Welcome back to part 2 of WCBN Sports’ preview of the 2019-20 Michigan hockey team. Last week we kicked it off by looking at the forward group, while today we examine the defense, goalies, and penalty killing:
Unlike with the forward group, Michigan sustains substantial losses on defense, losing 3 of its top 4 defenders from last season in Quinn Hughes, Joe Cecconi, and Nick Boka. Hughes is quite obviously the most notable, an electric talent and transcendent skater who had his upsides and downsides in the Maize and Blue. Hughes may well have been the most creative and explosive defenseman to play at Michigan in decades, but it didn’t come without its drawbacks, as his relentlessly offensive style left Michigan’s back end exposed and there were a grotesque number of odd-man rushes allowed when he was on the ice last year. This was best encapsulated in a distressing game at Madison Square Garden against Penn St. back in January, when no less than 3 Nittany Lion goals were direct results of an irresponsible play style from Hughes.
Hughes exits, but thanks to some master late stage recruiting from Mel Pearson, Michigan has as close to a one-for-one substitution for Hughes as you’re going to get: Cam York. York was the #1 defender on the historically talented USNTDP last season, manning a power-play unit that featured five of the top 15 picks in June’s NHL Draft (York being one of those). York had been a Boston College commit who Mel flipped to Michigan last September and he was selected 14th overall in the 2019 Draft by the Philadelphia Flyers. York isn’t the same *stylistically* to Hughes, because Quinn’s daredevil style is one-of-a-kind, but he is in the same mold. York should be able to man the top power play and be the #1 defender on Michigan right away, sliding into most of the same responsibilities as Hughes. MGoBlog’s Brian Cook has hypothesized a Ewing Theory scenario with York and Hughes, and while I’m not willing to say that, it is reasonable to say that while York won’t be the same offensive creator that Hughes was, he may well be a clear upgrade defensively. If you want to read more about York, here is a link to one of the many NHL Draft scouting reports of him.
Michigan also loses Joe Cecconi, who was Hughes’s defensive mate on a pair that honestly wasn’t optimal (I would’ve preferred a more defensively responsible partner), as well as Nick Boka, a stay-at-home type who scored 20 total points his last three seasons at Michigan. They do return Luke Martin, another stay-at-home who will likely pair with York. York-Martin should be a strong pair, since Martin’s strong defensive style should compliment the more offensively minded York. Pencil that in as the top pair. Then there’s senior Griffin Luce, who’s also in the Martin/Boka defensive mold. He’s solid. Luce is likely to pair with sophomore Nick Blankenburg. Blankenburg is definitely more of a puck mover than Luce, as his 10 points as a freshman matches the entire 3 year career point total of Luce. Blankenburg seems like a strong breakout candidate and should either play on the first power play (if Michigan uses two defenders on the unit) or manning the second PP.
The third power-play unit is likely to consist of sophomore Jack Summers and one of two newcomers. Summers is another breakout candidate, as he amassed 11 points in just 29 games, although he played a little time as a forward too. He’s also a puck-moving type and Michigan will give him as much of a responsibility as he can handle. The candidates to pair with him are either freshman Keaton Pehrson or grad transfer Shane Switzer. Switzer was sparingly used at Boston University, playing 31 games over three seasons for the Terriers and he is basically a non-factor on offense, scoring 0 points in 17 games last season. Pehrson was a Michigan Tech commit who followed Mel to Michigan and then was deferred a year, meaning he’s a 1998 birthday. He’s quite mature and ready for college hockey, and at 6’2”, 194, he’s marketed as a good mix of size and skating. Neutral Zone rated him as a 3.5 star recruit when he committed to Michigan, and should be capable if Michigan wants him to play. It’s anyone’s guess as to who Mel prefers between Switzer and Pehrson at this point in time.
Jake Gingell rarely played as a freshman and I’d have to see an indication to believe he’s going to be a major factor. All these things considered, here’s my guess on defense pairings for the 2019-20 season:
Cam York - Luke Martin
Griffin Luce - Nick Blankenburg
Jack Summers - Keaton Pehrson/Shane Switzer
There’s a scenario where the defense is vastly improved simply due to these pairings making far more sense on paper than last year. A year ago you had two offensive guys with defensive issues paired together at the top (Cecconi-Hughes) and then two stay-at-home guys on the second pairing (Boka-Luce). So essentially you got a lot of offense but leaky defense on the top and no offense but stronger defense on the second group. These pairings do far better at matching one puck-mover with one stay-at-home defender.
This probably the single-most significant X-Factor on the team. There’s really no other way to put it, except that Michigan’s goaltending last year was bad. Plain and simple. The Wolverines’ two goalies last season, Strauss Mann and Hayden Lavigne, were both in the bottom 7 of all goalies in college hockey in save percentage. And it’s not like Michigan was disastrous defensively! They weren’t great, but they still finished far more respectably in goals against (tied for 42nd out of 60). What that essentially means is that Michigan wasn’t giving up a ton of shots, but a lot of those shots were going in, which tends to mean your goalies were a problem. They have to be better for this team to succeed.
Now I’m pretty optimistic that that can happen, because we’ve seen the talent these guys have. Hayden Lavigne was one of the most underrated components of why Michigan made the Frozen Four a couple years ago. No matter how poor his performance was at times last season, I will always remember Lavigne stealing that game at Yost against Notre Dame, which may have been the difference between making the NCAA Tournament and not. He has that ability in him, he just needs to find it again.
Strauss Mann may have more raw talent than Lavigne. At the very least, he has the single-best attribute of any current Michigan goalie in his catching glove. The downside is that Mann relied on the glove far too much, sometimes contorting himself to use the glove when he could’ve just blockered it aside. This resulted in himself getting out of position far too often. But, let’s keep in mind that Mann was a freshman last season (as opposed to Lavigne, now entering his senior year), so hope for substantial improvement is probably considerably higher for Mann than for Lavigne.
The Important News: Coaching Shakeups
Maybe the biggest reason for optimism on defense and goalies is the presence of new assistant coach Kris Mayotte, who was poached from Providence College, which is a pretty Big F****** Deal. Providence is one of the best programs in college hockey, having made the tournament six straight years, including two Frozen Fours of the last five (both Mayotte was a part of). More specifically, Mayotte was the assistant in charge of working with goalies and the penalty kill, which are simultaneously two of the things Providence has been best at AND the two things Michigan has been worst at under Mel.
Providence has finished in the top 10 in fewest goals allowed each of the last four years (while Mayotte was there), and he’s had netminder Hayden Hawkey in the top 20 in save percentage each of the last three years. Furthermore, here are the penalty kill percentages and national rank for Providence over the last four years that Mayotte was there:
2016: 84.9% (13th)
2017: 85.6% (10th)
2018: 85.4% (7th)
2019: 86.6% (6th)
As a comparison, here are the penalty kill percentages and national rank for Michigan in Mel’s first two years:
2018: 75.0% (57th)
2019: 78.5% (46th)
Yeah. Your author has consistently complained about Michigan’s penalty killing strategies under Mel, as they were the #1 reason why Michigan lost in the Frozen Four in 2018. Even if Michigan barely improves with the goaltenders, if they can just get the PK from 78% to the 85% range that Mayotte had at Providence, that would be a game-changer.
I have modest optimism about potential defensive improvement this year. As I mentioned, the pairings are more logical and the talent level hasn’t dropped considerably compared to last year thanks to bringing in York. They have a good balance of offense and defense from the blue line and while it remains to be seen about the goalies, it’s also hard for them to be worse than they were last season, especially with the coaching change. If Mayotte can work his magic with the PK group, then this side of the puck can get considerably better, simply because of how high of a percentage ceded goals were from the PK over the last two years. Upshot: modest improvement, but chance for much higher.