The Michigan hockey team has 10 seniors, 14 NHL draft picks and a No. 5 national ranking. But even with all of that experience and talent, the Wolverines have had trouble finding a fourth center.
Dwight Helminen — who was named Best Defensive Forward in the CCHA last season — created a void over the summer when he spurned the Wolverines for the New York Rangers after his junior season at center in Ann Arbor.
At the beginning of the season, Michigan coach Red Berenson called on senior captain Eric Nystrom to fill the gap. Nystrom filled in admirably even though he had played left wing for most of his hockey career.
Nystrom managed to win 57 faceoffs, while losing 55 — pretty good for an inexperienced center. But when Michigan played Michigan State in a pair of games in late November, Nystrom was overmatched. The senior won just three out of 21 faceoffs.
“He got some good experience,” Berenson said. “I think (playing center) made him a better player, but I don’t think he was thriving there.”
Enter freshman Chad Kolarik. This past weekend in road games at Minnesota and Wisconsin — two of the best teams in the nation — Berenson moved the freshman into the middle to take faceoffs.
But the center position is nothing new for Kolarik. He played center last year for the U.S National Development Program Under-18 team.
The freshman got mixed results in his first two games after the switch. He scored Michigan’s lone goal in a 3-1 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday, but on Friday, Minnesota scored a goal off of one of Kolarik’s faceoffs in Michigan’s 5-1 defeat.
“He lost a faceoff that cost us a goal,” Berenson said. “But the (Minnesota player) nearly tackled (sophomore Mike) Brown trying to get over to the point. It should have been a faceoff interference call, but they didn’t call it. Outside of that, I thought Kolarik had a pretty good game.
“He’s more of a natural center. He’s going to get the puck more, he’s got talent and patience, and he can score and make plays. I think he’ll just get better and better the more he gets the puck. He’s one of those players that is dangerous when he gets the puck.
“He’ll grow into it.”
Nystrom is happy to be back skating down the left again.
“The whole week in practice, I felt great,” Nystrom said. “It was easy to get back to left wing because I’ve played it my whole life — it’s just instinct. Even when I was playing center, I would gravitate towards the left side.”
Berenson is also looking forward to Nystrom’s play down on the left boards.
“I think he’s best at left wing,” Berenson said. “Now he can go back to playing the kind of grinding game that he wasn’t able to play at center.”
Michigan’s other three centers are Andrew Ebbett, T.J. Hensick and David Moss. Moss was a winger last year, but, like Nystrom, made the transition to center at the start of the season.
“Moss has had his real good games and his average games so far this year,” Berenson said. “But he’s playing a lot of center (in his hockey career).”
Additionally, seniors Michael Woodford Jr. and Milan Gajic can also step in and take faceoffs for the Wolverines.
Kolarik will test his centerman skills this weekend in a series against Notre Dame, but he’s just happy to be on the ice playing.
“Wherever coach puts me is fine,” Kolarik said.