By @StefanKubus –
The Michigan Wolverines came within a game of playing for the national championship last season.
This season, the Wolverines have been picked to finish second in the Big Ten – only to Ohio State – in the league’s preseason poll. Which isn’t a bad spot to be, but head coach Mel Pearson has numerous reasons to be optimistic about his team’s chances of once again making noise in the postseason, especially with some of their key players returning.
As the team gears up for its Oct. 6 opener against Vermont at Yost Ice Arena, Pearson said his team’s energy and compete level has been surprisingly consistent, a good sign given the long wait to play its first game.
“Our team in general, just our overall practice compared to a year ago when I took over, is so much better,” Pearson said. “Just the pace, the energy, we really haven’t had a bad day – knock on wood – at practice yet. Usually, when you go this long with practice, you’re expecting to have a day you hit the wall, but for whatever reason, our team has not had that and that’s part of the excitement here and also goes to the leadership of this team, making sure our team is ready to get the most out of every day we’re on the ice.
“I’ve really enjoyed having the extra two hours on the ice versus last year. I think that’s given us an opportunity to not feel as rushed or cramming some things in for practice, so it’s been good in that sense. Obviously everybody has started at a different time because of when school started, but I think this year, we wished we played a little bit earlier. The five weeks has been a long grind here.”
On a personal note for Pearson, he said he feels much more comfortable heading into year two as head coach, given his relative unfamiliarity with both the Big Ten and also his players last season.
“Obviously feel a lot more at ease than I was my first year last year, just knowing the players so much better and obviously also knowing the Big Ten,” Pearson said. “I had never been to places in the Big Ten, and I think I got my eyes opened as a coach.”
The returning Wolverines
When it comes to his players, it’s no surprise who Pearson listed off first.
“As far as players go, Quinn Hughes has looked exceptional. We weren’t sure we were going to get Quinn back until I think it was the end of July. I can speak for all Michigan fans and our program that we’re excited to have Quinn back. He’s looked fabulous so far for preseason.”
Hughes, the Vancouver Canucks’ seventh overall draft pick in June’s NHL Entry Draft and product of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, posted 29 points in 37 games from the blue line for Pearson during his freshman campaign.
Pearson also named Oxford native and sophomore forward Josh Norris as a “player who’s made big strides in the offseason and coming into this year quicker, stronger, more confident on the ice.
Also up front, Michigan will have a healthy Will Lockwood to start the season after missing the second half of last season due to injury. At the time, the Vancouver Canucks prospect was one of the Wolverines’ top scorers, having posted 11 points in 16 games during his shortened sophomore season.
“We’re excited to get Will back,” Pearson said. “He was one of our top scorers before that injury, so he’s back. I just noticed how his body – he’s much more defined, stronger, weighs more but he hasn’t lost anything in his quickness.”
On the back end, the Wolverines will look to senior defenseman, Dallas Stars prospect and team captain Joseph Cecconi. Pearson said he has seen “tremendous growth” in Cecconi, not just on the ice but off the ice.
Between the pipes, junior Hayden Lavigne will anchor the Wolverines’ goal, with incoming freshmen Strauss Mann and Jack Leavy also on the roster. Pearson said he’s optimistic about Lavigne’s potential this season.
“Hayden Lavigne came off the second half, really did a good job and helped us get to the Frozen Four. Hayden’s a junior, and I think he’s got the confidence and I think he’s poised to have a really good year for us.”
Michigan has ten freshmen listed on its roster, half of which are Michigan natives, but there’s been one in particular so far that has caught the head coach’s eye.
“As far as the newcomers go, Jimmy Lambert from out of the BC junior league, he’s got skill, he’s got vision, skates well, competitive. He’s looked good for us. I think that’s really the guy that has come in as a freshman.”
Last season, with the Vernon Vipers of the BCHL, the 21-year-old Lambert posted 23 goals and 61 points in 55 games.
Among the freshmen crop are defensemen Jake Gingell (Dexter), Jack Summers (Livonia), Nick Blankenburg (Washington), forward Jack Olmstead (Troy), and the netminder Leavy (Birmingham).
“We’re excited at Michigan, we’re looking forward to getting the year started, we’re healthy and I know our players are anxious and excited to get going.”