We’ve reached the end of the preview series. So, to finish it off I’m going to give a few superlatives and then make a few season/national predictions:
Team MVP: Quinn Hughes. Duh.
X-Factor: Josh Norris. I feel reasonably confident that Jake Slaker can pick up where Tony Calderone left off, and Will Lockwood could even be an upgrade over Dexter Dancs on the top line. But Norris will be asked to fill the huge shoes of Cooper Marody. That’s not easy to do. If he gets better, the team will play for a national title. If he doesn’t, then it will hold the offensive firepower back.
Breakout Player: Jack Becker. Becker was only a freshman a year ago (albeit an old one) and with experience, he should make a leap forward. He was drafted by Boston in 2015, so he has NHL-caliber talent, even if it has taken time to develop. He was Michigan’s best 3rd-4th line player offensively last season and after breaking into the lineup midseason, he really started to get a rhythm. In his final 15 games, Becker had 5 goals and 6 assists for 11 points, and that was coming against some of the best competition Michigan saw all season (3 vs ND, 2 vs OSU, NCAA/B1G Tourney). At that clip, he’d have close to 30 points across a full season. I think he emerges as a surprisingly productive scoring line player and solidifies himself in Michigan’s top 6.
Biggest Area for Disappointment: The penalty kill. I hope/think it will be better, but until I see it fixed, it’s still the achilles heel.
And some final season thoughts:
- One of the things that I mention a lot was how much better Michigan was at the end of the season versus the start. That’s the sign of a good coach and it leaves me optimistic about this season. But I want to point the level at which Michigan was playing late last season. In their final 10 games, the team was 8-1-1, with the 2 losses coming to teams that reached the Frozen Four, one in OT (OSU) and one being the crusher in the Frozen Four against Notre Dame, with the game winning goal coming in the final 30 seconds, so essentially OT. But if we backtrack all the way to January, Michigan was 14-5-1 in their final 20 games of the season, with again, 4/5 losses being to Frozen Four teams. If we’re measuring how this squad compares to last year, we have to compare it to a team that was winning at that clip, not the overall 22-15-3 record.
- As for how the two teams compare, I think it may end up being a wash, but this team has higher upside. Last year’s team had one glaring issue that was central to its downfall in the end. Assuming Mel can get the PK up to average, this one shouldn’t have any glaring problems. Last year’s team was heavy on veteran guys hitting their ceilings, this one on whether NHL talent can continue to develop (Norris, Slaker, Hughes, Lockwood). I like the chances of that being affirmative.
- While it is true that last year’s team was dependent on the Dancs-Marody-Calderone line, that was less the case the more the year went on. For example, in the Boston U. game that sent Michigan to the Frozen Four, the Wolverines scored 6 times, but just 1 was from the DMC line. In the Frozen Four matchup with Notre Dame, it wasn’t the DMC line that gave Michigan new life, it was the Pastujov-Pastujov-Becker line that scored the dramatic game-tying goal. The diversification of the offense was a big reason the team improved last season and there should be production across the roster, even if Norris and Slaker’s ability to simulate the Calderone-Marody connection is key.
A word on the trajectory of the program:
Regardless of how this season goes, the program’s best days are ahead of it. And that’s despite the fact that this team is contending for a national title. Mel is currently using players that Red Berenson recruited due to the way college hockey works (you recruit/sign guys before they turn 16 due to the OHL Draft). This won’t begin to be his team until the 2020-21 season. As Red got older, he hit on some players occasionally, getting a few big names out of the NTDP, the Larkins, Kyle Connors, Werenskis, and now Quinn Hughes and Josh Norris types, but overall, they weren’t the same stacked recruiting classes he had in the 90s. That talent, when used by a coach with the track record of success as Mel Pearson, is good enough to put Michigan in contention for national titles, but it won’t have the depth that it may have in the future. For example, this recruiting class (and the next one) are largely pretty meh by Michigan Hockey standards. Hopefully a few players will pan out into productive pieces, but it’s not dripping with talent overall. This is why there could be a drop off between this year and next if Norris or Slaker were to leave after the season (Hughes is gone for sure).
But once 2020 hits, the Mel Pearson Hockey Death Star will be fully operational. A quick look at the 2020 recruiting class sees two 5* guys (Andrei Bakanov and Owen Power) and the rest of the class being either 4 or 4.5* players. Just filthy. In the 2021 class, there are already a few of the top players in the class signed, and the third Hughes brother is signed for the 2022 class. Michigan will continue to add more and more 5* dudes, only to watch half of them get signed by the OHL because that’s how college hockey recruiting works. But from the way it appears, we’re headed towards the 1990s Michigan Hockey all over again: littered with NHL talent and a coach that can convert that into repeated conference and national championships. That Mel Pearson has this 2018-19 team as a favorite for the national championship should be terrifying to every other college hockey team wondering what he’ll do when he has top tier talent at every position. That day is coming sooner rather than later.
And the final prediction:
I’m feeling good about this season. The development of the team from October to April last year was impressive and I think it will happen again. It’s a team that returns most of their players and the question mark holes on offense are being filled with NHL talent. Michigan also returns their goalie and has the advantage that in basically every game they play, they will have the best player on the ice (Hughes). The team was youngish last year and they made it to the biggest stage in college hockey. With more experience, I think they’ll be more prepared this season. I said that it was mostly a wash between this year and the end of last, with 2018 Forwards > 2019, but 2019 Defense, Goaltending, and (hopefully) Special Teams > 2018. If we apply that final 20 game clip from last season, then across 35 regular season games, something like 23-10-2 is my approximate prediction. Expect a tight and entertaining regular season B1G chase with Ohio State. In the B1G Tournament, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. In the NCAA Tournament, #1 or #2 seed, hopefully Frozen Four, and from there.. who knows?
My 16 team NCAA Tourney field:
- Boston College
- St. Cloud St
- Notre Dame
- Minnesota St
- North Dakota
- Penn St.
- Boston University
- Northern Michigan
Image Credit: https://bobcat.grahamdigital.com/249721e298582dfdad4e4cf76d217ac110c65fd6/crop-640x360-000.jpg