Welcome to part II of our Michigan Hockey season preview, this time looking at the defense. We covered the forwards on Wednesday, which can be found here.
WHO RETURNS?: Michigan returns 5/6 of their defensive core, and it’s a unit that improved as the season went on last year. The biggest and most important name is Quinn Hughes. His return to Michigan is what will give this team a good shot to win a national title. One of the three biggest reasons Michigan became an elite college hockey team late last season is that Hughes began taking over games. His best attribute is his game-changing skating ability. He’s incredibly fast on skates, but he’s smooth as well, with Datsyukian skill. He can weave between defenders, somehow emerging unscathed from an attempted check and look up to find the perfect pass. With Cooper Marody departed, Hughes will be Michigan’s biggest offensive weapon and possession will drive through him. He’s a preseason favorite for the Hobey Baker Award (college hockey’s Heisman) and expect his playmaking to reach another level this season. He had 5 goals and 24 assists for 29 points in 37 games a year ago. An offensive season akin to that of Zach Werenski’s 2015-16 campaign (a point a game season) is very much a possibility for Hughes this season.
Outside of Hughes, there is a fair bit of talent that returns. Joe Cecconi, who was named the team’s captain, is back for his senior season. He is paired with Hughes on the top unit for the Wolverines and he’s a very steady defender. He improved significantly last season, feeding off of Hughes’s playmaking ability to up his career high in points by over 300% (from 8 in 2016-17 to 27 last year). Look for him to continue to be a factor offensively thanks to who he’s playing next to, but to be more of a leader. He’s the Brian Rafalski to Quinn Hughes’s Nick Lidstrom. Steady defensively, solid offensively, what you want out of someone playing next to a transcendent defenseman.
Last year’s second pairing is the only one that’s been interrupted. With Sam Piazza departed, Michigan loses by far their third best offensive-defenseman. With 15 points, he was #3 among Michigan defensemen in points. Last year, he was paired with Luke Martin, a pretty highly talented (2nd round pick) stay-at-home defenseman, which was an effective combination. Martin is back and will likely stick on the second pair, but Michigan will have to find someone to replace Piazza.
The third pairing is not at all flashy but very steady. Griffin Luce is back for his junior season, and Nick Boka is back for his senior season. Boka is a solid puck-mover but is not much of an offensive playmaker. His only goal last year was the clincher against Boston U in the NCAA Tournament. Across from him is Luce, who is also solid. Both guys were fine, but with only 10 points between them, they will not be doing the heavy lifting offensively. If we’re still making analogies to the 2007-09 Red Wings teams that shaped my hockey youth, these guys are the Brett Lebda and Andreas Lilja types. Veteran and steady, but not going to wow you.
Outside of those 5, Michigan returns Christian Meike, a junior who didn’t play a single game last season. Could he find his way into the lineup? Sure. But I think it’s far more likely the open spot in the lineup is filled by one of the incoming freshmen.
WHO JOINS?: Michigan adds three freshmen defenseman, Nick Blankenburg, Jake Gingell, and Jack Summers. Perhaps it’s most notable who Michigan doesn’t add, as it seemed at this point last year that the Wolverines would add two potential NHL first round picks. Mattias Samuelsson flipped to Western Michigan to play with his brother (not much Mel could do about that), but the big shock was Bode Wilde, who seemed like he would slot in perfectly in Piazza’s old slot. Wilde was an aggressive defenseman and a potential top 15 NHL prospect. But then things went haywire, with Wilde decommitting right before the draft, due to unexplained personal problems. Those same personal problems caused him to slide all the way to #41 in June’s NHL Draft. While it would have been nice to have a guy with the talent of Wilde, something was going on with him that both Michigan and NHL teams saw and were bothered by. Whether that’s because he’s a problem in the locker room or what, it may just be best to not have him on the team, and that’s the reality we are living in.
As for the dudes on the roster, Summers and Gingell are two guys we have scouting on. Jack Summers reclassified from the 2019-20 class to this one and he profiles like most Mel Pearson defensemen: a smooth skating puck-mover. He’s not terribly highly touted, but he should be a factor to try and crack the lineup. Jake Gingell is probably a better shot to make the starting 6, mostly because he’s older. Gingell is 21 and wanted to play for Pearson at Michigan Tech, following him to Ann Arbor. He’s a 3.5 star prospect from Neutral Zone, but is more of an old-fashioned defenseman: physical and gritty, a hard hitter. While Mel has mostly been recruiting guys like Summers, speedy and skilled, Gingell is a true grinder. He probably wouldn’t fill Piazza’s role, but given his age and experience, he’s the most college ready.
Nick Blankenburg is a stab-in-the-dark guy. Undersized and old, coming from Alberta, which will be a tough transition. I don’t anticipate seeing him much early on. If you want to read more about these guys, I once again refer you to this MGoBlog article from the summer about Michigan hockey’s recruiting class.
OVERALL: Michigan’s defense improved as last season went along and I expect it to be better this season. Returning the majority of the group, with a lot of them now upperclassmen, the defense could be a strength of the team. It should also be a significant part of Michigan’s offensive attack, if for no reason other than the fact that Quinn Hughes exists. Watching him alone will make this group worth watching.
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