How Michigan hockey is trying to keep the focus on NCAA tournament while NHL draft looms

Detroit Free Press
Lane Kizziah |  Special to Detroit Free Press

If you follow college hockey, then you’ve heard about Michigan’s freshman class.

Long before stepping foot into Yost Ice Arena, they combined to produce one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Each of the new players came with an accomplished resume and NHL draft hype. So far, three of the freshman — forwards Brendan Brisson and Thomas Bordeleau and goaltender Erik Portillo — have been drafted in the first, second and third rounds, respectively.

And, still, the highest picks are likely yet to come. Forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson and defenseman Owen Power aren’t draft-eligible until July, but are projected to be top-10 picks overall. Power could be the No. 1 overall pick.

Before the start of the season, it sounded like Michigan coach Mel Pearson was trying to manage already inflated expectations.

“I don’t know how good we are, but we’ll find out pretty soon…” Pearson said prior to Michigan’s season-opener. “(The freshmen) just have to find their way, they don’t have to lead our team, but eventually they might.”

“Eventually” came pretty soon. The freshman class accounted for 50% of points and 42 of Michigan’s 91 goals this season. Out of 10 new players, six have made serious contributions so far.

Pearson told reporters preseason that Power was “as good as advertised,” but his stellar performances both with and without the puck have cemented this top-tier status.

“Just being here, I’ve developed a lot,” Power said. “I think my biggest thing has been just the way I’m able to control my gap and kill plays before they start.”

Beniers has the second-highest plus-minus in the Big Ten. The Wolverines are rarely caught on a breakaway when Beniers is on the ice as his speed has been crucial offensively and defensively. Though he is a jack-of-all trades, he’s also a master of none. Pearson has said Beniers (10 goals) has to work on moving the puck more and he can improve in the faceoff.

“It’s a higher-speed game in college hockey than it was in any past years I’ve been playing, so just getting used to playing in that and making quicker decisions,” Beniers said. “Because obviously, you have to do that at every level, you’re gonna have to adapt to the speed of the game and you’re gonna have to make quicker decisions.”

When asked who has improved over the course of the season, Johnson was the first person to come to Pearson’s mind.

“The first half of the year, (Johnson was) 160 pounds dripping wet, playing against some 25-year-old that’s got 30, 40 pounds on him and he’s gotta play against him,” Pearson said after the Wolverines’ last game of the season. “But, Kent, I’d give him a ton of credit. … He’s made tremendous improvements, tremendous strides.”

Over the past 10 games, Johnson has picked up nine points.

Pearson has said the Wolverines freshmen have a “high hockey IQ,” something that seems vague and indefinable until you watch them on the ice.

Their understanding of the game is obvious in the way they handle the puck and maneuver through opponents. And it’s only more evident when they play together. The most successful forward line has come from pairing Beniers and Johnson, who have a combined 45 points on the season — mostly due to their complementary styles.

Pearson describes Beniers as having an “endless motor” while Johnson is a more cerebral player. He maneuvers the puck with a bit more flair, leading to highlight-reel plays in front of the goal.

As two of the fastest players on the team, the pairing of Brisson and Bordeleau frequently get 2-on-1 breakaways, making them an offensive threat against almost any opponent. Seven times this season, one has scored with the other providing the primary assist.

They haven’t been on a line together as long as Beniers and Johnson, but in the past couple of months, they’ve developed quite a bit of chemistry.

When five guys produce half of the Wolverines’ offense, it can be easy to put them on a pedestal. But the success hasn’t come without its challenges. Swirling draft rumors make the difficult transition to college hockey  even more challenging.

“For all three of us, we don’t really talk about it that much,” Power said. “We go to the rink, and at the rink, no one really where you’re ranked really or what’s going on.”

But it seems the hype is always growing, possibly because they’re some of the few undrafted NHL-level players playing this year. Most of the top college players are already drafted and many of the junior leagues aren’t playing this year.

With the draft just four months away, Pearson knows that it’s getting harder to block out that noise, but he’s asked his players to stay dialed in just a little while longer.

On Sunday, Michigan will learn its NCAA postseason fate (7 p.m., ESPNU). The freshmen will be tossed into a whole new level of competition. But regardless of what happens in the next two weeks, Pearson just has one other goal:

“We’ve just got to make sure they stick around Ann Arbor for a couple years.”

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