Berenson looks to return Michigan hockey to top of heap

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Red Berenson has been Michigan’s head hockey coach a long, long time.

Berenson, 75, enters his 32nd year of leading the Wolverines’ program, enjoying tremendous success, including two national championships (1996, 1998) and a record run of 22 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.

However, Berenson is in the third and final year of his contract and the Wolverines haven’t participated in the NCAA Tournament the last three years.

That’s right. It used to be players came to Michigan feeling they would be playing in a Frozen Four or two, competing on college hockey’s biggest stage. But, no player on the current team even has NCAA Tournament experience.

When asked last week if this would be his last year, Berenson said: “We know we’re getting close to the end. I’m not saying this is or it isn’t (last year). If I stepped down it would be because it’s the right thing to do for the program. It’s just not about me.

“We haven’t been great in five years. I think it will be a pivotal year for the program, to get back to where we need to be. And, take a big step and that’s our challenge as coaches.”

In other words, Berenson wants to guide the Wolverines back to the top of the college hockey world or put them on solid ground again, playing in the NCAA Tournament.

And, Berenson feels they will be. Berenson was at Yost Arena on Monday for Media Day, along with Michigan players.

“When we have the (Big Ten) coaches poll, I bet Michigan will be sitting in first place,” said Berenson, adding he would be “disappointed if we weren’t (winning the Big Ten title) or knocking on the door.”

It wasn’t that long ago the Wolverines were ranked No. 1 nationally. That’s what they were heading into the Frozen Four in 2008, losing in the national semifinals to Notre Dame in Denver. They played in the national championship game in 2011, losing in overtime to Minnesota-Duluth.

It’s not like the Wolverines were bad the past few years, losing to Notre Dame in the CCHA championship game in 2013 and falling short to Minnesota in the Big Ten title game last year and finishing at 22-15. In 2014, they just needed to beat Penn State in the Big Ten tourney to get an at-large bid, but lost in overtime and finished 18-13-4.

Minnesota was the lone Big Ten representative in the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Wolverines led the nation in scoring last season (3.86 goals), but their defense didn’t match that type of success. Zach Nagelvoort (11-9-0, 2.63 goals-against, .906 save percentage) took a step back from his freshman year numbers (11-9-3, 2.20, .929). Steve Racine also returns in goal.

Berenson feels the addition of Steve Shields as goaltender coach will help. Shields, who played for the Wolverines more than a couple of decades ago, was at Michigan Tech last season, playing a role in Tech’s impressive season (29-10-2).

If Berenson decides to step down after this year, former Michigan assistant Mel Pearson would be the logical favorite for the job after taking over a 4-30-4 program at Tech and turning it into an NCAA Tournament team in four short years.

Still, Berenson is focused on this season and not the future.

“Steve Shields will help a lot,” Berenson said of Shields, who led the Wolverines to 111 wins and consecutive Frozen Four appearances in 1992-93 before a long NHL career from 1995-2006. “It’s not like Josh Blackburn did a bad job because he didn’t. He did a good job, but he wasn’t able to be here every day and Shields will be here every day and that will help give our goalies some consistency which is important.

“We’ve got two goalies who have proven they can play well and they’ve also proven that they can be inconsistent. We just have to eliminate the bad goals.”

The Wolverines lost Hobey Baker finalist in Zach Hyman, who had an outstanding senior year (22 goals, 54 points), captain Andrew Copp — left for Winnipeg after his junior year — and Dylan Larkin (15 goals, 47 points), who had a sensational freshman year before moving on to the Red Wings.

“We lost arguably our three hardest-working forwards and three of our most productive forwards,” Berenson said. “Where do you get that back. I think the guys who will have to step up are guys like JT Compher, Tyler Motte, Boo Nieves, I think Justin Selman will have his best year and Alex Kile who has to be more consistent. He might be one of our most gifted offensive players.”

Berenson thinks he has a replacement for Larkin in incoming freshman Kyle Connor, a former Belle Tire teammate of Larkin, and USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year who committed to Michigan at age 14.

“He was the player of the year in U.S. Hockey League last year, the leading scorer and first All-Star, everything,” Berenson said. “He was as good as it as it gets. I think he has a chance to be another Dylan Larkin. He skates well, he’s really good with the puck and he can score.”

Berenson feels the Wolverines will be better on defense with sophomore Zach Werenski returning, along with Michael Downing. He also feels freshman Joseph Cecconi will make an immediate impact on defense, as will Cooper Marody as a forward.

Michigan opened last season with a 4-3 loss at Ferris State on Oct. 4. Berenson is thrilled the Wolverines won’t face a Division 1 team until Oct. 16 against Mercyhurst at Yost.

“One good thing is we don’t play a Division 1 team until Oct. 16 so we’ll have more time to get our team ready,” Berenson said.

Berenson doesn’t want the Wolverines battling back from a 2-5 start like a year ago. He wants to build the momentum from the start and carry it through what he hopes is a long postseason run.