It has been an up-and-down first half of the season for the Michigan Wolverines (8-7-3). At times, Michigan looks like the best team in college hockey, as the Wolverines fly around the ice, dominate the puck, and force quality shot after shot. However, largely in the third period, Michigan has looked lost. The team begins to tighten up on the precipice of victory, zone entry/exits are increasingly sloppier, and mistakes start to mount.
But with a lot of hockey in front of them, the Wolverines will have an opportunity to develop some consistency when official play resumes on Jan. 12 against Stonehill. Currently, Michigan sits at No. 13 in the USA Hockey rankings, No. 15 in the USCHO rankings and No. 15 in Pairwise.
Firmly in a bubble position, how does Michigan find its stride in 2024?
1. Get healthy
The Wolverines were one of the most banged up teams in the first half of the season, and it’s frankly difficult to find a player who wasn’t working through something. Forward Jackson Hallum was lost for the season early on, eliminating one of Michigan’s most important depth-providing forwards, not to mention the fastest player on the team.
Furthermore, a trio of forwards — Dylan Duke, Mark Estapa, Rutger McGroarty — were all injured in the same game against Penn State. Duke returned the following night, but Estapa and McGroarty have yet to return to the ice. While the news has been silent surrounding Estapa, McGroarty — previously the nation’s leading scorer — is expected back in the second half of the season. His return alone will bolster the forward depth and immediately provide a pivotal spark for a sputtering offense.
Defenseman Ethan Edwards has yet to make his debut this season and if he hits the ice in 2024, Edwards will give Michigan another experienced playmaker on the blue line and a top-five rotation that is as good as any in the country.
2. Limit the Penalties/Improve the Penalty Kill
Michigan is currently last in the Big Ten in penalty kill, opponents’ power-play attempts per game and power play goals per game. Of the 60 teams in Division 1 college hockey, the Wolverines rank in the bottom six teams in each of these three categories, so even reaching mediocrity in the second half of the season is an improvement.
The first step to improving is simple: take less penalties. Michigan has struggled under head coach Brandon Naurato with taking bad penalties at the worst times. Naurato encourages players to play fast and free, but reeling back in some of this freedom might behoove Naurato in the long term.
Secondly, Michigan needs to be more disciplined on the penalty kill. The Wolverines don’t need to be lock-down like Boston College, Quinnipiac, or Wisconsin — three national title contenders all above 90 percent on the PK this season — but a slight bump could be the difference between the Frozen Four and missing the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan is currently at .746 on the kill — an uptick of less than seven percent would put the Wolverines in the middle of the pack nationally and help salt away more victories. Without limiting penalties or improving this aspect of special teams, Michigan will continually struggle to close out games.
3. Help Barzo
Looking at goaltender Jake Barczewski’s raw numbers, one would assume the Canisius transfer has been underwhelming. Currently, he has a .913 save percentage and a 2.725 goals against average. However, these mediocre numbers have less to do with the man between the pipes than the two closest in front of him.
Michigan’s defense has no middle ground. It is either fluent and impregnable, or an open door inviting teams to score. This disparity in defense is one of the single biggest contributing factors to Michigan’s middling record. The Wolverines don’t have to be dominant on this end of the ice, but a raised floor with a baseline of discipline could be the catalyst that catapults this team into the NCAA Tournament.