While the Michigan football team is struggling mightily, the hockey program is trending in the exact opposite direction. Though the 2018-19 season was a big letdown after reaching the Frozen Four the year prior, the trajectory changed significantly when the calendar hit 2020. The Wolverines now enter the new season ranked No. 12 in the country, but there is a good chance that they outperform this initial ranking by the time the season ends.
Like it will be for every sport, this season will be full of firsts and unknowns due to Covid-19. Case in point, Michigan only has 10 of its 24 games scheduled so far, half of which will be played on a non-Friday weekday and all of which will be played against fellow Big Ten teams or Arizona State (who will act as the eighth team in the Big Ten schedule puzzle). There will surely be some road bumps and unique circumstances to deal with along the way, but if the season is able to be played to completion, expect the Wolverines to do great things this year.
Where we left off
On March 7, 2020 Michigan beat Michigan State 3-0 at Yost Ice Arena to advance to the Big Ten Semifinals. This would end up being the final game of the season, as the No. 17 Wolverines did not get a shot at taking home the Big Ten title or at competing in the NCAA Tournament, which is unfortunate given how they were playing to close out the year.
The 2019-20 season started out ice cold, with the team going just 7-11-2 before New Year’s. Coming out of the break, though, it was a whole different story, as Michigan went 11-3-2 down the stretch to move itself squarely onto the bubble and into a tie for second in the Big Ten standings — another win in the Big Ten Tournament was probably enough to lock up an NCAA berth. The hope is that the Wolverines can carry this momentum forward into 2020-21, which seems like a real possibility given the makeup of the roster.
The state of the roster
All conversations about Michigan right now revolve around the freshman class, which is the best in the country. Chris Peters of ESPN has D Owen Power (No. 1), F Kent Johnson (No. 3), and F Matthew Beniers (No. 8) all ranked inside his top 10 list of 2021 NHL prospects, while F Brendan Brisson was just drafted in the first round by Vegas, F Thomas Bordeleau was selected in the second round by San Jose, and D Jacob Truscott was taken in the fifth round by Vancouver. Just to emphasize how good these freshmen are, there is significant attention being paid to how many scouts will be allowed in Yost Ice Arena this season.
This loaded group of newcomers joins a roster that has plenty of talent coming back to Ann Arbor. Sophomores D Cam York and F Johnny Beecher were both drafted in the first round in 2019 but are here for another season and were named to the All-Big Ten First and Second Preseason Teams, respectively. Meanwhile, F Jack Becker and F Eric Ciccolini are quality options with NHL potential as well. Perhaps the most important returning player is G Strauss Mann, the reigning Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and conference Player of the Year finalist.
Of course, there are a few key departures from last year’s squad. F Will Lockwood leaves the Wolverines after four seasons, his last as a captain and All-Big Ten honorable mention. The former third-rounder signed a two-year deal with the Canucks this past spring. Gone too are is F Jake Slaker, F Jacob Hayhurst, F Nick Pastujov, and D Griffin Luce, among others.
How good can this team be?
This will be Year Four under head coach Mel Pearson, who is still looking to prove he is the perfect successor for Red Berenson. He has one great season under his belt, albeit with an inherited roster, so building off of last year’s second half success will be crucial in proving his ability to bring this program back to national prominence. He has assembled all of the pieces needed to claim the Wolverines’ first Big Ten title since 2016.
With the combination of proven players and immense potential from the freshmen, Michigan is easily one of the most exciting teams in the country. It could take some time to gel, and as football has shown, jumping right into conference play can be a challenge, but this team has the potential — and expectation — of making a run at the Frozen Four this season. The bar is extremely high this year, but seldom does a program bring in this much new talent all at once.