Ann Arbor — Oh, how things have changed in a year for Mel Pearson and the Michigan hockey program.
Pearson was in his office a year ago as Michigan’s first-year head coach, talking about how the Wolverines were picked to finish sixth in the seven-team Big Ten.
Well, Pearson showed why Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel picked him to replace legendary coach Red Berenson, who guided the Wolverines to national championships in 1996 and 1998 and another national title game appearance in 2011 with Pearson as an assistant.
Last season, Pearson, who led Michigan Tech to a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in six years before taking over the Michigan job, felt his way through the first half (8-10-2). He then watched the Wolverines take off and reach the Big Ten tournament semifinals — a loss to Ohio State — before reaching the NCAA Tournament’s Frozen Four, where they lost to Big Ten rival Notre Dame, 4-3, on a goal with 5.2 seconds left in a national semifinal to finish the year with a 22-15-3 record.
Pearson made multiple changes, including putting Tony Calderone on a line with Cooper Marody and Dexter Dancs, which resulted in them being one of the premier lines in college hockey. Hayden Lavigne established himself as a solid No. 1 goaltender.
While Michigan’s top line is gone, Lavigne returns, along with arguably the college game’s top player in sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes, a big reason why the Wolverines are predicted to finish second behind Ohio State in a preseason poll by Big Ten coaches while earning a No. 4 national ranking by USCHO.com.
Michigan will open the season by hosting Vermont at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Yost Arena.
Pearson knows how important it was to have Hughes return after being picked No. 7 overall by Vancouver in the 2018 NHL Entry Draft.
“I don’t think you can put a value on that since he’s the X-factor. He can win games by himself, can make a team so much better,” said Pearson of Hughes, who had 29 points and a plus-14 rating last year. “He’s going to demand a lot of ice time, play in a lot of situations and that’s huge.
“I think it’s also important that (defenseman) Joseph Cecconi (five goals, 27 points) came back. Very rarely do you get a senior back who has been drafted and the team, Dallas, was very interested in signing him. He’s got a track record, like he’s a World Junior Player. He had a tremendous year so to get those two guys back was huge. You get those two guys back on defense, they’ll play 30 minutes and want to play 40.”
And Lavigne, who was 18-11-3 last season with a .908 save percentage?
“Hayden’s proven himself,” Pearson said. “Last year, we had two sophomores and didn’t know because they rotated three guys the year before and nobody really established themselves, so it was good to see Hayden have a good run in the second half. He’s proven. He established himself and it’s his job.”
Sure, Michigan lost the D-M-C line, but Pearson feels the Wolverines will find scoring from a number of talented players, including junior forward Will Lockwood, who missed the second half of the season due to an injury in the World Junior tournament.
“We probably lost more than any team as far as top three guys like that,” Pearson said. "We have a lot of guys back. We won’t be a one-line team per se like we were last year. We have more depth and I think that’s better. When you go on the road a lot of teams would try to match up against the D-M-C line last year and we had to hope to get scoring from somewhere else, and I think that’s why we got off to a slow start until that kicked in.
“Now, can (sophomore forward) Josh Norris get 51 points like Cooper? Absolutely. Can Will Lockwood have 45 points like Calderone? Absolutely. We have a lot of guys who can have big years. Can (junior forward) Jake Slaker go from 15 goals to 25 like Calderone? No question. And they will get the opportunity to. We always talk about the next man up and it’s not only in a season, but year-to-year.”
Pearson said he has a 1A line in Norris, Lockwood and sophomore forward Mike Pastujov; a 1B line in Slaker, junior forward Nick Pastujov and freshman forward Jimmy Lambert; and a 1C line in redshirt sophomore forward Luke Morgan — a transfer from Lake Superior State — sophomore forward Jack Becker and senior forward Brendan Warren.
“We have a lot of balance," Pearson said of his forwards. "I mean up front it’s endless and I’m excited about it."
Slaker scored 15 goals last season, Warren added nine, and Becker and Norris each had eight.
Michigan will play a home-and-home series with Western Michigan on Oct. 19-20, with the opener at Yost. The Wolverines will also play a New Year’s Eve game — either the Great Lakes Invitational consolation or title game — at Little Caesars Arena, and an outdoor game Jan. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium against the Irish.
Michigan will also face Michigan State in East Lansing on Nov. 30 before the teams return to Ann Arbor on Dec. 1, and play preseason favorite Ohio State for the first time Jan. 11-12 in Columbus.