Last weekend, the Michigan hockey team lived out a nightmare when freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba was suspended for a game against Northern Michigan after laying a heavy blow that included contact to the head of a Wildcat defenseman.
Had the game been at Yost Ice Arena, the call wouldn’t have been as impactful. But on the road, with an already depleted blue line crippled by injuries and the remaining healthy defensemen back in Ann Arbor, it wasn’t an ideal situation.
Immediately, questions swirled about what Michigan coach Red Berenson would do to fill the gap on the defense’s third defensive pairing.
Luckily for the 12th-ranked Wolverines, senior forward Jeff Rohrkemper’s performance put any pre-game uncertainties to rest.
Yes, Rohrkemper a forward, made his debut on the blue line on Saturday, and even though Michigan (1-2-1 CCHA, 3-3-1 overall) walked away from the game with a loss, Berenson took notice of Rohrkemper’s adaptability.
Rohrkemper never really doubted his ability to transition to a different position.
“I’ve played hockey my whole life and watched defensemen (play) forever,” he said. “I thought I could handle it, and I did alright.”
Berenson spoke highly of Rohrkemper’s defensive potential. In fact, he was so certain his senior could handle it that the two didn’t even have a conversation about the switch beforehand. Berenson simply told Rohrkemper his expectations and asked him just one question:
“How well can you skate backward?”
The question was partly a joke, the hope being that by the time a player reaches the collegiate level, he’s mastered Skating 101.
But there was some seriousness to it too, considering that backward skating is a blue-liner staple, and that before last weekend, Rohrkemper had never played a defensive shift in his entire hockey career.
Despite that, playing Rohrkemper on the blue line wasn’t really that difficult of a decision to make, Berenson said.
“He’s got the ingredients (of a defenseman),” Berenson said. “He’s smart, he passes the puck well and has good defensive instincts.”
His linemate, junior Kevin Clare, and the rest of the forwards made a point to take special care of Rohrkemper during his shifts — more attention was paid to screening, covering Rohrkemper’s blind spots and playing as defensively as possible to compensate for his inexperience.
But perhaps Rohrkemper’s biggest advantage was the offensive know-how he brought back to the blue line. And now he can bring new defensive knowledge back to the forward corps.
“The main thing I took away from it was how much forwards can help defensemen out,” Rohrkemper said. “Forwards don’t really understand how hard (playing defense) is. It really makes you realize how supporting your defensemen can be really beneficial.”
Rohrkemper still finished out the game with a minus-one plus/minus rating, though he did have a very close look at net. But more importantly than the box score, Rohrkemper earned Berenson’s trust to potentially return to the defense in a pinch.
Rohrkemper joked that there’s no permanent position change actually in the works, but in a season in which defensemen have been dropping like flies due to injuries, it’s reassuring to have an extra contingency plan.
“He looked like a defenseman,” Berenson said. “If we had a guy go down, now I’d feel really comfortable and so would he, knowing he can up there and do that.”