One word opportunity.

Paul Wong
Andy Hilbert”s future is no longer maize and blue, but black and gold<br><br>MARJORIE MARSHALL/DAILY

That word is responsible for sending another Michigan hockey player to the pros early.

On Sunday, center Andy Hilbert told head coach Red Berenson that he would forgo his final two seasons with the Wolverines.

“The opportunity is there in Boston,” Hilbert said. “And that is what I have been working for my entire life. The opportunity to play in the NHL that is a lifelong dream. It is time for me to move on and take advantage of this opportunity.”

Hilbert was chosen in the second round with the 37th overall selection by the Boston Bruins, who Berenson claims have penciled the Howell native into their line-up for next year.

“They feel like he can make the team,” Berenson said. “That is a pretty enticing opportunity.

“If he thought that he would end up in the minors, I don”t think he would have made this decision. This was not about the money.”

Hilbert signed a three-year deal on Tuesday. The terms were not disclosed, but Hilbert said that he was happy with them.

The Bruins have historically been a low-paying club, but the recent free-agent signings of Rob Zamuner and Martin Lapointe may be signaling a change in the organization.

Berenson also pointed out that the Bruins may be shorthanded at center, given the possible holdout of Jason Allison.

“They don”t have very much depth at center throughout their entire system,” Hilbert said. “They see me as a centerman, and I see myself as a centerman. Here at Michigan I have played right wing and center to help the team. They can play me wherever they want to play me.”

During his sophomore season, Hilbert led Michigan in scoring with 26 goals and 38 assists for 64 points. He was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in 2001, when he lead the Wolverines to their first Frozen Four since the championship season of 1998.

Berenson expects Hilbert to be a fine NHL player.

“He has an NHL shot and a competitive edge that is second to none,” Berenson said.

His primary concern, however, will be Hilbert”s consistency.

“There are nights where he could step up and he would not be out of place in the NHL,” Berenson said. “Now it is a matter of, can you do it every night. It is a big adjustment to make but he has all the tools to do it.”

In each of the last three summers the Wolverines have lost arguably their best player. In 1999, defenseman Mike Van Ryn departed, and a year ago forward Mike Comrie followed suit.

Hilbert talked at length with Comrie before making his decision.

“He said at times he wondered why he made the decision to leave Michigan,” Hilbert said. “He was great to talk to because me and him are good friends, he has been through the situation and he told me the truth.”

In the end, Hilbert didn”t see himself improving enough at Michigan to justify passing on this opportunity in Boston.

“One of the decisions I had to make was how much better I was going to get here,” Hilbet said. “Playing against guys two years younger than me, I don”t know how much better I could have gotten playing college hockey.”

Hilbert will make his first trip to Boston as a professional on July 16. Once there, he will spend the next week with the Bruins” strength and conditioning coach.

“Obviously the city of Boston is a great city.” Hilbert said. “I”ve there many times before. Obviously, the city embraces the team. It is just a great sports town period.”

Hilbert will be the third underclassmen to leave the Michigan hockey program in the last 12 months, joining Comrie and defenseman Jeff Jillson. No other players are expected to leave before the season begins.

“It is a compliment to our program,” Berenson said. “When you look at the kind of kids that we are recruiting, the success they have had here and the success they have had when they move on.”

But Berenson remains optimistic about next season – thanks in large part to his veteran goaltender Josh Blackburn.

“I think our defense will be every bit as good or better this year,” Berenson said. “I don”t know where the goals and points are going to come from. But we have as good a goaltender as anyone in college hockey.”

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