Ann Arbor – Michigan third-year hockey coach Mel Pearson was in a great mood Friday afternoon before practice.
After all, the season is just about to begin. The Wolverines will play host to Windsor in an exhibition game Sunday before playing a non-conference series against Clarkson at Yost Arena Oct. 11-12.
The Wolverines are picked to finish sixth among seven teams in the Big Ten preseason coaches’ poll.
That’s nothing new for Pearson. It was just two years ago when Pearson inherited a 13-19-3 team and the Wolverines were picked to finish sixth in his first year behind the Michigan bench after replacing the legendary Red Berenson.
But Pearson and Michigan went on to finish 22-15-3, with a 10-2-1 stretch, to reach the Frozen Four before falling 4-3 to Notre Dame in the national semifinals.
Pearson thinks this year’s team is better than the one from two years ago. Michigan finished 13-16-7 last season, tying for fifth in the Big Ten at 9-10-5.
The Wolverines lost a pair of high-end players in defenseman Quinn Hughes (Vancouver) and forward Josh Norris (San Jose) to the NHL. But they added two freshman phenoms from the United States National Team Development Program in defenseman Cam York, picked No. 14 overall by the Philadelphia Flyers, and forward John Beecher, who was drafted No. 30 overall by the Boston Bruins.
The 2020 Frozen Four will be at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, and Pearson believes his team is good enough to get there.
“I had a dream last night that we won the national championship at Little Caesars Arena,” Pearson said Friday. We have to do a lot of things before we can get there, but we have a chance with this team, so that’s exciting. It was a journey two years ago and I think we’re a better team than we were two years ago.”
Michigan came up just short of punching a ticket to the Frozen Four the last time it was played in Detroit, in 2010 at Ford Field, when the Wolverines lost to Miami of Ohio in overtime in a regional final in Fort Wayne. They lost, again in overtime, to Minnesota-Duluth in the 2011 national title game.
Pearson knows the Wolverines will have to get improved play in goal to be a championship-level team.
“We have some questions and I think people are looking at, first and foremost, our goaltending,” Pearson said.
Hayden Lavigne was 7-7-3 with a 3.16 goals-against-average and .884 save percentage after going 18-11-3 with a 2.81 GAA and .908 save percentage during the Frozen Four season. Strauss Mann was 6-8-4 last season (2.91, .895) as a freshman.
“I think Hayden got overconfident, just his work ethic and attitude wasn’t as good, you could see it in practice, and then all of a sudden you start, and things maybe go in on you and now you’re really struggling,” said Pearson of Lavigne’s play last season. “I think coming into this year he’s looking so much better already, just his attitude, his work ethic, not that it was terrible, but it doesn’t take much.”
Can Lavigne play at the same level he did two years ago?
“He’s done it, it’s proven,” Pearson said. “He knows what it takes. He’s been in those situations and worked hard to get there, so he has the experience.”
Michigan lost Hughes and Joseph Cecconi on defense, but returns senior Luke Martin, along with sophomore Nick Blankenburg and the addition of York.
Pearson compared York to Hughes: “About the same size, both left-handed, both great hockey IQ, vision, understanding the game, anticipation, both very, very good. The difference, Quinn is one of the top skaters in the NHL. York is a good skater, probably not quite as good as Quinn. York is not quite there, but pretty close.
“Quinn wanted to rush the puck more, wanted it on his stick more, wanted to lead the rush, where Cam is more, ‘I’ll move it up, but then I’m going to move up and join the play,’ so a little different in that way. But York will come in and run our power play.”
Pearson says he has four lines that can put the puck in the net, with Beecher more than likely centering the third line.
Michigan’s first line will be made up of senior captain Will Lockwood, senior Jake Slater and center Jacob Hayhurst, who is Pearson’s first grad transfer, from RPI, where he was Team MVP two years ago and had a team-high 20 assists last season.
Nick Pastujov will center the No. 2 line with sophomore Jimmy Lambert and freshman Eric Ciccolini, a seventh-round pick of the Rangers.
Beecher will be centering a line of 6-4, 205-pound junior Jack Becker and junior Michael Pastujov.
Lockwood is excited to start the season after turning down an offer to leave early to join Hughes at Vancouver. He had a team-high 16 goals last season.
“My dad (Joe) played here (for Berenson in 1988) and it was a dream of mine to play here since I grew up as a fan and kind of followed my dad’s footsteps a little bit,” said Lockwood, who is from Bloomfield Hills. “So, to be named captain of the team is an incredible honor, just from getting votes from my teammates and holding that honor and all of the guys who have come before me, just a spectacular thing.”
Regular-season opener: Friday, Oct. 11, home vs. Clarkson, 7:30 p.m.
Coach: Mel Pearson, third season at Michigan, 35-31-10 overall, 20-20-8 Big Ten
Last season: 13-16-7 overall, 9-10-5 Big Ten