Another Michigan hockey season has come and gone, and it seems as if the Wolverines are in exactly the same place they were at this time last year. Just like last season, Michigan had a decent but not great start; It lost in the Great Lakes Invitational, finished strong, pulled off upsets at Yost Ice Arena to advance to the Frozen Four and lost to Minnesota in the national semifinals. Also, just like last year, the Wolverines seem to have left the Frozen Four with hope that next year could be the year they win their first national title since 1998.

J. Brady McCollough
JASON COOPER/Daily
Michigan forward Michael Woodford will be one of 11 juniors next season, unless there are some early departures like there have been in the past.

Wait ’til next year, Yost faithful.

Hold on, you’re likely thinking: Wasn’t 2002 supposed to be the year? When the Wolverines had a young freshman class and a senior goaltender as in 1998? Or how about this season? Weren’t Mike Cammalleri and Mike Komisarek supposed to come back this season to help Jed Ortmeyer and Co. with the Big One?

Yes, these thoughts may have gone through the heads of many Michigan hockey fans, but next year has a chance to be different. This is because, for the first time in a few years, no underclassman stands to leave early this summer for the professional ranks.

In the last few years, Red Berenson has seen Jeff Jillson, Mike Comrie, Andy Hilbert, Cammalleri and Komisarek leave Ann Arbor early. But no underclassman on this year’s team seems ready – or at least as ready as those five were – to try and cash in on a large signing bonus.

What about Jeff Tambellini? Won’t he go pro after his breakout season? While the Port Moody, British Columbia native had a great season, winning CCHA Rookie of the Year honors, he is just a freshman and scored as many goals as Cammalleri did as a freshman, but in 16 fewer games. Tambellini’s got his father, Steve, who is vice president of player personnel for the Vancouver Canucks, to help him make an informed decision.

What about Al Montoya? Didn’t former 18-year-old Boston University freshman sensation Rick DiPietro leave after his first season to become the first overall pick by the New York Islanders in 2000? As an 18-year-old, Montoya would have to forgo the remainder of his NCAA eligibility to enter the NHL draft. While Montoya had a spectacular season, there is no proof that he would be selected so highly this summer in Nashville. It should also be noted that DiPietro is still not a starting goaltender in the NHL.

What about one of the sophomores, such as Eric Nystrom or Dwight Helminen? Nystrom and Helminen had good seasons, but not the type of season that led Cammalleri to make the jump last summer.

With no Wolverine likely to leave early, this could shape up to be one of the smoothest summers the Michigan hockey program has seen in quite some time. Yes, the team will have to replace its senior class which includes Ortmeyer and John Shouyenia.

But Andy Burnes should fit into Ortmeyer’s role as a captain quite nicely, and Nystrom will probably be one of the alternate captains to lead this year’s sophomore class into a bigger role next year. Tambellini and Montoya also stand to become better hockey players as they develop further. The Wolverines will also be bringing in four freshmen defensemen to bolster the thin defensive corps, along with two forwards from the U.S. National Team Development Program.

So, could next year be the year? It’s not going to be easy, as two-time defending champ Minnesota stands to lose just one player, and with next year’s Frozen Four to be held at the FleetCenter, either Boston College or Boston University could emerge.

But, for a change, the focus around the Michigan hockey camp this October will be on who is on the roster instead of who isn’t. And that can only be a good thing.

Wait ’til next year, Yost faithful. Wait ’til next year.

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