Mike Lantry, 1972
jon merrill's infinite suspension
Just in time for me to rend my garments about a Merrill non-return and add a "jon merrill's infinite suspension" tag, various players hop on twitter to say he'll be on the ice tonight. Via Michigan Hockey Net:
Just moments ago freshman Travis Lynch tweeted:
Big game tonight against Lake Superior State. Jonny is back!
That was followed up by freshman Alex Guptill tweeting:
The three most feared words in hockey. Jonny. Is. Back.
Thank Beesus. May we sting our way to a better future.
It is alive. A month ago, Michigan's tourney streak was dead and buried after an appalling skid the likes of which Michigan hasn't endured since Red revived the program in the mid-80s. Since then a four-point weekend against MSU and a surprising GLI championship have turned their pairwise fortunes 90 degrees. Try this on for size: if the season ended today, Michigan would be in. There's another 90 degrees to go, but that's good work for two weekends.
Video from the stands gets a great look at the Moffie-Clare connection that won the State game at about the 3:10 mark:
I missed all but the last ten minutes of the BC game because I was at Crisler. Yost Built has your recap. Michigan played well in the first, built a lead, got blown out of the water in the second before Treais scored against the run of play late, and then strangled the third. The ten minutes I did see were pleasingly dull.
The day after, Michigan played an even game with State. Trailing 2-1 with under a minute left and up a man, Luke Moffatt flung a cross ice pass to one of the sundry Lynches on the team, who deflected it in. In overtime Hunwick saved Michigan's bacon three times before the above transpired.
The Situation (Not That Situation)
The pairwise is a very silly metric that bounces hither and thither even when it has most of a season's worth of data, so no grand conclusions should be drawn just yet. The pairwise is also heavily slanted towards RPI, a metric that's still pretty silly but is far more projectable now that the vast bulk of nonconference games are out of the way. Now that they are, well, remember how they put in a rule that you couldn't finish below .500 and still make the tournament because of the WCHA? This year the CCHA is the WCHA:
The CCHA is 40-12-5 out of conference so far this year, for a winning percentage of 0.746. Even terrible Bowling Green, who is 1-11-2 in conference, went 5-0-1 in nonconference play, which helps everyone else in the conference.
That was before the holiday tourneys, FWIW.
Let's have a poke at RPI. Michigan is currently in a swamp of four teams separated by a couple thousandths that stretch from 10th to 13th. Their brutal schedule down the stretch is 14 games. Two of them are against BGSU. The remainder are series against #1 OSU, #4 ND, #8 NMU, #10 MSU, #15 LSSU, and inexplicably .500 Miami.
This is good and bad. Michigan can maintain its RPI at its current level by going .500 down the stretch, which will put them on the bubble. Win nine of 14 games and Michigan's RPI will slide up the 6-8 range. That is lock territory.
Michigan's in a much better spot than they were a couple years ago when they were 10-10 after the GLI. They had little room for error, used all of it and more, and only made the tourney after scraping out a conference tourney win. That team wasn't addressing its biggest weakness with the best defenseman in college hockey, though, and they weren't playing in a league the algorithm looked upon favorably.
The Other Situation (The Wall Punching One)
Is this team addressing their biggest weakness with the best defenseman in college hockey? When Jon Merrill's mysterious suspension was mysteriously extended to a mysterious end date, everyone assumed he would be back for this weekend's LSSU series and the stretch run. That is apparently not the case:
Merrill will NOT play this weekend per Red this morning
Didn't sound super optimistic the kid will be back anytime soon either. Might have to push his ETA back to late January.
Fantastic. We still have no idea what Merrill's issue is, no idea when he'll return, no idea why he's still in Ann Arbor when he's apparently never going to get back on the ice again. It's not academic or Merrill would be eligible now. It's not legal or someone would have run across a public document of it by now. It's not serious enough to put off USA Hockey when they were selecting the WJC team, but it's serious enough to force Merrill out of 2/3rds of a season and counting. ARGH ARGH ARGH ARGH. Red is Red. He is the program. He knows what he's doing. I will remain calm.
So here we are. If Merrill ever gets back I'd guess the pairings end up like so:
That's three pairings with one offensive and one defensive player and no Brennan Serville, a guy who has struggled immensely in his transition to college hockey. Early in the year I thought Clare's footspeed would see him eat bench in the distant future when robots ruled the world and Merrill was eligible again, but the coaches clearly have more faith in him at this point. During Michigan's dismal slide, Serville was more or less directly responsible for two goals in a particular first period and sat out until midway through the third. He'll probably rotate through from time to time when Moffie or Clare has a shaky outing; a regular shift is unlikely.
If the above looks pretty good, without Merrill it's the same story we've seen so far this year: a pretty good top pairing, a somewhat reliable elderly freshmen, and after that terror, alarm, and Lee Moffie's assist machine.
Silver lining: Merrill must be planning on coming back for his junior year given the above. I mean, right?
The Forwards (Eh)
Michigan's stats are bizarre. They're fifth in the country with 3.55 goals per game but have no one averaging a point per game; leading scorer Chris Brown is tied for 79th nationally with 6-12-18 and is the only guy in the top 100 at College Hockey Stats.
The game with ALL OF THE GOALS (all of the goals)
If it doesn't feel like they're fifth in scoring, this is largely attributable to the distribution of the goals. In one game against St. Lawrence, Michigan poured in ten. Excise that from the stats and they fall to 17th nationally… which also seems high. It is less eyepopping. Since their season-opening tomato cans they've averaged exactly 3 goals per game with four outings in which they managed only one. That's why anyone running across Michigan's place in the scoring ranks is set for a double take.
As for individuals, it's hard to pick out any for attention. What is Michigan's top line? I don't know, you don't know. M had Andrew Sinelli out there for the GLI with Moffatt and Hyman… is that a fourth line? What is that?
These days the nominal top line is Brown-Wohlberg-Guptill, which sounds like just another bunch of dudes but does have the three top-scoring forwards on the team. Whoever is playing with Phil Di Giuseppe is the second line. Lindsay Sparks has eaten bench the last four games after his production fell off; he still has more points in 18 games than Lynch, Deblois, Glendening, and Hyman have in 21 or 22. He is not notably more deficient on D than the rest of the team. I will never understand his deployment, especially when Michigan's power play is terrible.
Positives and negatives are hard to throw out there when you're not sure who is supposed to be what. Glendening is a senior captain who spent much of the year on the top line and he has eight points. That would be disappointing if it wasn't obvious he was going to be a guy with about eight points at midseason. PDG has stopped producing after a torrid start; that would be disappointing if he had much help from his linemates and wasn't a shiny penny found in the depths of the OPJHL.
Two freshmen forwards are clearly deviating from expectations in one direction or another: Alex Guptill is deservedly on the top line and has more goals (9) than any other Wolverine. He's a big guy with enough mobility to make his size relevant and puts in a bunch of effort on most shifts. Zach Hyman hasn't been bad, per se, but I keep waiting for him to Do Something. He hasn't and has limped his way to a 2-6-8 and the worst +/- on the team. He's an older guy, too, so if he doesn't start producing soon he's not likely to ever become a star.
As for upperclassmen, there aren't many. Brown, Lynch, Glendening and Wohlberg are playing at about the levels you'd expect. Treais has become more of a chance-generator but is still more Shouneyia than Cammalleri. Sparks is hated by all coaches everywhere, even that guy at Colorado School of Mines. That no one has stepped up to Rohlfs/Scooter/Lebler levels this season is a collective disappointment. Michigan has had a big old guy take a leap forward just about every year. Not so much this one.
Special Teams (Terrible)
Hey, speaking of: Michigan's special teams are not good. Their power play has finally given up the ghost and languishes at 41st nationally with just 14 goals in 86 attempts. (Miami, miraculously, is worse at 44th. What happened to the Redhawks?) They are killing penalties at an 80% rate, 38th nationally and worst in the CCHA.
While special teams have not been a consistent strength for Michigan in a while, the power play especially, they seem to have no plan at all this year. They did get much better movement in the GLI—I bet they spent a lot of practice time on doing something other than shooting it into a defenseman's knee from the point.
As for the PK, it was a testament to how great Hagelin and Rust were that they kept their head above water the past couple years. Hunwick's weaknesses are magnified when shorthanded. Opponents are more likely to get to copious rebounds, more likely to get the cross-ice motion that either exposes big chunks of the net or forces Hunwick to stay deep enough in his net for his size to be a problem. It's not a surprise they're bad when they have to deal with that and don't have the best defensive forward in college hockey.
This bad? Probably not.
Hunwick's maintaining a decent .917 save percentage that sees him at 26th nationally. This is a step back from his blazing junior year partially attributable to a regression in his play and partially Michigan's intense focus on executing defensive breakdowns. He's still a guy you can win with.
I was much happier when Merrill was going to be back this weekend. I'm not sure this team can hack through the upcoming schedule without him.