Our preview continues today with a look at goaltenders and special teams. Last week covered forwards and defense.
WHO RETURNS? Just one dude! But he’s the only dude that matters! Hayden Lavigne seizing the #1 goaltending job away from Jack LaFontaine was the first moment that led to Michigan hockey becoming an elite team last season. It happened around late November, when the two sophomores were still duking it out during a capital G GOALTENDING CONTROVERSY. Lavigne got steadily better as the year went on once he settled into his starting role, occasionally ascending to the point of a guy who could steal a game for you. The late February home game against Notre Dame comes to mind, with Lavigne pitching a shutout that helped seal Michigan’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament basically by himself. He was not quite on the level of Sean Romeo of Ohio State or Cale Morris of Notre Dame, but he has the potential to get there this season.
Lavigne’s numbers were inflated by the dreadful penalty kill (more on that later) which gave him 0 help at any point in the season. In regulation, he was mostly very steady. The season-ending goal against Notre Dame was not great, but he was also hurt by a defensive breakdown in front of him. That was generally the story of last season for him. When the defense was steady in front of him, Lavigne was fine. But when there were breakdowns, he made mistakes, which is understandable. It was also his first season as a starter, going from 13 games played in 2016-17 to 33 games a year ago. It’s reasonable to expect growth from Lavigne and hopefully, he’ll get more help from his special teams and the defense in front of him.
SO UH………. WHO’S THE BACKUP? Jack LaFontaine is taking a one year sabbatical, headed to the BCHL for a season. That’s almost expected, given that LaFontaine is a guy who still has NHL aspirations and he wasn’t going to have a shot to develop to an NHL level if he’s not the guy in Ann Arbor. Michigan responded by bringing in two goalies, since the rarely played third stringer Chad Catt graduated. The first one is Strauss Mann, an older guy (a ‘98 kid) who had good stats in the USHL. He’s probably not going to be a starter for Michigan at any point in his career here, but he will probably be the backup right away.
The other name is Jack Leavy, a big dude (6’5”) that no one knows anything about. There is very little on him, so it’s kind of a stab in the dark. Expect him to be the Chad Catt of this season, not seeing the ice all that much. With Lavigne being the guy, there aren’t going to be that many opportunities for backups, save for injuries, and so Michigan doesn’t need a star backup.
OH THOSE SPECIAL TEAMS The great Scotty Bowman always used to say that to be a great team, you need your power play % and your penalty kill % to add up to at least 100. That was not the case for Michigan last year. Michigan’s power play was middling (36th out of 60) at 18.0% conversion, while their penalty kill was an appalling 75.00% (57th out of 60). Add it up, and that’s 93, not the 100 you’d like. The penalty kill was the definitive achilles heel a year ago and it was the turning point of the Frozen Four. Michigan had just gone up 2-0 in the 2nd period and then they took a penalty and within 30 seconds of the PK beginning, the Wolverines had let the Irish back in the game by giving up a goal. Momentum had swung and the game went on a different trajectory. It was also what kept Michigan from a Big Ten Tournament Title, giving up a pair of goals while on the PK to Ohio State in the B1G Semifinals.
The theory that I, and other people, had is that Mel Pearson spent all of his time improving Michigan’s possession at 5-on-5 that they didn’t have time to work on special teams. If that’s the case, it’s excusable for one season, but it won’t be excusable if it happens again this year. It’s not like Mel Pearson doesn’t know how to coach special teams either, with Michigan Tech ranking 22nd, 21st, and 7th in PK his last three years there at 85.0%, 83.9%, and 86.11% conversion. It’s very much possible that Michigan’s PK could get drastically better very quickly, with Michigan’s most hated rival being the blueprint. Ohio State improved significantly between 2016-17 and 2017-18, going from 57th in the country (74.53%) two years ago to 1st in the country (89.44%) last season. It’s also the reason OSU went from the last team in 2 years ago to a #1 seed/Frozen Four team.
If Michigan were to make that level of improvement on their PK, and assuming they take the same number of penalties, it would drop their goals-per-game allowed from 3.02 to 2.50 and would take their defense from #36 in GPG allowed to #15. That kind of change alone could both make up for any step back on offense, but also take the team from elite to national title favorite. Yes, it’s unfair to expect Michigan to get that much better at something they were so bad at a year ago, but just getting to where Mel’s Tech teams were (85% conversion) is not at all an unrealistic expectation and would also be a difference maker if it were to occur.
As for the power play, an uptick to about 20% conversion or so would be optimal and would help Michigan maintain their gaudy scoring clip from a year ago (3.4 PPG, 6th in the nation), even if they lose some talent on the frontline. It was not a bad unit last year, but if the power play can just make a slight step forward, it would also help things drastically. I have to believe that special teams was a significant point of emphasis for Pearson in the preseason and we have to see what transpires this season