i refuse to even consider this a possibility
hockey preview 2013
please Tiny Jesus, bless this goalie with your holy save percentage
This was a mess for the first 30 games last year, and was so immediately. Michigan blew a two goal lead in the opener, falling to RIT in overtime as Jared Rutledge gave up 5 goals on 26 shots. Four of those goals were somewhere between weak and horrible. Steve Racine backstopped a 7-2 win the next night, and the rotation was on in earnest.
Both struggled; to my eyes, Rutledge was a roving assemblage of holes just waiting to burst open. When he moved across the crease it was like portions of his body just phased out. Racine looked much more solid, but was a little snakebit and had one or two WTF breakdowns per game.
Both guys puttered along with ugly save percentages until a 4-1 loss to Western spurred Red to try the old "put in a 5'6" walk-on to spur the team to greater heights" gambit. Adam Janecyk entered. The team shut out Western the next night, and thus embarked Tiny Jesus Quest 2.0. That, like almost everything else last year, failed. It turns out that there's only one Shawn Hunwick.
Michigan turned back to Rutledge for a pair of wins against utterly inept Michigan State—a team that had bombed him for 7 goals back in November—and a humiliating 13-goals-allowed weekend at Notre Dame before finally, mercifully re-inserting Racine for his first start since December. Racine let in six goals on 60 shots as Michigan swept OSU. The next weekend Michigan held Ferris to two goals in two games. Northern got four. And so forth and so on. By the end of Michigan's somewhat stirring run to the CCHA final, Racine had gone ten straight games without giving up more than three goals and had just about forced his season-long save percentage over .900. His SV% over Michigan's 9-1-1 run to finish the season was .921—very good.
The Difference. Michigan's save percentage the rest of the season was an abominable .873. The difference that would have made:
GOALS ALLOWED, HYPOTHETICAL SEASON-LONG SUCK: 143
GOALS ALLOWED, HYPOTHETICAL RACINE .921: 89
It's kind of a big deal that Steve Racine is the guy he seemed like in the last ten games and not the guy he seemed like in his first 12. Is he? I have no idea. Goalies can go entire NHL seasons without establishing a true performance level. You only get reliable this-guy-can-play data by extending your data over two or three years. Anyone telling you anything about Racine definitively is having you on.
Racine's big, Michigan has a recent pedigree of developing goalies, and the good bit was at the end. If he's not getting jerked around—and he will be allowed to sink or swim until at least midseason—hopefully he's closer to the end bit than the starting bit.
Backups. Rutledge fled back to the USHL for a breather year, and while Michigan is holding the door open they've added Zach Nagelvoort in this class and possible draft pick Hayden Lavigne in the next. The door is open, and crowded, and if Rutledge wants to play I don't think he's coming back.
This year, Nagelvoort is the guy. We've actually got a hello post for him because he committed back in April and there was actual data on him—most hockey commits don't get pub here because the posts on them would consist of "this is his name, that's all I know." Nagelvoort is a lot like Racine, as he had a blazing year-end run after a midseason trade (he was stuck behind another D-I goalie), going 8-1-1 with a SV% of .957. His season-long SV% was .936. He's a flier with very few games under his belt and probably won't play much unless Racine struggles.
While I can't predict the outcome of a few question marks, here are a the things I'm relatively confident I can project:
The give-a-damn level will skyrocket. GAD level started to incline when Copp was installed as the top line center, and now he's got an A. With some less committed folk out the door and JT Compher and Tyler Motte in, Michigan will have one backchecking, two-way, effort player on the ice at all times.
Mac Bennett is going to blow up. A senior with a ton of talent, he'll be given ice time levels rarely seen in Yost Ice Arena. He'll anchor the top pairing and power play, rush the puck with much greater frequency, and be All Big Ten, easy.
Pain and woe will be the watchwords of the second defensive pairing. The third pairing will probably be fine with many options and Mike Szuma holding it down against checking lines. But the options on the second pairing include two mediocre players and two freshmen with decent, but not great, profiles.
The power play will suck. Who's got the talent to run it? I don't see anyone. Last year it was "let Trouba shoot"; this year it's back to the salt mines.
5x5 scoring depth will be good. Michigan won't have a blazing top line that kills all comers but they will be solidly positive as their two-way work helps. The second line should be solidly above average, and they'll get nice production out of Motte or Kyle or Moffatt as you go down the roster. It'll have to be, because only Bennett projects to offer a lot of points from the defense.
This will be a rebound year. Well yeah.
How much of a rebound depends heavily on Racine and the two relatively ready freshmen defensemen. If Racine is a barely-above-.900 guy and Downing and De Jong are better suited to the bottom pairing, it's an NCAA bubble team fighting tooth and nail to get a bid. If Racine is a .920 guy and Downing/De Jong can solidify the top four defensemen, Michigan will cruise into the tournament as a two or strong three.
M did not do themselves many favors with a brutal schedule, and will start off sloppy and shaky. The BC opener, to be played without Guptill, is a Bad Idea, and Michigan's record won't impress too much early. Once they get into the rather easy Big Ten section, they'll win enough games to be a three-seed going into the NCAA tournament.
Mac Bennett's projected partner: also Mac Bennett
|Mac Bennett||Sr.||Mike Downing||Fr.|
|Kevin Clare||Sr.||Brennan Serville||Jr.|
|Mike Szuma||Jr.||Nolan De Jong||Fr.|
ALSO: Mike Chiasson (Jr), Spencer Hyman (Fr), Kevin Lohan (Fr)
THIS IS WHERE IT GETS STICKY. The simultaneous departures of Jon Merrill and Jacob Trouba leave Michigan's blue line in a spot that is icky at best. While they've got a couple of NHL draft picks incoming, there's a major difference between Trouba, a top ten pick who is going to make the Jets this year, and Mike Downing, a fourth-rounder who Billy Powers says is "a bit skin and bones" at the moment.
But let's start with the nice bit. MAC BENNETT returns for his final year in a winged helmet wearing the C. He toned his game down last year when he found himself paired with Trouba, eschewing the puck-rushing style he flashed his first two years so that he could be a more reliable defensive partner for a dynamic player. He still put up points at an encouraging rate until he was hewn down in the disastrous 5-1 loss to Bowling Green that seemed to be the last straw for Red. He returned a month later on the second pairing—Merrill's return bumped him—and performed ably down the stretch. Miraculously, his +/- was zero on the year. Despite all his talent, Trouba did not fare nearly as well in that (admittedly wonky) stat.
This year, Michigan needs him to be Trouba, and all-phases crusher who sucks up shift after shift. If Red is ever going to throw over his policy of relatively even time, this is the year. Bennett should be logging Jack Johnson-in-Columbus time, playing all three phases and attempting to shut down the opposition's best on a nightly basis. Powers provided some Fred Jackson-level reassurance when he talked to the Canadiens' official site:
“Mac Bennett will be a dominant college defenseman [this season]. We expect him to be the most dominant offensive and defensive defenseman in the Big Ten. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it,” added Powers. “Every night, there will be someone in the building who will say – ‘That No. 37 is special’.”
Powers also said he's an “elite skater with incredible explosion and incredible endurance"; that latter quality should be put to the test.
Expect a resurgence of the offensive flair Bennett showed his first couple years, because it's not coming from anywhere else on this defense corps and whoever ends up pairing Bennett will be shot if he so much as thinks about getting up ice.
Now, who partners with Bennett? Your options are all frightening on some level. The primary contenders:
- The aforementioned MIKE DOWNING, who has promise and offensive upside but saw his stock drop significantly in his final year of junior and needs to fill out.
- Senior KEVIN CLARE, who provides zero offense (0-2-2 last year, 12 shots), was –9 last year in just 19 games, and was scratched for the final 14 because of disciplinary issues.
- Junior BRENNAN SERVILLE, who seems like he should be more of an offensive defenseman of only because he tends to give you hives with his decisions but is as bereft as Clare is in the points department (1-2-3, 21 shots) and was scratched for 11 games himself last year. But I guess he was +3? Woo?
I'm going with Downing, mostly because I cringe at the idea of Clare or Serville on a top pairing and haven't seen the freshman yet, but I could also see the job going to Clare, since Downing has some offensive upside in his game:
"He carries the puck well out of the zone and makes good decisions on when to hang on to it or move it ahead. Sees the ice well in transition and has a pro pass. He is willing to mix it up, especially when defending down low. He is also very good at moving the puck on the power play. He has a good, hard shot that he gets through to the net, but can and will fake his shot and make a quick pass to the open man. He is not afraid to jump to an open hole on the offensive attack to create scoring chances. He will need to show all of this with more consistency for the next level."
Michigan may want to split those two guys in an effort to have a puck-mover on the ice for most of the game. Clare's just going to sit back, break up plays, and try to get the puck out of the zone, and if he's out there with a lesser guy that could result in spells of uncomfortable pressure.
As for Serville, I'm in full confirmation bias mode with him in which I magnify every mistake he makes. But I'm aware of it and I'm still nervous about having him in a major role. He was a draft pick a couple years back and defensemen take time, etc etc etc. I'll be pleasantly surprised if he makes a significant step forward.
[After THE JUMP: at least they've got a ton of third pairing guys?]
MICHIGAN DROPS THE PUCK on Sunday in an exhibition against Waterloo to kick off their 2013-2014 hockey campaign; things get real serious real fast after that as BC comes in for the season opener proper on Thursday the 10th. While I can't go into as much detail as I do with football, a conveniently-timed bye week provides a window in which to properly preview hockey, something I'm not sure I've ever done.
say hello to your next two-year captain, Andrew Copp
The following is a fanciful line chart that will be wrong from day one in many respects, and even more wrong when Red runs his line through a blender four times. But you've got to try:
|LEFT WING||YR||CENTER||YR||RIGHT WING||YR|
|Alex Guptill||Jr.||Andrew Copp||So.||Boo Nieves||So.|
|Phil Di Giuseppe||Jr.||JT Compher||Fr.||Derek DeBlois||Sr.|
|Tyler Motte||Fr.||Travis Lynch||Jr.||Luke Moffatt||Sr.|
|Evan Allen||Fr.||Justin Selman||So.||Zach Hyman||Jr.|
ALSO: Andrew Sinelli (Jr), Alex Kile (Fr), Max Shuart (Fr)
I call him mini-Copp
CENTER. The theory here is that a year after Michigan struggled with leadership everywhere they will prioritize guys who give maximum effort on every shift and build the team around a core of hard-ass centers. Andrew Copp is obvious. Copp was handed the reins of the top line halfway through the season and almost singlehandedly turned the attitude of the team around. Copp worked his ass off, inspired Alex Guptill to great heights, and finished the year with something of a scoring flourish. He's still developing after a career as a high school quarterback made hockey a part-time pastime, and his freshman year was good enough to draw the attention of the NHL after being passed over a year ago. If Michigan can make good on the promise of their late season run this year and for the next few, Copp will go down like Ortmeyer or Hagelin.
Meanwhile, every scouting report on incoming freshman JT Compher goes out of its way to praise Compher's compete level and two-way play:
Compher's NTDP coach Don Granato summed it up pretty well in Compher's hometown newspaper: ""Anything intangible, as far as an attribute, that I’ve mentioned, he’s a 10."
The phrase "two-way forward" is often the polite cliche for a player with not a lot of offensive talent, but in Compher's case, it's not used in a derogatory fashion. Compher is one of the rare skilled players that exhibits the same effort and enthusiasm without the puck that he does with the puck. He's a tenacious, sometimes nasty, defender that makes life difficult for opponents. His compete level all over the ice is among the best in the draft.
Despite not having awesome size or speed, Compher led the NTDP in PPG last year. He is ready for a lot of responsibility, probably right now. Billy Powers isn't even being coy about it:
J.T. is a guy who really has a lot of tools. He’s being talked about a lot as a defensive, third-line forward type but there’s some offensive potential there as well, and we think that will flourish in college. We see him as a power play, penalty kill player right from the start, and he’ll manage a line as a center in our top six.
If you thought one Copp was rather nice, two Copps will be like heaven after suffering through last year.
[After THE JUMP: actual rather a lot of depth.]