Once the puck didn’t get dumped into the Duluth zone, you knew. Once you saw Chad Langlais scramble to get back into defensive position to continue what was already almost a three-minute shift, you knew. Once Travis Oleksuk threw a pass across the front of the net to Kyle Schmidt and Shawn Hunwick couldn’t quite get back to the far post you really knew. It was over, a run made as the last effort of an impressive, if slightly underperforming, recruiting class ground to a screeching halt just inches from the their ultimate goal.
In what can only be described as a heart-breaking defeat the University of Michigan Wolverines lost 3-2 in overtime to the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul to fall just short of the NCAA Championship in Men’s Ice Hockey. We waved goodbye to Langlais, Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso, Scooter Vaughn, Matt Rust, Ben Winnett and the too often street-clothed Bryan Hogan. This was a class that could have, and probably should have, produced more than a loss at all four levels of the NCAA Tournament. The early departures of Aaron Palushaj and Max Pacioretty didn’t help and they did manage to lose each of those games in a different fantastic fashion: an OT almost comeback after pulling a starting goalie for a freshman(Hogan) against Notre Dame; one of the more ridiculous goaltending displays against the Air Force’s Andrew Volkening; a game stolen away and again lost in overtime to Miami(OH), and finally the closest they came to the ultimate prize in a contest that provoked even the most mild mannered of coaches to criticize the officiating. Each of these hurt in its own way mixing together shock, anger, and the emptiness that comes with ending a season without a trophy being held overhead. It has been a very unstable time to be a fan of Red Berenson’s program.
But this is a new season and a new team that will once again be setting their sights on not just another NCAA tournament appearance (they have 21 straight), or a Frozen Four trip (24 of those, the most all time) or even another shot at big one (11 title games played). No the Wolverines will accept nothing less than a tenth National Championship as a successful season, as a program with the tradition of U of M should. Whether or not this is a realistic goal for this specific group remains to be seen, but looking at what Coach Berenson is going put out on the ice there is potential for greatness, but there are also a significant amount of question marks.
The front line of the Wolverines consists of a lot of unproven talent and talent that has yet to live up to expectations. This could be one of the strongest offensive forces Michigan has seen in a long time or it could be a complete bust, we know that little about the Wolverine attack. Of the fourteen forwards on the roster only five were guaranteed to be in the lineup when healthy last season. That is not a lot of experience even for a college team – for example last year’s team had nine. There are also five freshman forwards on the roster, at least three of whom are expected to play regularly. This lack of real experience makes it very difficult to predict what kind of offense we will see at Yost this year but the veteran players have a lot on their shoulders. None more than second-year captain Luke Glendening who will most likely anchor Michigan’s top line. Glendening is certainly the most experienced returning forward if not the most prolific. The senior’s talents are more defensive and he will be the team’s best penalty killer and is the unquestioned leader in the locker room. If there is one player that might want to return to the national title game more than any other it has to be senior alternate captain David Wohlberg, who watched from the stands as his teammates fell to Duluth after suffering a broken collar bone against Bowling Green in the second round of the CCHA Tournament last year. Despite missing the last 7 games of the season, he was still second on the team in goals, so the Wolverines will be depending on him to keep putting the puck in the net. A source of goals that hasn’t seemed to ever find its groove is Chris Brown. The junior scored only nine goals last year while taking the third most shots on the team. Brown will hope to see more of the Texas flag flying in the Michigan student section this season. Other than those three players Coach Berenson will be expecting his forwards to start living up to their potential. Kevin Lynch scored eleven goals last year but was in a deep scoring slump for too much of last year. AJ Treais was fantastic at times last year and provides a spark when Michigan gets sluggish but he was still too undisciplined and needs to have more control over his finesse game if he wants to become a top end scorer. Luke Moffat has the potential to fire a lot of pucks home for the Wolverines as well but as a freshman he sometimes looked lost out on the ice and had a problem regaining composure after a couple bad plays. The rest of the bunch has to see more playing time before any real determination can be made, but look out for freshman Zach Hyman to make a big impact. The Panthers draft pick was a dominant force in the Ontario Junior Hockey League on his way to being named the Canadian Junior A player of the year, an honor he shares with Mike Comrie and Jeff Tambellini. That’s some good company.
The blue line is a little more stable than the front end but still provides a few question marks. At least one freshman will have to play but I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point we saw three new kids suit up in the same game. In any case the blue line will be built on youth, with only one returning senior and one returning junior. Underclassmen will carry the load on this defensive corps. One of the underclassmen happens to be John Merrill who might have been the best defenseman on this team a year ago and now is unquestionably the top defender the Wolverines have. They were lucky to keep him away from the New Jersey Devils and if not for a poor performance in the national title game last year and a lackluster tournament overall, Merrill probably would have made the jump. He certainly looked like an NHL ready defenseman for the majority of last season next to Chad Langlais but now Langlais is gone and Merrill is the guy. Whether or not he has the ability to lead this group and even the whole team remains to be seen. The leadership load should be shared with senior Greg Pateryn who, despite coming into the team as a freshman having already been drafted, has never been able to establish himself firmly in the lineup. Pateryn played in 40 of the Wolverines’ 44 games last year but still was always teetering on the edge of being dropped. That won’t be a problem this year and the most defensive-minded defenseman on this team will be an integral part of the team on the ice and off. Mac Bennett and Lee Moffie could be two of the most exciting defensemen in the CCHA but last year I never wanted to see them on the ice together. Both are fantastic at moving up into the play offensively and can create problems for opposing defenses but also have the tendency to leave the their partner exposed, creating the potential for odd man rushes the other way. If they can play with more discipline they could be fantastic. The freshman to watch in this group has to be Brennan Serville, the Winnipeg Jets pick. He tallied 30 points in 36 games in the OJHL as a defenseman and with his size could be one of Michigan’s top defenseman right out of the gate.
The goaltending situation will look very familiar to any fans of the Wolverines over the last two years. Shawn Hunwick returns to his place between the pipes as a fifth-year senior and for the first time in his career he should be the unquestionable starter. Having to wait until Bryan Hogan got injured two years ago and then battling again with Hogan for playing time last year until the injury bug struck again has given Hunwick a chip on his shoulder. That coupled with his less than average size for a goalie gives him a “me against the world” type of attitude that can be great for a goalie when he is hot. When he has to compete for time however, like he did for the beginning of last season, that confidence can erode quickly. This is why the most important player to Michigan’s goaltending won’t actually be suiting up for the Wolverines this year, former commit John Gibson. Gibson bolted for the OHL after giving fans another false hope that a top Goalie would join the long line that included Al Montoya, Marty Turco, and Steve Shields. Like Jack Campbell before him Gibson could have come in and gotten solid time as a freshman but decided that college wasn’t for him so Hunwick returns to the crease. It is possible that this is the best thing that could have happened when you take just this year into account because now Hunwick doesn’t have to worry about his job and history tells us that he will play better in that situation. The problem for the future is that Hunwick will not be granted a sixth year of eligibility and backup Adam Janecyk has about as much time in competition at Yost as the people who play score-o in between periods.
So what is a realistic goal for this team? It is very difficult to say but I can’t see this team missing out on the NCAA tournament no matter how inexperienced they are. Another trip to the Frozen Four is a legitimate possibility if the right pieces fall into place. But for Wolverine fans, the wait for that tenth national title will, in all likelihood, last at least one more year.