Early last week, Michigan hockey coach Red Berenson said that junior defenseman Jon Merrill wanted to “leave a legacy.” But that dream was quickly put on hold.
The third-ranked Wolverines disappointed in the home opener against Rochester Institute of Technology, dropping a 5-4 overtime contest without their preseason all-conference defenseman.
Merrill suffered a fractured seventh vertebrae after being checked into the boards during Tuesday’s exhibition against Windsor. The Brighton, Mich. native will miss at least six weeks, according to New Jersey’s The Bergen County Record – the second year in a row he’ll have missed substantial time.
Last season, Merrill was suspended for violating of team rules, but emerged in the last 19 games with a pair of goals, nine assists and 42 blocks. His absence at the beginning of the year, however, didn’t significantly affect the Wolverines, as they reached the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed.
Tuesday was a different story.
“We’re disappointed in our overall defensive game, starting with our goalkeeping, our defense and our D-zone play,” Berenson said.
With one less defensive option in the battery, Berenson made a few adjustments to his lines against the Tigers. His defensive pairings were junior Mac Bennett with sophomore Mike Chiasson, senior Lee Moffie with sophomore Brennan Serville and freshman Jacob Trouba with junior Kevin Clare, replacing Merrill.
But Berenson wasn’t using the unexpected line shuffles as an excuse.
“We played all kinds of different pairs last year,” Berenson said. “I think it’s individual breakdowns and mistakes. … We didn’t get the puck out when we should’ve.”
Though Berenson intended to pair Merrill with Trouba at the start of the season, those plans have taken an obvious hit.
In the third period, the deflated Wolverines’ defense gave up back-to-back goals. Though Michigan was plagued by the Tigers’ late surge, Trouba manned the defensive zone with physical hits and recorded a pair of career firsts.
In the first period, Trouba was sent to the penalty box for holding, but returned with an immediate assist on Bennett’s shot to the back of the net to open the scoring.
Later in the same frame, the ninth-overall draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets continued to wreak havoc on RIT. He skated behind the goal line and slipped a wraparound between the posts unassisted on a power play, extending Michigan’s lead to 3-0.
Through one game, Trouba lived up to the high expectations that tagged him in the preseason, making a statement in the newly renovated Yost Ice Arena. But with little defensive production and a sidelined Merrill, the Wolverines felt the sting of an early-season loss.
“We’re going to miss Jon Merrill, no question,” Berenson said. “He’s arguably our best defenseman and certainly he’s a big part of our D-corps. But we said one of the strengths of our team should be the depth on defense and we’re going to be tested.”