Saturday night marked the end of a one-week offseason for Aaron Palushaj.
The former sophomore forward for the Michigan hockey team made his professional debut in Moline, Ill., for the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League after foregoing his final two years of NCAA eligibility.
Palushaj’s first game came just two days after he signed an entry-level contract with the St. Louis Blues, who drafted the Northville native in the second round (44th overall) of the 2007 National Hockey League Entry Draft.
Palushaj first thought about leaving college early last summer, when roommate and close friend Max Pacioretty signed with the Montreal Canadiens after his freshman year at Michigan. Palushaj said he put some thought about turning pro throughout this season and expressed his interest with his parents during the year.
After Air Force knocked the Wolverines out of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Mar. 27, Palushaj said he started weighing his options. He contacted St. Louis early last week to express his interest in joining the Blues, and said he and the team’s front office were on the same page in their discussions.
“They feel that if I’m ready, then they’ll welcome me with open arms,” Palushaj said. “It’d be an opportunity for me, but there are no guarantees or promises in this business. It’ll be a really hard summer, and I’ll just keep working very hard.”
Palushaj met with Michigan coach Red Berenson and assistants Mel Pearson and Billy Powers last Thursday to notify them of his intentions. The Wolverines’ staff, and Berenson in particular, is traditionally adamant that players should stay four years to earn their degree and to fully develop their on-ice skills before jumping to the next level.
Despite the conflicting philosophies, Palushaj said the 90-minute conversation was neither confrontational nor combative.
“It went really well,” Palushaj said. “I just told them how I felt, where I was. They gave me their input and their opinions, and I took it for what it was worth.
“As much as they maybe think I should stay for another year, I think all three of them were pretty supportive. They understand where I’m coming from and there are definitely no bad vibes leaving Michigan.”
Palushaj believes his maturity and strength are light-years ahead of where they were at the end of last season. He praised the AHL’s development of young players, suggesting it serves as an accurate barometer for how close players are to the NHL.
Palushaj’s exceptional playmaking ability makes him a constant threat in the offensive zone. In 82 career games at Michigan, Palushaj tallied 23 goals and 71 assists. Palushaj led the Wolverines this season in scoring with 50 points and was tied for third in goals with 13. After a mid-semester lull this winter, Palushaj finished the season with 10 points in his last seven games.
“His No. 1 asset is his vision of the ice and his stick-work skill,” said junior defenseman Chris Summers, who was named next year’s team captain Sunday. “He’s an unbelievable stick-handler. His puck decisions are right on almost 100 percent of the time.”
Despite his abilities in the offensive zone, Palushaj brings with him some question marks. While he was pleased with his progression under the team’s strength-and-conditioning program, he expressed some concern over how he will handle skating with older and bigger players.
Palushaj, listed as 5-feet-11, 175-pounds on Peoria’s website, is now the lightest (and youngest) player on a lineup that features skaters who weigh has much as 50 pounds heavier. He admitted he still needs more time in the weight room to have a legitimate shot at making St. Louis’s roster in training camp in September.
While Palushaj showed some improvement on defense during his two years at Michigan, Berenson didn’t use him to kill penalties. Should his offensive output struggle as he becomes acclimated to minor-league hockey, he will likely need to prove himself defensively to make an early impression on scouts.
Michigan’s coaches are confident they can develop a player’s size, strength and defense. And while Palushaj remains grateful for the time he spent under them, he found the temptation of professional hockey too great to pass up.
And it’s a dream that at least one teammate thinks players should approach with a lot of perspective.
“I think (Berenson) says it best: you’re preparing for a life after hockey,” Summers said. “There’s more to the world than just skating on the ice every day. It’s a game. It should be enjoyed. And I think that’s what a lot of players miss out on, that it should be fun.
“It’s unfortunate that it turns into a business once you get to the professional rankings, but that’s the way it is.”