When Mel Pearson took over as Michigan hockey’s head coach after Red Berenson’s retirement, the Wolverines were in a deep hole.
Michigan had won just 13 games in Berenson’s 33rd and final season, compiling its worst record since 1987. The Wolverines had missed the NCAA Tournament in four of their last five seasons after a record 22-year tournament streak. Berenson’s last years were marked by will-he-or-won’t-he uncertainty, and Michigan’s recruiting pipeline threatened to run dry as a result. Prospective commits lacked any guarantee they’d get to play out their careers for the legendary coach, who was then well into his seventies.
Pearson inherited the fourth-youngest team in the country; one that, outside of star freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes, lacked Michigan’s usual top-line talent. But after a middling start, the Wolverines began to gel, led by Hughes, a potent top line of Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs, and a goalie in Hayden Lavigne who found his stride late. They clinched a tournament berth with a seven-game winning streak and then took down Northeastern and Boston University to advance to their first Frozen Four since 2011. There, Notre Dame ended their run in heartbreak, scoring the game-winning goal in the final seconds of regulation.
In the three seasons since, Michigan hasn’t reached the same heights, despite rosters that have grown more talented each year. The Wolverines finished with a losing record in 2019. The year afterwards, they appeared to have clinched a tournament bid with a late-season run, but then COVID-19 hit. Last season, they earned a spot in the Fargo Regional, but COVID cases within the team forced them to withdraw before their game against Minnesota Duluth.
Michigan’s talent heading into the 2021-22 season is absolutely undeniable. The Wolverines have four of the top six players picked in this year’s NHL draft — Owen Power, who went No. 1 overall, Matty Beniers (No. 2), Kent Johnson (No. 3) and Luke Hughes (No. 4) — and seven first-rounders on the roster overall, including Mackie Samoskevich (No. 24) and Johnny Beecher (No. 30 in 2019) and Brendan Brisson (No. 29 in 2020). There’s not a team in the country, this season or possibly in history, that can boast a similar collection of stars.
Will that translate to actual on-ice dominance? That’s another story. Power, Johnson, Beniers, Beecher and Brisson were around last year, of course, and the Wolverines were inconsistent during the regular season, going just 15-10-1. In NCAA hockey, hard-nosed play and team cohesiveness often wins just as much as wave upon wave of future NHLers — just ask the 2017-18 Michigan team.
Pearson was an assistant under Berenson for 23 seasons, and at his introductory press conference in the spring of 2017, he compared taking the Michigan head-coaching job to getting the keys to the old family car. Now he has the keys to a brand-new Lamborghini.
Judging from Saturday’s test drive against Bowling Green, everything appears to be more or less in order. The Wolverines throttled the Falcons (a team that went 20-10-1 last year), 7-1, outshooting them 44-23 and getting a hat-trick from Brisson and three assists from Johnson. It’s unreasonable to expect Michigan to dominate like that every night, but their only exhibition game of 2021 painted a picture of what it might look like if they make proper use of their embarrassment of riches.
A familiar foe
We’ll learn even more when the Wolverines open their season for real this weekend. Lake Superior State, formerly part of the WCHA and now a member of the newly-reformed CCHA, comes into Yost Ice Arena for a two-game set Friday (7:30 p.m., BTN+) and Saturday (7 p.m., BTN+).
Lake Superior State’s season is already under way. The Lakers split with Nebraska-Omaha in Omaha this past weekend, winning Saturday’s game 4-3 in overtime and suffering a 3-0 shutout a day later.
Michigan’s seen a fair amount of the Lakers in recent seasons, having split with them in 2018 in Sault Ste. Marie and swept them at home in 2019. The Wolverines’ 3-1 record somewhat belies things, though. LSSU has been a scrappy opponent, and none of the four previous meetings could be considered blowouts — in fact, the two teams have combined for the same amount of shots on goal, 111-111, throughout them.
Long dormant on the national stage, the Lakers broke through last season, going 19-7-3 against an all-WCHA schedule and earning their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1996. Their stay didn’t last long, as they fell in their first game to eventual national champion UMass. But the program appears to be happy with where it’s at right now: in May, LSSU agreed to an extension with head coach Damon Whitten that will keep him in Sault Ste. Marie through 2028.
While last season represented a big step forward, Lake State, picked sixth out of eight teams in the CCHA Preseason Poll, has its work cut out in building off of it. Six of the Lakers’ top 10 scorers from last season are gone, including Ashton Calder, who tied for the WCHA lead in goals last season with 16, and 27-point scorer Pete Veillette. Mareks Mitens, who allowed just 1.96 goals per game and posted a .930 save percentage, is also gone.
But LSSU has a few building blocks. Forward Louis Boudon scored 19 points in 27 games as a sophomore last year, and junior Jacob Nordqvist had 15 points as a defenseman. Both received votes to the preseason All-CCHA team this year. In addition, the Lakers added defenseman Jake Willets, a transfer from Ferris State who was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team in 2019-20, and Boston College transfer Harrison Roy.
While none of those players are surefire NHLers close to the caliber of who Michigan will roll out, Lake Superior State isn’t a team to be slept on. While the Wolverines typically bring in high-profile 18-year-olds straight out of high school or junior hockey, smaller schools like LSSU often rely heavily on under-the-radar recruits who have exhausted their junior hockey eligibility and come into college as 21-year-old freshmen.
Filling their roster with more experienced and physical players gives teams like the Lakers their best chance at competing with teams made up of players who, while being much more skilled, might be six years younger. (Lake Superior State’s average age was close to 23 years last season, while Michigan was more than a full year younger on average. Even with just four seniors, the Lakers have an average age of 22.6 years this season, per College Hockey News.)
That’s why this weekend’s opening series, while not super sexy, is intriguing regardless. The best college hockey teams, like UMass and Minnesota Duluth, are able to combine the best of both worlds: blue-chip talent and veteran experience. The Wolverines have the first of those in droves, but they’ll also need the second — or at least show they’re able to overcome it.
Ultimately, it’s best to think of Friday and Saturday as little tastes of what’s to come. If Michigan is to achieve what it’s capable of this season, impressing right off the bat would be a good sign.