I want to write an allegory of Michigan hockey and compare it in a way that resembles Orwellian Marxist logic in which the proletariat (the fans) revolution against the bourgeois (the hockey team) that will serve as an impetus for an equal standing on campus. Apparently that already happened and Dave Brandon has become the new CEO of Toys R us, so all's well that ends well, I guess.
In any case, I've spent my last two years covering Michigan hockey in its doldrums. These were two years that were supposed to serve as bounce-back campaigns and a complete reversal of fortune from the 2013 failure.
Unfortunately, they've been anything but.
This season, Michigan hockey had 3.86 goals per game, good for the highest scoring offense in the nation, yet they didn't even get a sniff of national postseason competition, thanks to atrocious defense, goaltending, and systems. There's also another reason why this Michigan team didn't go anywhere and probably will be stagnant for quite some time in the future: the Big Ten is too weak for hockey.
Last year, with Minnesota an NCAA runner-up and with dominant performances by Wisconsin at the national level, this season saw a step back on both, and Minnesota was blown out of its quest to the Frozen Four after barging its way to the Big Ten championship. The "Michigan would have been blown out by UND anyway" argument is not the point. The point is, there needs to be change.
Red Berenson is undoubtedly one of the greatest all-time hockey coaches. However, re-signing him for one year is a year too long. On too many occasions this season, the Wolverines would make the same in-game mistakes repetitively, and they'd go uncorrected for almost the entire season. For instance, how many times have you seen two defensemen back in the Michigan end aimlessly turn the puck over by the boards and lead to an opposing scoring chance?
The team is disturbingly unresponsive. There's not much you can do to correct a situation like this except hire a new coach. The Wolverines need a fresh voice behind the bench, and they need one with a plan instead of playing cookie-cutter hockey. Blocking shots and choking your own lane while spending the entire game in your own zone as a result is no longer the way the game should be played. That's not defense.
In 2015, we are seeing speed with the puck unparalleled to any other point in hockey history. We are seeing defenders join the rush, defend the neutral zone, and handle the puck on a breakout and in the offensive end. The result is less time spent defending. The team that spends less time on defense generally wins.
If all of these issues don't speak volumes, consider the early departures of Dylan Larkin and Andrew Copp this summer. Copp, the captain who showed no signs of leaving, up and left to sit on the bench for the remainder of Winnipeg's season. Berenson didn't take too kindly to it.
The more worrying departure was that of Larkin. When a player of his caliber departs with almost zero pressure from his NHL team (who were actively dealing with personnel decisions for next season) jumped ship. While Larkin was indeed one of the best freshmen in program history, his departure just wreaks of unhappiness at Michigan. If there was one player the program really didn't need lose, it was him.
It isn't all dark. Despite what seems to be a window of darkness on the horizon, Michigan will be moving on soon enough. Its entering recruiting class is nothing short of stellar, and its program is on track for advancing itself into contending position. Will 2015-16 be a step forward, or will we lose the remaining endearment for Red Berenson that we still have?
This was my job interview to join the hockey crew -- I failed.
We're entering unfamiliar territory here. For a program that has been eliminated from postseason contention in their last game for three seasons in a row, there was always a reason to be optimistic. Whether it was a strong returning core or an incoming class of highly touted recruits, they were always expected to take the next step and get back to the postseason.
This year, for the first time in quite some time, the optimism surrounding the program is gone. Andrew Copp, Dylan Larkin and Zach Hyman have departed and left the team void of a primary scorer; they are without a defensive standout at center, have question marks in goal and could still face more attrition after the draft.
So where do we go from here?
This is still a talented team but everything starts and ends with the blue line, which for the better part of three years has seen poor fundamentals, assignments in transition defense and coverage of the slot area derail their seasons with no indication that they'll get better.
Time and time again in transition a Michigan defenseman away from the puck would stare so hard at the puck carrier, they had no idea if anyone was streaking in behind them or not. Other times if a forward wasn't in their vicinity, the backside defenseman would just leave the area to chase the puck carrier.
If there is reason to believe that fortunes can change, it's because Mike Komisarek will have a full off-season and camp to work these things out. Red Berenson has also brought in Steve Shields to work with the goalies. Much of this team's success next year will be determined by these two.
If there is a silver lining it's that recruiting has not slowed down. In fact, Berenson has put together a class for 2016 that could end up being one of his best ever, while still landing coveted recruits for 2017, 2018 and even 2019. Regardless of what happens this season, the program is still in a position to win.