panning for gold in weird places [James Coller]

Hockey's Gap Year Comment Count

Brian February 26th, 2019 at 1:49 PM

Dave and I got into a discussion on the podcast about the source of the hockey team's woes; this conversation made me want to lay out the case that this is the least talented freshman class in the recent history of Michigan hockey.

This isn't a hard case to make. The freshman class has eight guys in it who've seen more than a game worth of action. Zero of these players are drafted. The joint top scorers are Nolan Moyle (7-3-10) and Garrett Van Wyhe (4-6-10), and Van Wyhe is pretty clearly the best forward Michigan brought in this year. He's +8, which is a titanic accomplishment as the center of a line that was very clearly the fourth line at the start of the year and is now Michigan's… second line? On a team without a top line? 

Don't get me wrong: I love me some Van Wyhe. But he's a guy who came in as a 20 year old off a 23-point, 59 game USHL season. Before he flipped to Michigan he was headed to Army. The gap between Van Wyhe and Larkin/Connor/Lockwood/Norris is giant. Maybe Van Wyhe will have more overall program impact since he's going to be around for four years. If he's your best freshman forward that's a problem. Especially when your entire top line exits. 

The story is the same on defense. Michigan is playing Nick Blankenburg and Jack Summers on a nightly basis now. Blankenburg leads the team with a +12 and is clearly a strike; Summers has done okay. Blankenburg was a flier coming off a single AJHL season. At this time last year I was trying to figure out whether he was a walk-on. (I still think he and Van Wyhe are on light money.) He was drafted by the NAHL, the second-tier feeder league that usually sends Michigan healthy scratches.

There's a version of Michigan's program that could take a class like that in stride, but it's not this one. Last year's class was Hughes, Norris, a Pastujov who'd been out for most of the last two years with injuries, and then whatever Mel could scrape together. This turned out to be Jack Becker and Dakota Raabe. With Norris out, it's the wildly talented but wildly wild Hughes and zero other players who would be on a scoring line or top pairing on a tourney-streak-era Michigan team until maybe their senior year.

Lockwood, Pastujov, and Slaker are all guys you could be happy with if they were filling out scoring lines led by stars. There are no stars—there's barely anything in the freshman and sophomore forward classes other than scramble guys. This is why they're .500. 

[After THE JUMP: why this is happening now]

Why did this happen?


Slaker is emblematic of the turn M's recruiting took [Coller]

Remember Jim Harbaugh's first recruiting class? He walked into approximately four guys with 13 limbs between them and had to scramble for anyone, which is how you get Nolan Ulizio starting at right tackle for a bit.

This was similar, albeit less severe, because of Red Berenson's extended twilight period. Berenson's retirement seemed to be pending for five years. Maybe the program lost its way in scouting and acquiring kids in the same way they got lost on the ice. Maybe the uncertainty of whether Berenson was going to be around hurt. Either way, while Michigan's pedigree was able to bring in headliners the classes were increasingly filled out with randos. Some of those guys are solid players—Jake Slaker, a late add from nowhere, stands out. But this is not a team of super talented guys.

Michigan did lose a couple of first-round defensemen post-Red. Matthias Samuelsson decommitted to go to Western; Bode Wilde defected to the OHL. I don't know what went down in those circumstances. Mel is certainly recruiting like a bunch of crazy garbage is going to happen every summer to help mitigate events like that, at least.

As to why this is happening now: this is happening in year two of Mel because hockey's recruiting timelines are absurdly extended. Michigan just took a commit from a 14 year old. He's the son of an NHL player and "the best bantam skater" some guy on twitter has ever seen, so special circumstances… but not that special. Michigan has four commits from 2004 birthdates now.

Mel had to execute the same patch job he did on the 2018 class on 2019. Pearson walked into a world where he had to put together a class well after most of the top guys had committed, and the only guys currently in it who were committed when he was hired are two guys Michigan deferred from 2018 . They've done a decent job, grabbing NTDPers Johnny Beecher and Cam York, but again the bulk of the class is going to be older undrafted folks. It's not until 2020 that Michigan's recruiting looks like it will bounce back to what was once the usual.

The elephant in the room, though



Goalie. Michigan does not have a goalie committed in any class. Jack LaFontaine is going to Minnesota. Hayden Lavigne had a .908 last year and has an .886 this year; Strauss Mann has a .899. Michigan's defense has been iffy at times, but Mann is 64th and Lavigne 77th among 78 qualifying goalies in save percentage.

Save percentages are extremely difficult to draw conclusions from when they're based on so few shots, but Michigan's defense is probably not the worst in the country, or close to it. Even Red's last team, which was horrible at giving up shots from the slot, had a collective .911. The only comparable season in recent memory was the 2012-13 season, in which freshmen Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine were so bad that third-stringer Adam Janecyk got 11 games… and was also pretty bad. Rutledge went back to the USHL and ended up in DIII; Racine was able to recover and post mediocre stats for the rest of his career. He was a backup in the ECHL for a couple years after college.

Michigan needs better goaltending than "backup in the ECHL."



February 26th, 2019 at 2:04 PM ^


I think the observation that Michigan has gotten some top-line guys and a bunch of just guys in the late Red era is spot-on. In Red's last year the team seemed really, really under-talented. That was a team that lost a great defenseman in Werenski and the entire CCM line and a couple of guys aging out and that was it. 

This team is scrappy. They fight hard on the boards. At times they seem to dominate games. It's not like some of the late-Red "floaty" teams where there was some talent and the work on the ice was infuriating; there are guys here that want to work and that do well.

And then they lose about as much as they win. It needs top-end scoring (the Jack Hughes and Oliver Wahlstrom losses really hurt) and it needs a goalie that can make a save when things break down, because they do occasionally and the goalies just don't save many of those chances. 




February 26th, 2019 at 2:36 PM ^

 It needs top-end scoring (the Jack Hughes and Oliver Wahlstrom losses really hurt)

As do the losses of Cole Perfetti and Antonio Stranges, both top 2020 forward decommits that went to the OHL.  Perfetti is the leading rookie scorer in the O with (62 pts in 54 games) and Stranges has 33 pts in 58 games with everyone's favorite London Knights.  Who knows who else they might lose to major juniors between now and 2022 or however far they've recruited so far.  Defenseman Bode Wilde, who Brian mentioned that decommitted to the O, is also tearing up the league with 62 pts in 53 games (3rd leading scoring defenseman).  Have we ever tried putting together a Michigan hockey All-Decommitment Team?

Then there's the development issue they've been hit with many times.  Get a top 14 or 15 year old to commit and then their development just stalls - e.g. Luke Moffatt was considered one of the top in his age group when he committed, drafted #2 overall in the WHL, and he never became the dominate player we originally thought he would be and you could sense that when he struggled scoring with the NTDP prior to coming to Michigan.  Seems like that scenario has played out a lot over the years, unfortunately.


February 26th, 2019 at 3:05 PM ^

I went through the list of decommits not super long ago on The Wolverine. For as much hang wringing as me and a long of folks do when they bail (#FTheO) almost none of them have turned into anything. Gibson and Campbell were clearly huge losses but most of the rest didn't pan out. Maybe they would have been good college players still, but hardly any of them made the NHL. I'll try to dig it up.

The goalie thing blows my mind. I was thinking about it yesterday how we went 15 years with Shields, Turco, Blackburn (who was a good college goalie), and Montoya. In the 15 years since we've probably started ten or more guys. The best of them is the guy we didn't really recruit (Hunwick) and the most successful post-Michigan (Hunwick's 3 min in the NHL aside) is Sauer who played 15 games in the AHL. Scary exercise to make a case for the best post-Montoya goalie not counting Hunwick. Is it Sauer and his one good year? Hogan and his one good year? 

I still think Mann is going to have a chance to be very good. But I thought we'd win a title with Nagelvoort so shows what I know. (That said, he had like a 2.20/.929 as a freshman and then got progressively worse.....)


February 26th, 2019 at 3:17 PM ^

Found it. I'm sure I missed some--this was from before the season:

The decommits/folks that bailed for the O that we've had largely haven't panned out as professionals.

John Gibson and Trevor Lewis have done well for themselves, especially Gibson. Connor Carrick has done ok. Jack Campbell is just now starting to have an NHL career.

*anny Richmon*, Lucas Lessio had a few games in the NHL but AJ Jenks, Jared Knight, Matt Nickerson, Robbie Czarnik, Jason Bailey, Tyler Swystun didn't do anything. Sam Miletic has 3 years in the O at this point and isn't in Pitt's top ten prospects anywhere I can find, Connor Murphy barely plays for Cornell. Jared Walsh is back at a Canadian university after doing nothing in the O. Ditto Bryson Cianfrone. I can't remember if Matia Marcantuoni ever actually committed but he never made it to the NHL and didn't do much in the O.

Alec Regula went in the third round to Detroit (he's having a nice year in the OHL) and Mattias Samuelsson was a second rounder this year (I haven't heard how he's been for WMU...5-7--12, but he's a D). Wilde is having a great season, but it was an academic thing more than him deciding to go to the OHL--we couldn't get him into school. As MHNet mentioned, Perfetti is having a killer year. Stranges hasn't actually done a whole heckuva lot for as touted as he is. We'll see on him.

So yeah, mostly guys that didn't pan out and a couple of huge losses (Gibson--though off the top of my head I think he would have been a freshman when Hunwick was a junior or senior so that one didn't even necessarily bite us).


February 27th, 2019 at 11:29 AM ^

i agree with packer as to the goalie issue

in fact, i think a good argument could be made [or, maybe i should say at least i would argue] that michigan might have been a contender every year [or at least an ncaa qualifier] if michigan had just had continuously competent goaltending each year, even with the other recruiting/effort problems discussed here. 




February 26th, 2019 at 3:25 PM ^

With Perfetti, there was essentially a 0% chance he would ever play for Michigan from the moment he committed. It was about as strong a chance as Max Domi or Eric Lindros ever had of suiting up (though neither actually committed like Perfetti did, both used the possibility of going to Michigan to swing a trade to a better OHL program).

Stranges is a, well, strange one. There aren't many kids who eschew the NTDP for the CHL when it's an option. Haven't heard any particular reasoning for this, and he's not a dual-citizenship kid. Maybe just the opportunity to play for a team like London at 16 years old is hard to turn down.

I may be mistaking him for someone else, but weren't there rumors about Wilde and academics? Don't want to throw a guy under the bus, so hopefully I'm wrong and it was just a hockey decision that seems to be working out really well for him. Most NTDP guys who do end up there are guys like Patrick Kane or Peter Mueller, who weren't NHL-draft eligible after two years in the NTDP, and also hadn't graduated high school so were ineligible for NCAA.


February 27th, 2019 at 5:43 AM ^

Wasn't Llewellyn also like #1 in his age group in the world or something obscene like that when he was 14 or 15? Then all he turned out to be was a penalty magnet. I'm pretty sure I remember him one time managing to take a penalty, then on the delayed penalty, take another penalty for cross checking. So infuriating it was almost impressive


February 26th, 2019 at 2:09 PM ^

Two suggested follow-ups to this post since most people like and respect the hockey program but don't follow the program or sport well enough to understand the depth of a post like this:

  1. You alluded to the "2020 class will be better" .... can you provide some hints as to why we feel that way?  How is the talent and depth looking so far for that class?
  2. I think you should add to the "Useful Stuff" pulldown menu an explanation of hockey leagues.  In this post alone you mentioned ECHL, USHL, NTDP, OHL, NAHL, AJHL, and NHL.  I consider myself moderately educated on hockey and I think I have heard of half of those at best.  



February 26th, 2019 at 2:32 PM ^

ECHL - A second-tier minor league, below the AHL, which is below the NHL. It is professional, but not high-paying. Examples of teams include the Kalamazoo Wings and the Toledo Walleye.

USHL - The top junior hockey league in the US, contains high school and early college-aged kids. The top feeder to college hockey teams.

NTDP - The United States Hockey National Team Development Program. Started in '96 at the Ice Cube in Ann Arbor, recruits many of the best US hockey prospects for roughly their last two years of high school (organized around their international competition designations, "under 17" and "under 18"). Now located in Plymouth. The team plays in a number of competitions, including participation in the USHL, exhibitions against college teams, and international tournaments. Top Americans that have come through this program include stars like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel. Michigan stars like Andy Hilbert, Mike Komisarek, Jack Johnson, Dylan Larkin, and Kyle Connor came up through the NTDP.

OHL - Ontario Hockey League. This is one of three Canadian "Major Junior" leagues (the others being the WHL and the QMJHL) that is each regionally based and make up the larger "CHL." Examples of teams include the Windsor Spitfires, London Knights, and Saginaw Spirit. The age range is the same as other junior leagues, but due issues including stipend payments, the participation of athletes who have played professionally, and general lawlessness, players that compete in Major Junior are ineligible to play NCAA hockey. OHL teams directly compete for Michigan recruits. Since they have lower academic requirements and allow players to begin playing at 16 years old, it can be challenging to compete against them. The Kitchener Rangers attempted to persuade Michigan recruit Jake Trouba to play for them instead of Michigan by offering a substantial financial package, for example. Michigan recruiting has been hit hard by losses to the OHL.

NAHL - A lower level junior hockey league in the US; still sends a fair number of players to college hockey. 

AJHL - Alberta Junior Hockey League. Like its cousin the BCHL (British Columbia), a lower level junior hockey league in Canada. Unlike Major Junior, a player that plays in these Junior A leagues is eligible for college hockey. 

NHL - National Hockey League. The goal for any hockey player, naturally. Its commissioner is a deranged madman. 


February 26th, 2019 at 3:31 PM ^

To add, there are also a number of "Junior A" leagues in Canada that have college ages kids that Michigan and other colleges/Universities ARE allowed to recruit from (unlike Major Juniors).  If you're more interested in here's a link.  

There are also Junior B and Junior C but those are typically the guys who just were not quite good enough for Junior A, college or major juniors and they play until they "age out" at 21 years old and no longer can play juniors.


February 26th, 2019 at 2:10 PM ^

Doesn't seem like many of these problems are going to be solved in one offseason. Might need a few years to dig ourselves out of this one

On the goalie front...think anyone would notice if we just stuck Shawn Hunwick out there again? Just give him a fake mustache and tell everyone he's a walk on from from a really small town in Alberta 


February 26th, 2019 at 2:51 PM ^

We’ve learned it in basketball, football, and now hockey:  a head coach, no matter how good, cannot come into a program that has been unmoored for 5 or ten years and bat 1.000 on all recruits at all positions in the first few years and immediately propel our team to national contender status. Maybe it’s possible with an SEC or Columbus moral compass, but not here. 


February 26th, 2019 at 2:53 PM ^

Red's end felt a bit like Carr's last class or two, when it was Mallett, Warren, and then...Junior Hemingway?  David Molk, sorta?  Or Brandon Graham and then a bunch of guys who muddled along for 3-4 years.  It's not that they didn't get a couple of guys you remember, but those depth guys that active programs unearth weren't there, so instead you get a couple of big-name guys but the class is sorta hollow.

As noted, Pearson is recruiting like he expects even more attrition (witness the 14+ member classes the next couple of years), and my guess is some of that attrition is "you can pay your own way and be a healthy scratch most of the time, if you want" type of discussions.  Which sucks, but also seems like the new reality.


February 26th, 2019 at 3:21 PM ^

Goaltending is one of the few positions in team sports that can make or break a series/tourney/year and could take this same Michigan team to the Frozen 4.  Hell, a top goalie can win an average team a title.  

0.925 team save percentage, which would rank tied for 6th nationally, on the same number of shots faced means Michigan would have been scored on 66 times in 32 games instead of 98 times.  Team GAA would go from the 3.03 it is now to 2.13.  This team is easily in the playoffs with a top 8 goalie (0.928 save%) who plays 27 games a year as a #1 and a top 20 goalie (0.920) who plays 5 games a year as a #2.

The #1 ranked goalie in college (Shortridge @ Quinnipiac) has a 0.944 save% in 21 games played right now, which is ridiculous.  But even with two quality goaltenders putting up a team average of 0.920 (tied for 11th nationally, which Michigan should be attaining anyways) means they get scored on 71 times all year instead of 98 and Michigan wins a lot more games.

This team hasn't had a really good goaltender in a long time.  Also, you're quite right in that Blankenburg has been a very nice surprise on the D line.

Inertia Policeman

February 26th, 2019 at 3:57 PM ^

I don't think people realize how important a goalie is to team success. Having a great or bad goalie makes a bigger difference in team success than a great or bad quarterback in football. Goaltending performance is probably the single best predictor of wins (hockey is an infamously difficult sport to predict as it is). It's also the hardest individual performance to adequately quantify, as save percentage is a start but is far from capturing what really matters (crucial difficult saves vs. soft goals allowed in small sample sizes).


February 26th, 2019 at 8:49 PM ^

As a former tender ... I agree.  Though you’re correct in that there lots of stats to judge a goalie on, save % is by far the most telling.

0.925 save % means not only are you making the easy saves (point shot, wrister from a streaking winger etc.) it also means you are controlling rebounds, continuously being in position, not making bad passes etc.