime, a puck trickled behind senior goalie Shawn Hunwick and lay in the crease. Langlais turned around and swiped it away with his stick to preserve the tie.

More important than his defensive heroics is Langlais’s newfound leadership role. After the graduation of Steve Kampfer and Chris Summers, Langlais is one of two seniors on the blue line. And he has jumped at the opportunity to lead.

“He’s had a good role right from day one,” Berenson said. “He’s been a go-to defenseman, but now you can just see. He’s got that extra swagger, that extra confidence on the ice, that extra authority on the ice that goes with experience.”

Also absent with Kampfer and Summers leaving is offense from the back end. They combined to account for just over 40 percent of scoring from defense last year.

Langlais, known for his quickness and puckhandling ability, was the second-leading scorer among Michigan defensemen last year with 21 points, just two behind Kampfer. But he isn’t as eager to put the added pressure of producing more points on himself.

“I’m always tough on myself but I know we have a lot of good defensemen that can carry the load too,” Langlais said.

The members of Michigan’s top defensive pair have their separate roles in practice as well. Langlais is one of the first to get off the ice for practice, while Merrill has to wait and pick up all of the pucks. But all their differences become less important when the puck drops. Even the generation gap.

“I didn’t even realize he’s six years older than me,” Merrill said.

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