As soon as Hobey Baker finalist Andy Hilbert decided to leave Michigan early to pursue an NHL career, Michigan coach Red Berenson knew the team needed to find another natural scorer.
A player who had an uncanny ability to put the puck in the net as if it was second nature, just like it was for Hilbert.
Enter freshman Milan Gajic.
Gajic came to Michigan with an abundance of natural talent but not a lot of confidence or big-game experience. With his limitless talent, combined with Michigan”s need for more scorers to step up, the coaching staff and others around him have been working diligently with the freshman.
“He has the chance to add some offense to our team,” assistant coach Mel Pearson said. “We don”t have a lot of natural scorers, but Milan has that. He just has to do some things away from the puck, hard work and that way when he gets the chance he will be able to finish.”
The coaching staff was also willing to take a risk on Gajic in giving him the No. 9 jersey that Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison and Berenson both wore. He had been a late admission to Michigan, leaving the decision of what number he would be up to the coaches.
“I wasn”t even sure where I was living until a couple weeks before I got here. I guess they just gave me the No. 9 jersey so its pretty nice,” Gajic said.
The Michigan coaches are not the only ones that are high on Gajic”s potential. The Atlanta Thrashers drafted him in the fourth round with the 112th overall draft pick in the 2001 NHL entry draft. After Saturday”s game against Western Michigan, Gajic”s strongest start to date, the forward could be seen with an Atlanta scout going over the aspects of his game that needed improvement.
While some of the freshmen have had experience against collegiate players prior to Michigan, Gajic did not. He played in the British Columbia Hockey League. Known for its offensive prowess, the league annually produces five or six 100-plus point scorers.
But the BCHL lacks in the defensive discipline and combined physical and fast play that typifies college hockey. Consequently, Gajic has struggled thus far to adjust to the new, higher tempo of play.
“The defensemen are a lot better here,” Gajic said of the CCHA. “If you are not watching they will get up in the rush and score. With transitional play, the BCHL is a lot slower than here and that is what I need to improve on.”
A poor performance against Michigan State and in the Maverick Stampede left Gajic practicing on the fourth line and the scout line and sitting out as a healthy scratch for last Friday”s game. But an injury to freshman Michael Woodford opened up a spot on the second line with juniors Mark Mink and John Shouneyia.
Gajic stepped up to the challenge, setting up Mike Komisarek for the first goal of the game Saturday night.
“The whole style of the game and the quickness is a big adjustment,” Gajic said. “Watching from the stands helped me a lot. It put in perspective how fast you have to switch from the defense to offense and the offense to defense.”
Man down: Junior Mike Roemensky had to be assisted off the ice in the second period of Saturday”s game with what many feared to be a broken leg. Luckily for the defenseman, the prognoses is not as bad as initially feared, but Berenson believes Roemensky will miss this weekend”s games against Northern Michigan.
Roemensky described himself as day-to-day and said he plans to take this week, “nice and slow.”