The Michigan hockey team’s defensive corps has lost a little depth since the beginning of the season.
The ranks began to slim on Oct. 9 with Jon Merrill’s injury in the Wolverines’ 7-3 exhibition win over Windsor. The junior defenseman was checked into the boards and cracked his seventh vertebrae.
Locked in a brace that immobilizes his neck and armors his torso, Merrill watches practice every day from the bleachers in Yost Ice Arena. Due to an extensive recovery process, he won’t be back in action for several weeks.
Before he was injured, Merrill was named to the all-CCHA preseason first team with 44 points, including eight first place votes. The defensive standout, however, is on a limited timetable to “leave a legacy” as Michigan coach Red Berenson expressed in the preseason. Merrill also missed a large portion of last season due to a suspension.
Merrill was suspended for the first 22 games last year after an undisclosed violation of team rules. In his return, he helped lift the team to reach the NCAA Midwest Regional and posted 11 points on a pair of goals and nine assists in the last half of the season.
After skating with the U.S. National Team Development Program’s under-18 team from 2008-10, Merrill enjoyed a stellar rookie campaign. He tied for the fourth-best freshman defenseman in program history with 25 points and collected all-conference second team honors.
With the recent injury, Merrill can’t contribute to the struggling defense that has surrendered 3.20 goals per game, the third-highest average in the CCHA.
Berenson originally anticipated a recovery time of six weeks, but that frame remains uncertain. Merrill has spent his time watching film on the power play, strengthening his lower body and taking a more vocal role on the team.
“He’ll maximize his time off the ice,” said Michigan coach Red Berenson. “He’s been great. He’s into the team. He’s into the school. He’s into the program. He’s had some tough setbacks, but he’s handled every one of them with a lot of class.”
Merrill skated with freshman defenseman Jacob Trouba while the lines were healthy and intact. But Berenson was forced to make alterations when the plague of injuries struck without warning.
Junior defenseman Kevin Clare, who recorded the second-most blocks on the team last season with 50, was paired with Trouba in the opening series against Rochester Institute of Technology. But during the 7-2 win on Oct. 12, Clare was escorted off the ice with a trainer supporting his right arm.
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Clare was back in the lineup with a timely recovery, just before splitting the CCHA scuffle against Miami (Ohio) last weekend.
But almost as soon as he returned to the action, another defenseman found his way to the disabled list. Sophomore Brennan Serville suffered a “facial concussion,” according to Berenson, against the RedHawks that kept him off the ice all week.
Though Berenson was hopeful for a quick recuperation, he announced on Wednesday that Serville will not make the trip to Northern Michigan after showing lingering symptoms.
Sophomore Mike Szuma will be the sixth defenseman dressed for the series against the Wildcats, paired with sophomore Mike Chiasson, to replace the sidelined Serville.
“He’s played a tough role,” Berenson said. “Every week, he works hard and with the idea that he’s probably not going to play.”
Because the injury-prone Wolverines have substituted healthy players in and out of the lineup, the remaining pieces of the defensive corps have struggled to adjust accordingly.
Senior Lee Moffie and junior Mac Bennett have registered reliable numbers in past seasons, but the constant line changes make it difficult for either of them to find chemistry in the pairings.
Though Moffie notched 32 points and 42 blocks last season, Berenson is not satisfied with his most veteran defenseman thus far and expects more from him going forward.
“There’s a fine line between being tentative and being assertive,” Berenson said.
“I think he’s a guy that’s putting a lot of pressure on himself, but I know he can play better. … He’s a senior defenseman — he should be playing like a senior every night, whether it’s with the puck or without the puck.”