Previously tackled: the forwards.
Senior Chris Summers. Summers was the captain and played 40 games, but finished with just 16 points (four goals and eight assists) and could only manage a +5. Though he'll be missed—first round draft picks who see out their eligibility at Michigan are rare indeed—his level of impact wasn't such that some combination of touted incoming freshmen and development from returning players can't pick up the slack. I'm not sure you'd be able to tell who the first-round pick was on Michigan's defense last year if you didn't know already.
That said, Michigan's most veteran defensemen are now Tristin Llewellyn and Chad Langlais. Neither are exactly defensive stalwarts. Well, Llewellyn is except when he's really not being a defensive stalwart. As we'll see below there is some uncertainty about who gets put on the ice when the opponent's danger lines are out.
Senior Steve Kampfer. Statistically, Kampfer was the best defenseman on the team. He led Michigan defensemen in +/- (+18) and points (3-23-26) last year. Those are rudimentary stats for defenders, but I didn't get the same feeling that he should somehow play better as I did with Summers. Kampfer also loosed "THAT IS WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT" in the aftermath of ending Michigan State's season. That is what I am talking about.
Jon Merrill, USNTDP. Merrill's stock has dropped a little bit since his commitment at 15, but nowhere near as much as Moffatt's. Merrill's slid to a mid-to-late first rounder, but… hey… that's still pretty good. As a bonus, his game is highly cerebral and he should be able to step onto the second, or even first, pairing without much of a transition period:
"He's very intelligent on both sides of the puck, makes good decisions, and defensively is good about keeping himself in good position," USNTDP U-18 coach Kurt Kleinendorst said. "There are a lot of things to appreciate about his game, including his size (6-foot-3 1/4, 198 pounds) and his dedication in the weight room."
And I still remember the incredible back-and-forth cycling that drove Minnesota to national titles when Hobey winner Jordan Leopold was around, so I love this comparison:
"He plays the game a lot like Jordan Leopold," said Central Scouting's Jack Barzee, who specializes in U.S. prospects. "He plays weaving and diving, sneaking and thinking, gaining the zone and moving the puck ahead and right on the tape to a guy. He's skilled and he's really come a long way in his development."
After Merrill was one of the best players on the USA U18 team that destroyed all comers except Sweden, who they still beat for the gold medal, he moved up from a fringe first-rounder to what sounds like will be a solid selection in the 10-15 range. The praise was rapturous:
Jon Merrill, LD -- USA Under 18
Regarded as one of the best defenseman prospects coming out of the US this year, Merrill looks to have leapfrogged his competition and could be debated as being one of the top three best defensive prospects in the entire draft. Merrill was simply dominant in Belarus and his ability to play in all situations, including running the power play, certainly makes him all the more valuable. Merrill is explosive, gets the puck on net and creates lanes all over the ice. He is effective and reliable defensively and proves to be very difficult to win space against. Scouts are salivating at the chance to add Merrill to their rosters, as he is already a dominant player but still has a lot of room for improvement. This kid is for real.
Merrill should step right into the lineup and could be the team's top blueliner by midseason. He's the most highly-touted D to enter the program since JMFJ.
Mac Bennett, USHL. Bennett, who was drafted in the third round by the Canadiens in '09, is the rare Michigan recruit who comes to Michigan a full year after the NHL got a crack at him. The last player to do it was Kevin Quick, who lasted a few months before he stole Carl Hagelin's credit card and shuffled off to the CHL. Before that he was pretty good.
Anyway. Bennett's rep is a slick puck-moving offensive defenseman. Here's a scouting report from James Stachowiak, the Official Cedar Rapids Contact of MGoBlog:
Bennett has been in the top defensive pairing for the RoughRiders all season and his play earned him a spot on the USHL All Star team. Bennett is typically paired up against the top scoring line for the opposing team, often logging the most minutes of any defenseman, and he still led Rider defensemen and finished 8th in the USHL with a +17 plus minus rating. He is a very good defensive defenseman with good ice awareness and vision on the offensive end. Numerous times this year he has hit a forward in stride with a blue line to blue line pass that lead to a breakaway.
For much of the second half of the season he has been captaining what has been referred to as the 1A powerplay unit and his presence on that unit gave it a real spark. On the powerplay, he has been good at taking advantage of opportunities to crash the net from the backside and score. Although he can lay the big hit, he also plays incredibly smart defense. He has only taken 34 penalty minutes on the season. He will be physical when called upon, but is not an enforcer.
He doesn't have the hardest shot either. In an impromptu hardest shot contest at practice where each player got three shots clocked on a radar gun, he hot 86, 88, and 84 MPH, five other Riders were able to crack 90 MPH.
Bennett does a good job of keeping everything in front of him and to the outside, has enough speed to get back into the play on the rare occasion when he turns it over, and has the makings of a very solid defenseman for Michigan.
Solid defense would be a major step forward for Bennett, who entered his NHL draft year with a reputation as a gunslinger. Red Line Report's Kyle Woodlief:
Woodlief said that he does not like Bennett’s “lack of discipline in the defensive end. He’s more like a forward playing defense.’’
Bennett is a strong skater –– he has “jets,’’ Woodlief said. “He’s able to create odd-man rushes with his wheels,’’ he said, and “he can handle the puck at high speed.’’
Meanwhile, USHR praised his college upside even before his USHL year:
5’11”. 170 lb. Hotchkiss defenseman and Michigan recruit Mac Bennett is a smooth skater who reads plays smartly, and excels in the transition game. He’s going to be an excellent college player. Smallish for a pro defenseman, but rates highly in every other are, so he will be drafted.
He should be as ready to step into the lineup as Merrill. Slight downer: Bennett makes no bones about his desire to jump to the NHL as soon as its feasible. Two years is your over/under on his tenure at Michigan.
Kevin Clare, USNTDP. Clare's stock dropped significantly over the past year. He went from 132nd in the CSB midterm rankings to entirely omitted; by the end of the year he was the only NTDP defenseman not to make the U18 World Championships team. He's mostly been skating with the U17s. None of these are good indicators.
Though the ISS's January mention of him as a "falling" prospect concerns itself with the sexual harassment incident he was involved in (it got Jacob Fallon booted from the NTDP), they also mention his falling offensive productivity. Why that would be a big deal isn't clear, though. Clare's rep is a purely defensive defenseman.
On the other hand, Clare ended up 31st on College Hockey 24-7's top 50 list, ahead of Moffatt and Fallon, and the CSB plunge is probably excessive given that people were talking Clare up as a potential late first-round pick a year ago and one of the guys who pays close attention to the NTDP was still suggesting he'd be off the board in the third as late as January. There's also some increasingly old fluff from the New York Daily News and USA Hockey.
We'll get a much better read on Clare's stock and prospects for playing time this fall by the NHL draft. Third round = serious contender. Not drafted = redshirt.
With just two defensemen outgoing and three incoming, Michigan will have a roster crunch. I'm not sure if Lee Moffie is going to get a regular shift next year and I think Michigan might actually redshirt Clare. Michigan hasn't redshirted a guy since Riley Olson way back in the day.
Three potential pairings, none of which seem that much better or worse than any other:
The idea of Llewellyn still gives me hives but he did play really well at the Joe and in the NCAA tournament and will be entering his senior year. He brings a physical element—and the penalties that go with it—that no one else except maybe Pateryn does. Paired with Merrill, he might get away with some of his unwise decisions—and if Hagelin's out there his backchecking could neutralize those. I'd still be more comfortable with Llewellyn out there against grinders and whatnot; we'll see how it plays out. Given his inconsistency he could be anywhere from the (very nominally) top pairing to the press box.
Merrill is a version of JMFJ minus the deranged genius. Michigan will lean on him heavily.
This pairing actually existed most of last year and seemed to work out fine, though Burlon did not make the impact expected given his excellent freshman year and status as a second-round pick. He still finished with a 3-11-14 and +12. He played ever game, blocked more shots than anyone except Kampfer, and took fewer penalties per game than any Michigan defender. It wasn't a lost season by any means; it was just something short of the pure breakout that Burlon hinted at in '08-'09.
Langlais is Langlais at this point: small, dynamic with the puck, clever passer, fairly responsible. I suggested he could move to forward since he's the best puckhandler on the team, but Derek Deblois coming in early would seem to put the kibosh on that idea. Hopefully he'll be less penalty-prone as a senior.
Pateryn is pretty boring when he's not sweeping down from the point to score a game-winning goal. Since his JMFJ-like pillaging of Northern Michigan remains the only goal of his Michigan career, that's most of the time. He racked up 1-5-6 in 33 games last year, finishing +8. That boredom has its uses, though. Pateryn had just 18 penalty minutes, which is a third of Llewellyn's total. Both played 33 games.
I'd like to see Pateryn tried out on against some top lines here and there: all of his scratches took place in the first half of last year, and from there he was a more-reliable version of Llewellyn. He's got tremendous size and seems to be on an upward track. If his skating isn't a problem he could move up to be the sensible guy next to Merrill.
As for Bennett, see above. He's a version of Langlais with enough size to draw NHL notice. His post-draft year of junior is unusual for a Michigan player; as a result he should come in ready to play. Hopefully that will be enough to knock Winnett off the power play.
The leftovers. I can't believe I can't find a spot for a kid who had 4-8-12 in just 29 games as a freshman but Bennett is definitely going to play and Merrill is definitely going to play and Llewellyn appears to have finally earned the coaches' trust. Injury, Llewellyn's inevitable game or three where he does something unfortunate and gets pulled, and maybe some of the same from others will see Moffie draw into maybe half of the games. It could be more if he shores up the defensive issues that got him benched despite his scoring tear.
As for Clare, we'll see how much his stock has actually dropped at the draft. I'd think someone gets redshirted this year just because Michigan can do it. If Clare does not have serious NHL prospects any more it will probably be him. If he does you're not going to get five years out of him anyway so you might see Moffie put in mothballs. It seems a waste of eligibility to have one of them play five games or whatever. I bet Michigan did not expect to hold on to Burlon this long.
As for Clare: Michigan has the luxury of redshirting him. Will they actually use it?
Was Tristin Llewellyn Re-Education Camp Happy Time as effective as it appeared? I don't think so. We've seen three years of Llewellyn's play and he was making some pretty mind-boggling decisions as late as the Munn Takeover—remember the boarding call when Michigan was already killing a penalty?—so his last four games only push the needle slightly towards reliability. It was just about pegged on the wrong end of that scale; he will be frustrating as per usual. At least Michigan has a lot of options should his processor short out this year.
How quickly can the freshmen be really good? Very. Merrill just got done pwning the world and has spent the last one and a half years going up against college kids—he got dragged up to the U18s late in his U17 season. Sometimes defensemen get picked high because of what they will be someday; Merrill appears to be something already. He's not going to spin around kids in the neutral zone and get away with it but he's not going to totally abandon decorum, either.
Bennett, meanwhile, is going to be 19 when he hits campus and has just spent a year being heavily relied upon by a USHL team. He might need a little while to get his defense up to a collegiate standard; an instant impact is still likely on the power play and against third lines.
Can someone already on the team improve radically? Three candidates:
- Burlon, who is one of those guys you're just waiting to go "click" and turn into a machine.
- Pateryn, who has an NHL-type frame at a long-armed 6'3" and 210 pounds and developed into a reliable guy in his own zone during his sophomore year.
- Moffie, who just needs to learn how to play defense.
All of these guys are not going to take major leaps forward; one might. I've got my money on Pateryn, a guy who quietly erased anyone who attempted to rush him last year.
Worries? There's no one you can look at and think "this is Miami's top line, let's put X and Y out." Merrill might be one of those guys; Pateryn could be the other. If it's not it might be Llewellyn, which will lead to Bad Things from time to time. Wither Jay Vancik?