Phil Di Giuseppe had a heck of a first semester in Ann Arbor.
Michigan coach Red Berenson predicted that Di Giuseppe would be an immediate impact player, and the freshman forward wasted no time affirming his coach’s insight. He scored three goals in his first four games and finished November tied for the team lead in goals.
In December, he was invited to try out for the Canadian Junior national team, a significant accomplishment even though he didn’t make the team.
Not bad for an 18-year-old.
But the second semester for Di Giuseppe has been rather different. He hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 3 in Alaska, and it took him six games in 2012 to even register a point.
“I’m not shooting as much as before, and you have to shoot to be lucky,” Di Giuseppe said.
But defensively, the kid is coming along just fine.
“(Berenson) told me I had to work on my defensive game when I came in here, and I think I’ve done that,” Di Giuseppe said. “After Christmas break, I haven’t been scoring as much, so I have been trying to help out defensively. I’m just happy to contribute that way.”
Berenson constantly stresses the importance of two-way forwards, and more often than not, the staple of Berenson’s teams is defensive stalwarts that fly after loose pucks and aren’t afraid to get physical in the defensive zone.
Veteran players such as senior captain Luke Glendening have taken years to perfect that style of play, because it’s something that’s tough to pick up quickly. One of the most difficult adjustments for young players is defense, because playing defense in prep leagues is a lot different than playing defense for Michigan.
“Everyone can play offense,” said junior forward Chris Brown. “My dad always used to joke that you can turn a defenseman into a forward, but turning a forward into a defenseman is going to take some time.
“Everyone wants to score goals and be that guy in the limelight. Defense is harder. It takes more work, more effort, and it’s more tiring. On offense, you kind of get to slow it down.”
Di Giuseppe’s defense has improved naturally by playing with Glendening, one of the team’s best defensive forwards, and hard-working junior forward A.J. Treais. But he is also learning what many before him have been taught — good defense will bring good offense.
“You have to play better without the puck when you aren’t scoring,” Berenson said. “Not that you intentionally do that, but sometimes you get caught up in an offensive mindset and start thinking about goals and so on, but I want them to think about checking and working hard without the puck.
“Then, the offensive stuff will come. Our team always scores more goals when we play better defense.”
Oftentimes, when players who used to be their prep teams’ leading scorers come to Michigan, too much of their focus is paid to the almighty stat sheet. To become good on the defensive end, you have to stop caring about seeing your name in the box score. Mentally, that can be the biggest battle of them all.
“You can’t measure everything in goals and assists, which a lot of kids do before they get here,” Berenson said. “They measure their game as points, but here, you have to be a complete player, not just a player that’s hoping to score.
“That’s the one thing you want to become when you are Michigan, you want to be a complete hockey player when it is all said and done.”
Di Giuseppe registered his first point of the new year in Michigan’s most recent game, an assist against Notre Dame. But if the freshman continues to improve on defense, seeing his name in the stat sheet won’t be important.
“I just have to play a more simple game offensively and do the little things,” Di Giuseppe said. “But if we keep winning, it doesn’t matter.”