Michigan walloped a bad CIS team on Saturday, beating Western Ontario 10-1. The Mustangs were not a good team last year and seemingly came to Yost with less than a full complement of skaters; things did not improve with one injury and three ejections. But Michigan hockey has played a CIS punching bag annually and they haven't always looked like that. Since 2009-10, with tourney teams bolded:
- Michigan 6, Windsor 2, shots 33-16 M
- Michigan 4, Western Ontario 2, shots 39-29 M
- Ontario Tech 3, Michigan 2, shots 56-28 M
- Michigan 7, Windsor 3, shots 43-30 M
- Waterloo 2, Michigan 1, shots 35-22 M
- Michigan 5, Wilfred Laurier 2, shots 52-24 M
- Michigan 8, Toronto 1, shots 52-12 M
- Michigan 2, Windsor 0, shots 36-32 M
Beating up on Western Ontario doesn't mean Michigan Is Back, but the trend there is clear. All but one tourney team doubled up the opposition in shots; all but one team that missed was in a relatively competitive game, give or take the goaltending. Not clobbering Western Ontario would have been a real bad sign. Michigan avoided that.
Feelingspuck? Doesn't sound right. Anyway: Michigan felt like a much-improved hockey team. Odd-man rushes, which happened seemingly three times a period during the last few years, were restricted to one early two-on-one and a breakaway when Quinn Hughes's stick broke. Meanwhile Michigan's breakout impressed with the diversity of approaches they took and their success at breaking the WO forecheck.
The forward corps is still short on talent, with two or three guys who would ideally be third-liners on the top two lines and a questionable bottom six. On the other hand, the return of Cutler Martin to defense—where I've always liked him—gives Michigan seven defensemen ranging from competent to excellent. Michigan has almost never had the kind of defensive depth they have this year, and with a more organized team supporting them and two good goalies backing them up Michigan could find success as a grind-it-out outfit that wins games 3-2 and 2-1.
Nobody wants Michigan hockey to look like that long term but beggars can't be choosers this year. If they get to the tournament, that's how.
[After THE JUMP: player-specific takes and a feel for the season.]
It usually takes me a while to have opinions about hockey players, who do odd and subtle things. I'll start having serious opinions about most of Michigan's new faces a third or a half of the way through the season. Quinn Hughes is an exception, as you'd expect a 5'9" defenseman expected to go in the top ten. At one point Hughes gained the line himself, put on the brakes just inside the blue line long enough for his teammates to pour into the zone, matriculated up the boards a ways, and then put a cross-ice saucer pass right on the stick of the other point man. I involuntarily muttered "Jesus" at this pass. Because... hallelujah, man.
Hughes was on the first pairing with Luke Martin and the first power play and you are going to see a metric butt-ton of him this year. He should be Werenski-level good, and probably sophomore Werenski since he's about that old.
2017 first round pick Josh Norris did not leap out in a similar way. He's already the #1 C, flanked by Slaker and Lockwood, and I have no doubt I'll come to appreciate his various skills as we go along here. He did not leap off the page like Hughes.
The other new faces are in a similar boat. I liked Alex Roos more than I thought I would. This is a guy who had 6 and 5 points his last two seasons and left CC midseason so he could grad transfer. CC is bad; anyone who can play should be playing, and yet Roos was active and did a good job to set up a goal on a two-on-one. He may or may not have meant to bounce a perfect pass off the goalie's pad, but it worked.
Dakota Raabe and Jack Becker... ask again later. I do like Raabe's skating.
Mike Pastujov did not play, and he's a big swing player for the team. He was a big deal when he committed, got injured for two straight years, played well in the run-up to the draft, and fell through the cracks. He was just put on the CSB list for next year's draft as a mid-round player, and if he lives up to that and is a worthy top-six forward that's a big deal for a Michigan team short on skill.
RETURNERS I HAVE OPINIONS ABOUT
Lockwood should break out [Campredon]
Will Lockwood coulda shoulda had a breakout second half last year but in the morass of last year's team it was hard for him to translate his play into points. He flies around the ice and plays with a ton of skill; I'm betting he's the team's top scorer. He looks the part of a breakout sophomore.
Tony Calderone has already proven he's got a nasty snap shot, and he scored one from the slot on the power play. If Michigan can get him opportunities he will convert them at a healthy rate. He's one of those guys who would have a huge year if you put him on TJ Hensick's wing. On this team he'll score but probably not at a PPG rate.
Jake Slaker was an overage find a year ago, and even though plus-minus is a sucky stat you'll be hard pressed to find a better barometer for the health of Michigan hockey: despite Slaker leading the team with 21 points a year ago he was a whopping –21. "Leading the team with 21 points" is kind of a problem; so too is a first line player getting blown out like that. He's stuck on the first line, deservedly, and he should get that plus-minus up to zero, or better, this year.
Cutler Martin has a great snap shot but was out of place as a forward and his return to defense is much appreciated. Someone's going to sit nightly with Michigan's seven-deep D corps; Martin is good enough to make that a rotation despite the implications of his move to forward. He's physical and if there are flaws in his game I'm not able to pick up on they're probably subtle enough that bottom-six forwards won't be able to get after them.
Sam Piazza did not play; I assume that's injury-related, because Michigan's second power play unit needs him. Especially because they're playing two D on it.
Michigan has a talent deficiency at forward and is in a tough league all of a sudden. They're fighting uphill after a dismal 2015-16. It would be foolish to expect magic immediately. Expecting a clear and immediate uptick is not, however. Pearson's first season at Tech saw the Huskies go from 4 wins to 16 in the pre-realignment WCHA, and Michigan started their dropoff at the same time. There's substantial evidence that Pearson is a difference-maker of a coach, and Michigan has a lot of runway to take off after finishing almost dead last in Corsi last year—Tech was top five.
The league saw a similar makeover last year when Tony Granato took over the dead thing that was Wisconsin hockey. The Badgers bounced up from 8 wins to 20, missing an at-large bid by a few spots in the pairwise. Something similar is a reasonable expectation. Michigan should be a bubble team. Maybe they'll get the bounces and get in; maybe they won't.