The Michigan hockey team had enough on its hands trying to replace 10 departed seniors. But just as it seemed that it had an adequate freshman class to fill the gap, the program lost three more of its stars to the professional ranks this summer — starting goaltender Al Montoya, leading scorer Jeff Tambellini and forward Mike Brown.

Ice Hockey
Senior Al Montoya was one of three Wolverines to leave Michigan early in the hopes of playing hockey professionally. (FILE PHOTO)

Michigan fans will immediately see how the new freshman will pan out, but it might be a while before the departed Wolverines reach the NHL — if they make it at all.

“I think that Montoya and Tambellini have a good chance to make the NHL,” associate coach Mel Pearson said. “But all three will spend time in the minors. So you wonder why they give up their last year of eligibility to play in the minors. Jeff and Al will play in the NHL, but Mike Brown is a long shot.”

Montoya was the first to leave, signing with the New York Rangers on July 27. The Rangers selected Montoya with the sixth pick of the 2004 draft and encouraged him to join their organization in hopes that he would benefit from working with their accomplished goaltending coach Benoit Allaire. Montoya will likely suit up for the American Hockey League’s Hartford Wolfpack after participating in the Rangers’ rookie camp at Madison Square Garden this week.

To replace Montoya, Michigan brought in 17-year-old Billy Sauer from the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel. Sauer will compete for the starting job with remaining Michigan netminders Noah Ruden and Mike Mayhew.

“The goalie position is as wide open as it has ever been in the 17 years that I’ve been at Michigan,” Pearson said. “Noah Ruden has been here, and he knows the system and has some experience. Billy Sauer is young and talented.”

While Mayhew is sometimes forgotten in the mix, Pearson suggests that Mayhew is in the competition just as much as Ruden and Sauer.

“I wouldn’t count Mike Mayhew out either,” Pearson said. “He was not too far off of Noah’s heels last year. The competition is wide open, and after the first month we should be able to determine our starter.”

Tambellini and Brown’s departures came even more recently than Montoya’s. Brown signed with the Vancouver Canucks on Aug. 25, just ten days after Tambellini signed with the Los Angeles Kings. Losing the pair so late in the summer left Michigan no time to sign new players, but it was something the coaches have had experience with.

“Losing three guys was surprising, but, as a staff, we’ve been through this before,” Pearson said. “As coaches, we know that sometimes you have to wait until the first day of class to see who is staying. We’ve had guys leave up to three days before classes in the past.”

According to Pearson, Brown’s departure came as the biggest surprise.

“Montoya, we kind of knew in the back of our heads that he was the most likely to leave,” Pearson said, “Tambellini, we thought about a little because he was a first round draft pick. But Mike Brown, that was sort of off the wall.”

Pearson is optimistic about the ways the Wolverines compensated for the losses but suggests that Tambellini’s nose for the net will the hardest asset to replace.

“Because we had a backup plan for Montoya and because Mike Brown scored only three goals last season, they are a little easier to replace,” Pearson said. “But (Tambellini’s offense) will be much harder to replace.”

In order to make up for the loss of Tambellini, who led the team with 24 goals and 57 points last season, the Wolverines will rely on the contributions of multiple freshmen. Freshman forward Andrew Cogliano was a first round draft pick this year and will take the bulk of that load after leading the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League with 102 points in 49 games last season. But the weight of Tambellini’s absence will likely be too heavy for one freshman to carry, and Pearson said Cogliano will have some help.

“We have to replace Tambellini by committee,” Pearson said. “Cogliano is a very similar player (to Tambellini). He’s a great skater with great stick skills and a nose for the net. We have so many guys up front that it will be interesting to see. (Freshman Travis) Turnbull is a bit older and more experienced and might be ready to take off quickly.”

Tambellini and Montoya were both elected tri-captains for the upcoming season, and their departure left senior Andrew Ebbett as the sole captain. The coaches have named senior Brandon Kaleniecki and juniors T.J. Hensick and Matt Hunwick as alternate captains to help Ebbett with his responsibilities.

“It’s a great opportunity for Hensick and Hunwick as juniors to be leaders this year,” Pearson said. “They have always been leaders on the ice, and now they have earned the letters on their jerseys. They will be a big help for Andrew in helping the freshmen adjust.”

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