With a renewed sense of hope I decided to check out the incoming class to see what's on deck for Michigan hockey. The answer is surprisingly pleasant given the long period of uncertainty that preceded Mel Pearson's hire. Then I kept going, but that's another post.
There are twin headliners and a third guy to keep an eye on. Josh Norris was the 19th pick in the most recent draft after leading the NTDP U18s in scoring* and crushing the NHL combine. Norris sounds like a Carl Hagelin or JT Compher sort of gent:
… tough competitor that is willing to engage physically to win puck battles…strong skater that isn’t easily pushed off the puck. He doesn’t have elite speed, but he’s a good enough four-direction skater that he’s capable of playing the center position at the next level. … competes hard on the defensive end and plays a responsible game. … lot of his offense comes from driving hard to the net and winning battles for loose pucks, and creating opportunities by chasing the play. …. ability to handle the puck is fine, but it’s not an area of strength.
He'll play both ways and pile up points because of his physical ability, effort, and reasonable skill level. That skill level might be a bit higher than the above take, depending on who you listen to. His NTDP coach:
“He can hammer a puck. He can skate. He’s got a great first step. He competes, and he’s coachable. He’s got a lot going for him. I think he’s got a great deal of God-given talent. He is a heck of a kid and extremely coachable. Those items right there lead up to a player who has some ability and a bright future.”
Given the dearth of center talent on the roster Norris is likely to slot in on the top line from day one; he and Will Lockwood are Compher and Motte in search of Connor. (Connor is not on this roster.)
Side note: Norris's father Dwayne starred for Michigan State back in the day. Completing this odd circle of betrayal: MSU has a commitment from Mike Knuble's kid, Cam Knuble, for 2018.
*[He tied Grant Mismash with 61 points but took four fewer games to get there.]
Quinn Hughes is the second headliner. He was too young for this year's draft by three months and is being mentioned as a potential first rounder next year… like, a first half of the first round pick. and if "5'9" defenseman who might be a top 15 pick" sounds awesome, you and I have the same taste in hockey players. Hughes put up 10-43-53 in 65 games with the U18s this year, and per Red that's no fluke:
Berenson projected Hughes as an “elite-skating, offensive-minded defenseman” at the college level and also called him one of the “top young defensemen” of his class.
“He’s really a special player, and we’re excited about the fact that he’ll bring an element to our defense that maybe we don’t have right now,” Berenson said. “He could definitely add to our power play. His smarts, his vision and his skating ability really separate him from a lot of players.”
Hughes is highly likely to slot into Michigan's first team power play from the drop and chase Eric Werner for the title of MGoDiminutiveDefensemanFaveRave.
There were some OHL rumors about Hughes that seem to have petered out after his brother also went the NTDP route. More about him in another post; he's a 2019 kid.
The non-headliner but maybe-guy-to-watch is Mike Pastujov. Back in the day when the Pastujov brothers committed, Nick (who is coming off a freshman year in which he had three points in 28 games) was much more modestly regarded than his younger brother. Fast forward a few years and Nick is one who got drafted, albeit in the seventh round. Mike went from potentially being the #1 pick in the OHL draft to undrafted after a few seasons of injuries and struggle. Scouting from way back when:
1. Michael Pastujov (#11 Black) 6-0/186 Honeybaked U16 (Michigan) - A strong and powerful skater who committed to the Wolverines along with his brother Nick, a '98, less than a week after the camp ended. He's a flight risk to the OHL, but he's a strong skater who drives the net well. He made plays happen from all over the ice, really dishes the puck well to his linemates and he wins one-on-one battles. He's a complete package offensively.
Clearly things have gone awry. The primary issue is his inability to stay on the ice. Injuries cost him almost all of his sophomore and junior years; he also missed about a dozen games with the U18s. He still played in 55 and could only put up a 9-15-24 line. Michigan will hope his indifferent final year with the NTDP is more about the injuries than his talent level. If he can repair this…
Slow first step
Pastjuov’s biggest issue this past season was his skating. His first step was really slow, which meant he lost a lot of races to loose pucks, and had trouble creating much when he did have the puck.
…then maybe Michigan will get a third headliner in the class.
Pastujov did get healthy enough to catch the eye again at the World U18s, scoring a PPG over a seven-game span as the US took the tourney title. Various scouting services, including the NHL's CSB, moved him from off their lists into the top 100—usually good enough to get drafted in the fourth or fifth round. He was nonetheless passed over.
The other three guys in the class are all overagers. All are 97s. Jack Becker was Pearson's first commit; unsurprisingly he was a flip from Tech. He was a Wisconsin commit in the long long ago. He'll be 21 in January and was only even somewhat productive in the USHL in his final season, when he put up a 16-12-28 line. Bizarrely for a guy with his profile, he was a 7th round pick of the Bruins in 2015. Becker is a very large person at 6'4", so he might have a shot to be a Ben Winnett sort.
Dakota Raabe could be a little fast dude who ends up on a scoring line or peter out into a checking line guy and penalty killer. He's a few months younger than Becker. While he steadily increased his production in the BCHL, a PPG as an overager in that offense-mad league is not always enough to translate to NCAA productivity. Incredibly, Raabe was only eighth(!) on his team in PPG. (He was 25th in the league.) This is not BCHL slam dunk territory. It's BCHL maybe territory.
FWIW, MSU's Taro Hirose was almost the exact same size and age coming out of the BCHL a year ago; he had a 6-18-24 line as a freshman. That might not sound like much but he was second on his moribund team in scoring and looked like their most dangerous forward when Michigan played them. Unfortunately this isn't a direct comparison; Hirose was a much better BCHL point-acquirer. He had 71 points in 58 games—a cut above Raabe, especially since he was his team's leading scorer by 15 points.
Raabe's head coach says he's got "elite speed," so he's got that going for him. Also his transition from a Southern California major midget team to the BCHL must have been a shock to the system. He does have some late bloomer potential:
“Being on the ice every day has helped me so much,” Raabe said. “My shot has gotten harder and I’ve gotten faster. I’d say my hockey IQ has improved as well because I’m learning how to play the game at a faster level.”
“I’m told Dakota is a high-end skater,” Berenson said. “He’d be one of our fastest skaters. ... It looks like he’s going to be a real good addition to our forward group, and the big thing is because of his speed and work ethic.”
He'll probably have an indifferent freshman year and then his second year will tell the tale. He's a good gamble for a team needing to fill roster spots during a transition period. He is very much a gamble.
Finally, Gustaf Westlund is a Parisian Swede who committed little over a year ago. He had enough about him to warrant an NHL draft profile from SBN:
…intriguing prospect as this was his first season playing in North America. …The left-shot center is a true athlete who oozes potential. .. very good skater. He has a long, smooth stride that appears effortless. He can really get going quickly and seems to have that extra gear. …makes good passes, has above average vision and has a soft touch. … an athletic player with above average tools.
Future Considerations took a look at him about a year ago:
…effortless skater who gets himself to smart areas of the ice to get a shot on net. …good athletic frame, but is thin and could stand to add some considerable strength to his legs, core and upper body. …handles the puck well with soft hands and creative moves, weaving his way through traffic with a surprisingly long reach. …shot will become a real weapon as he adds strength and puts more velocity behind it. … has much room to develop.
“We think he’ll add a little bit of everything,” Berenson said. “He’ll be similar to (Adam) Winborg in that he’s good with the puck, good without the puck, he plays physical, he plays hard.”
He put up 8-27-35 in 59 games in the USHL a year ago; not great but he was on a team that struggled to score. He was third on the team in points.
Westlund's move from overseas to prep to the USHL to the NCAA is a challenging route; like Raabe he's a guy who might not show much in year one but has the potential to evolve into a scoring line player over the course of his career. While he's a 97 like the other two guys, he was born in December—he's almost a year younger than Becker.
Norris and Hughes are going to be college stars, and Michigan will seek to get two scoring line upperclassmen out of Raabe/Westlund/Pastujov. Becker looks to be a project who will do well to get past the third line. Given the fact that everyone in this class knew they wouldn't be finishing their careers under Red Berenson, it's as good of a group as is reasonable to expect and should patch a couple of last year's biggest holes—a two-way #1 center and a power play quarterback.