Welcome to Part 1 of WCBN Sports's 2019-20 Michigan Hockey season preview. Today we'll be looking at the forwards:
Let’s start with the good news: basically everyone is back. Of the forward group, Michigan loses precisely two everyday players, and one of those two missed the whole second half of the season. They are Brendan Warren, who was a useful but mostly defensive middle 6 forward (scored just 1 goal and 2 assists last season), and Josh Norris, who was the team’s top line center until suffering a season-ending injury in December. That’s it. Everybody else is back and as a result, it means that Michigan rolls over a ton of production to the 2019-20 season. Counting the defensemen in this metric, Michigan returns 80% of its goals from last season, on an offense that was 24th nationally (out of 60 teams). That should mean good things for this coming season.
The forward group is led by Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood, who are now in the twilight of their Michigan tenure. As seniors, they will be asked to lead this team to a B1G title and a return to the NCAA Tournament. Last year they played on the “SNL line”, with themselves and Norris, until the latter’s injury, and then it was more of a hodgepodge until the end. This season, they will almost certainly both play on the top line together and their production backs it up: Slaker had 25 points in 35 games and Lockwood had 31 points in 36 games. Slaker's production has been very similar each year of his Michigan career (between 21 and 27 points all three seasons), and the question looming for him is whether he can finally ascend to elite college production. Regardless, look for both to approach a point-per-game pace in 2019-20, as both are playing for NHL contracts.
Nick Pastujov and his brother Michael Pastujov were the anchors of last year’s second line, and both took considerable steps forward. Nick had 24 points in 36 games (compared to 15 a year earlier) and Michael had 19 points in 31 games (compared to 9 a year earlier). Michigan would like both Pasta brothers to see improvements in potential, especially for Nick, who is also a senior and will likely be centering the second line. Sophomore Jimmy Lambert could be a breakout player in his second season with the Maize and Blue, as he showed good accuracy on his wrist shot in 2018-19 and the scoring chops to be an impact college player. After putting up 13 points as a freshman, Michigan would like to see a step forward from Lambert, hopefully emerging as a true middle 6 winger. Jack Becker has been Michigan’s trusty net-front presence on the power-play over the last two seasons and he’s now a junior, which again should bear fruits of experience and age as he will look to boost his 15 points in 36 games clip from a year ago while playing on the second or third line.
The fourth line seems unlikely to change compared to last season, as it was arguably Michigan’s most effective line down the stretch. That line was Garrett Van Wyhe centering Dakota Raabe and Nolan Moyle. The three scrappers are not really skilled offensive players, but they are sound defensively, gritty, and just work harder than their opponents. Despite being more of a checking line, all three guys got to double digits in the points column, providing valuable offense, often banging around the net for greasy goals. They had tremendous chemistry last season and given that GVW and Moyle were both freshmen and Raabe was only a sophomore, Mel Pearson & Co. have to hope that the fourth line can improve as well with a year of college experience under their belt.
Outside of those 9 guys who are all likely to be regulars in the lineup, there are some potential contributors returning. Luke Morgan played nearly every game for Michigan a season ago, posting 13 points in 36 games, but the Lake Superior St. transfer could never find a sturdy place in the lineup, bouncing between center and wing. Given that he scored 22 points in 36 games as a freshman with the Lakers two years ago, the Wolverines know there is more offense, potentially top 6 upside, to unlock out of Morgan. It’s just up to Pearson to figure out how to coax it out of him. Adam Winborg played 27 games for Michigan in 2018-19 and will be entering his senior campaign. Winborg has been a 4th line defensive center type, who is responsible in his own end of the ice and who is strong in the face off dot. The problem for Winborg was that he lost ice time to Van Whye on the 4th line and he will need to produce more offensively (5 points in 27 games) in order to play consistently on the third line. Finally, Jack Olmstead, who scored 1 goal in 7 games, returns to the Maize and Blue but is mostly unknown at this stage.
Additions: Michigan brings in 5 forwards in this recruiting class, starting with the blue chip prize, Johnny Beecher. Beecher was often lost in the shuffle on last year’s historically talented United States National Team Development Program squad, sometimes relegated to the third line because the top two centers on the team were picked in the top 5 of the NHL Draft (Jack Hughes and Alex Turcotte). But that’s not an indictment of Beecher whatsoever, as he was also picked in the first round, selected 30th overall by the Boston Bruins. Beecher scored 43 points in 63 games for the USNTDP last year despite not getting first power-play minutes. Beecher’s draft profiles highlighted him for his rare combination of size (6’3”) and skating ability (quite good), as well as his responsible two-way play, as a good shooter and passer, and as a penalty killer. While Beecher was regarded as a “safe” pick, lacking the dynamite upside of a Norris, his size and physical maturity may make him more college-ready. For what it’s worth, Beecher had a phenomenal tournament at the World Junior Summer Showcase on Team USA in late July, which should further bolster beliefs that he is ready to have a big freshman year at Michigan. Beecher will play right away and it could be on the top line.
The Wolverines also bring in Emil Öhrvall from Sweden by way of RPI and the USHL. As a freshman at RPI in 2017-18, Öhrvall had 2 goals and 9 assists for 11 points, which is fine (similar to Mike Pastujov’s first year at Michigan). He then left RPI for the USHL, which he torched for 63 points in 59 games last season. Now on Michigan, the expectation should be that Öhrvall can play as a middle 6 winger right away, contributing hopefully close to 20 points.
Mel Pearson must despise engineers because Michigan continued raiding the RPI cupboards this summer, swiping Jacob Hayhurst as a grad transfer as well. Hayhurst played three seasons at RPI scoring 20 points (7 G, 13 A) as a freshman and 23 points (12 G, 11 A) as a sophomore, before he apparently forgot how to score goals as a junior, notching just 3 goals but a whopping 20 assists for 23 points, being named RPI’s top forward at the season’s end. In all likelihood, Hayhurst’s plummeting goal count last season was probably just puck luck and I would expect it to revert to some kind of mean (idk, roughly 10?) this season. Given that assistant coach Bill Muckalt said “(we) expect (Hayhurst) to come in and be a top-six forward” in the team press release announcing the incoming recruiting class, I will take the man at his word and make the bold prediction that Hayhurst will be a top six forward.
Finally, Michigan brings in Eric Ciccolini and Nick Granowicz. Ciccolini is a genuinely interesting developmental forward who showed enough in the OJHL to be drafted in the 7th round of the 2019 Draft by the New York Rangers. Given the forward logjam (more on that in a sec.), I don’t know where Ciccolini is going to slot in this season for Michigan, but he should be considered more of a long term addition. Granowicz is a very old (already 21) local kid by way of the BCHL, who posted good numbers as an overager in that league and he does not appear to be a scholarship player from Brian of MGoBlog’s estimation. I don’t expect to see much of Granowicz this coming year.
So… what about that logjam?
The thing about rolling over 80% of your goals and 10 everyday starters and then adding a 1st round NHL pick at center, a 7th round NHL pick at winger, and two legit transfers, is I have no idea what the forward rotation is going to look like. What seems pretty concrete is that Lockwood and Norris will be on the top line, *probably* joined by John Beecher. Then the Pastjuov brothers are logical fits for the second line, *probably* joined by Hayhurst. After that it gets dicey. The third line will probably be some combination of Öhrvall, Becker, Luke Morgan, Jimmy Lambert, Winborg, and Ciccolini, with three of those 6 probably being left out. Finally, I would expect the Moyle-Van Whye-Raabe line to be left intact on the fourth line. There is the chance that Mel could roll with 13 forwards and leave only two of those previous 6 out, but that’s his choice. So, I would anticipate the forward group to look like this:
M. Pastujov-N. Pastjuov-Hayhurst
Jimmy Lambert (optional 13th forward)
This will be a much more veteran group than last season, and it feels like there’s pretty solid balance. Given that Michigan was 24th in goals per game last season and they bring 80% of that production back with another year under their belt, and then add a very talented freshman + two trusty transfers, the offense should be better, if not significantly (potentially top 10 in college hockey). The offense seems to me like it should be a strength of this team, and the big question is whether Slaker and Lockwood can ascend to Calderone/Marody 2018 levels, since the supporting cast behind them should be strong.