Michigan hockey players choose to attend the University for two reasons. They are able to withstand the academic rigors of one of the nation”s top universities and are among the best young hockey players in the nation.

Paul Wong
Andy Hilbert took one final look at the ice in Yost Arena before announcing his decision to forego his final years of eligibility as a Wolverine.<br><br>MARJORIE MARSHALL/Daily

For these reasons, it comes as no surprise that standout players like Mike Van Ryn or Mike Comrie opt to pursue their professional dreams prior to graduating often leaving a hole in the following year”s team where an All-America caliber player once stood.

With this new precedent being set at Michigan for top players to leave early, it was not unexpected this summer when two of Michigan”s left for the NHL. This year, it was senior defenseman Jeff Jillson, who left for the San Jose Sharks in early May.

This loss was compounded by the departure of Hobey Baker finalist Andy Hilbert.

Jillson was a first team All-America and No. 14 pick overall in the NHL draft in 1999 and had led the team in defensive scoring the previous two seasons. Last season he scored 10 goals and 30 points earning him second in the CCHA in defenseman scoring. These numbers placed Jillson fifth on the team for scoring last year.

In addition to being a defensive scoring threat, Jillson was a solid defenseman, accumulating a plus-minus rating of plus-47 over his career at Michigan.

Hilbert, the 37th overall pick in the 2000 NHL Draft, waited until the middle of July to announce his departure for the Boston Bruins. Hilbert, a fellow first team All-America selection, was a big, physical forward and an offensive leader of the team last year along with linemate Mike Cammalleri. Hilbert led the team in scoring (64 points,) assists (38,) winning goals (7,) shots (210,) short-handed goals (2,) and was second in goals with 26 last year. In fact, the only other major statistical categories in which he was not the team leader was plus-minus rating (he was second, behind Cammalleri, with plus- 27) and penalty minutes.

“The opportunity is there in Boston and that”s what I”ve been working toward my entire life an opportunity to play in the NHL,” Hilbert said at his press conference this summer. “It”s been my lifelong dream. I”ve sacrificed many things in my life and I think it”s time for me to move on and take advantage of this opportunity.”

He finished the year second in the CCHA in total points, behind Western Michigan”s Mike Bishai and placed seventh in the nation in points per game (1.52). Last years leading scorer cited friendship as the main deterrent from going pro.

“I felt like I was going to stay behind because of my friends, but I”m going to be friends with these guys I”ve played with for the rest of my life,” Hilbert said. “I”ve made some of the best friends I could ever make here.”

Despite the loss, team leaders have remained positive calling on the freshmen and upperclassmen to assert themselves. They have emphasized the need for everybody to step up and take on new roles to replace the departed All-Americans.

“Andy and Jeff were both great hockey players and you don”t want to lose players like that. But at the same time we brought in guys who are just as qualified to do the job that they did,” Cammalleri said. “I think you are going to see a team effort to step it up.”

In addition to the early departures of Jillson and Hilbert was the graduation of a large senior class that was Michigan”s only remaining link from the 1998 National Championship team. This leaves the team, at first glance, with less depth six of the top eight scorers from last season have departed. But Cammalleri sees the energy of the 10 freshmen as being able to compensate for the loss of depth.

“Last year”s senior class you could argue both ways,” Cammalleri said. “They added depth, but at the same time, were a little inconsistent. I think the youth will add depth to this team this year.”

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