Welcome to Part 1 of WCBN Sports’ Michigan Hockey Preview 2018-19. This will be a multi-part series looking at different positional groups. The first positional group will be forwards, covered in this article, so let’s get started:
WHO RETURNS?: The good news? Lots of people! The bad news? Not the best people. Put more directly, Michigan loses their whole top line, which did a lot of the heavy lifting, especially early in the year. But outside of that, they return 8 of the bottom 9 forwards, and add Will Lockwood, who was a clear top 6 forward until he got hurt in January and missed the whole Frozen Four run. The big split between that top 3 and bottom 9 a year ago was experience: the top line consisted of two seniors (the captain included) and an NHL-ready junior. The bottom 9 was populated by 4 freshmen, 3 sophomores (4 if you add Lockwood), 1 junior, and 1 senior. The returning forwards are mostly young and still developing players and they are the team’s X-Factors. If Michigan is to replicate their rather prolific offensive performances from a year ago, it is going to happen because the kids are alright.
The big names are the three that will probably constitute the new top line: Sophomore Josh Norris and Juniors Jake Slaker and Will Lockwood. Slaker is the best goal scorer of the three and looks likely to slide, at least reasonably well, into the Tony Calderone role from last season. Slaker was the most prolific scorer in the bottom 9 a year ago, netting 15 goals and 12 assists in 39 games. He was also pretty dependable in big situations, scoring a goal in each of the two B1G tournament quarterfinal games against Wisconsin, as well as a goal and an assist against Boston U in the Northeast Regional Final that sent Michigan to the Frozen Four. With the soon to be mentioned Josh Norris hopefully growing into a better playmaker, expect Slaker to comfortably lead the team in goals. As for Norris, he had a freshman season that perfectly fit the role he was asked to do: be a #2 center on a good team. The question for 2018-19 is whether he can be a #1 college center on a good team. The sophomore has elite talent, taken in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft by the San Jose Sharks. His freshman numbers were really solid, 8 goals and 15 assists for 23 points in 37 games. Again, those fit a #2 center. Michigan needs Norris to make a jump and come closer to a point per game pace this season, and given his talent, that is not at all unreasonable.
Losing Will Lockwood to injury in the middle of last year was a crushing blow, yet the team got better after it happened. So is Will Lockwood a detriment to the team? Of course not. It’s just that Mel’s coaching started to set in right around the time Lockwood got hurt. Before injury, he had 4 goals and 7 assists for 11 points in 16 games. Across a full season, he would have been around that 25 point plateau that Norris and Slaker were. A fully healthy season from Lockwood, a former third rounder of Vancouver, would probably see the junior winger hit 30 points and fill the Dexter Dancs role from last season, with potentially higher upside.
The rest of the returners are varying degrees of checking line players, to young dudes who are developing, to wily vets. A year ago, the DMC line was excellent from wire to wire. Michigan took off, however, when they started defending better, when Hayden Lavigne emerged as the guy, and when the third and fourth lines started to score. That latter category are these guys. The highest scoring among them were Brendan Warren, Nick Pastujov, and Jack Becker. Warren is the oldest of the three, now entering his senior season. He had 9 goals and 6 assists for 15 points. While he could get a bit better, he’s pretty close to where his final ceiling is going to be as a college player: a solid middle six guy. He replaced Lockwood on the 2nd line but he’s probably not that caliber of a player. While he’ll likely start the year on the 2nd line, I think Michigan would prefer someone to surpass him.
For now, it seems like the 2nd line center will be last year’s 3rd line center, Nick Pastujov. Pastujov’s ability to center a competent 3rd line came on late in the year and was a big factor in Michigan’s improvement. Again like Warren, he’s probably more of a 3rd line player at heart, but he’ll start farther up on the depth chart until youth jump over him. He had 4 goals and 11 assists for 15 points in 2017-18. Finally, Jack Becker had a better-than-expected freshman season for Michigan, with 8 goals and 7 points in 32 games, frequently being used on the power play. Becker has the best chance of the three to stick on the second line for Michigan in 2018-19 and with a year of development, it’ll be exciting to see how much better he can get.
Of the remainder of the gang, Michael Pastujov has the most potential. Nick’s younger brother was also a freshman last season, finally breaking into the starting lineup midseason, and he finished with 5 goals and 4 assists in 20 games (a half season). He may be a 2nd line player when it’s all said and done, but he probably won’t be there this season. Pencil him on the third line. Adam Winborg is a savvy 4th line center and Dakota Raabe proved to be an effective 4th line winger and they’re both back. James Sanchez, Alex Roos, and Niko Porikos, who were used occasionally on the 4th lines, have all graduated.
WHO COMES IN? Michigan adds a handful of forwards in the current recruiting class, the biggest name being Jimmy Lambert. Lambert is an older guy, formerly from the BCHL, which he lit up last year, scoring 61 points in 55 games in the regular season. Neutral Zone listed him as a 4.25* prospect, applauding his hands and hockey sense, which is a very promising scouting report. Given that he’s an older player, he’s probably closer to his ceiling and is thus someone who could slot in to the top 9, and possibly top 6, immediately. Jack Randl will also probably slot into the team in some role. Unlike Lambert, Randl is the typical age, a 2000 kid who has played in Omaha at the USHL level for the last few years. He had 32 points (20 goals) in 49 games and was a candidate to go late in the NHL Draft, but didn’t end up making the cut. He’s more of a project, being younger, but he has a chance to contribute this season.
Finally, Nolan Moyle is the other notable name out of this class. Moyle flipped from MSU to Michigan and got a lot better between last year and the year prior, going from 15 points in 2016-17 to 45 points in 2017-18 playing in the USHL at Green Bay. He should be a guy who gets some minutes early on, but his production is more in question. There are a few stab in the dark type guys in this class but not any worth naming. This is a recruiting class that’s pretty mediocre, hurt by the late Red years and it won’t be until the 2020 recruiting class that the Mel Pearson Hockey Juggernaut becomes fully operational. If you want to read more about Michigan hockey’s incoming recruits, I recommend this MGoBlog piece from a little ways back.
OVERALL: This is a positional group that is fine. Again, growth is going to be required to maintain last year’s offensive pace, but they probably don’t need to maintain last year’s pace to be successful, assuming the defense and PK improve. If Norris, Slaker, and Lockwood hit their potential, the forward production could be very similar to last year’s gang. If not, expect a drop off. The development of guys like Becker and the Brothers Pastujov are also important to the team’s long term future, as are the freshmen who join the squad.
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