Ann Arbor – Mel Pearson was back at work in his Yost Arena office Thursday morning after returning from a coaches’ convention in Florida.
Pearson has a lot to feel good about after leading Michigan to the Frozen Four in his first year as head coach, something he grew accustomed to while working as an assistant for 23 years under the legendary Red Berenson, helping the Wolverines earn national championships in 1996 and 1998, before taking over at his alma mater, Michigan Tech, in 2011.
Pearson turned Tech’s program around, guiding the Huskies to a pair of NCAA tournament appearances in his final three years in Houghton before moving back to Ann Arbor last April.
“I feel like I never left,” Pearson told The Detroit News.
He added about his first UM team: “I thought we’d be good defensively, but I was worried about the scoring, and we ended up sixth in the country in scoring and that was without Will Lockwood for a half a year.
“It was a fun year, one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had. I wouldn’t have said that in late December or early January because there was a lot of heavy lifting and pushing and prodding. I thought our staff did a great job.
“You have to look at the seniors. They were a good group of guys. They might not have been the most talented group of seniors that Michigan has ever had, but as far as what they’ve contributed and how they handled the team, they did a great job. We always have exit interviews and the things they talked about, almost to a guy, is just how close this team was. This group was close and that was important. If you really respect a guy and like him you’re going to battle hard for him.”
Michigan was 8-10-2 during the first half of the season, but then went on a 14-4-1 run to advance to the Frozen Four before a national semifinal loss to Notre Dame, an impressive turnaround from the previous year (13-19-3, 6-12-2 Big Ten).
Now the Wolverines lose their top line of Tony Calderone, Cooper Marody and Dexter Dancs, but they have a lot back.
Forwards Lockwood and Jake Slaker return, along with freshman center Josh Norris, who was taken in the first round by the San Jose Sharks in last year’s draft. Lockwood had shoulder surgery in January after suffering an injury in the world junior championships.
“Lockwood might be our most dynamic skilled player and he’s anxious to get back,” Pearson said. “Josh Norris will be a real key guy. I thought he had a solid freshman season, put him in a lot of situations and gave him a ton of ice time. He’s got to step up.”
The Wolverines also will add a talented player in forward Luke Morgan of Brighton, who sat out last year after transferring from Lake Superior State.
But, the big question is: Will freshman defenseman Quinn Hughes return or go pro?
“At this point he’s staying, but right now he’s over at the world championships, rooming with Dylan Larkin, and Jeff Blashill is coaching that team,” said Pearson of Hughes. “He’ll have some moments. He’s playing NHL players now and if he does well teams could say this guy’s ready to play in the NHL. Dylan played in that after his freshman year (at Michigan), played well and Detroit signed him.
“I want to see him play well, but even if he plays well there’s still some things he can get better at. He’s still a kid. It’s a man’s world in the NHL.”
And if Hughes comes back, it’s possible his younger brother Jack would join him at Michigan. Jack, who turns 17 May 14, plays for the U.S. National Development program and is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft.
Jack Hughes is currently a junior, but could reclassify and join Michigan’s program this fall, the same way players have accelerated their high school education in past years, including Mike Cammalleri nearly 20 years ago.
Pearson feels good about Michigan’s future with or without Jack Hughes.
Michigan’s recruiting class includes 6-2, 200-pound defenseman Bode Wilde of the U.S. National Development program, forward Jack Randl of Omaha of the USHL, and center Jimmy Lambert of the BCHL.
“We look good on paper (for next season), now we have to go out and play,” Pearson said. “And, Hayden Lavigne has to take another step.”
Lavigne had a strong second half to his sophomore season, earning the No. 1 goaltending job to help the Wolverines make their run, finishing with an 18-11-3 record with a 2.81 goals-against average and a .908 save percentage.