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Michigan’s Berenson faces rebuilding job in 33rd season

David Goricki
The Detroit News
Michigan men's hockey head coach Red Berenson, top, will return for his 33rd season after contemplating retirement.

Ann Arbor — This wasn’t what Red Berenson had hoped.

A year in which the Michigan men's hockey coach was considering retirement, his team won its first Big Ten tournament title and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012.

And then ...

The CCM line — freshman Kyle Connor, and juniors JT Compher and Tyler Motte — decided to leave the program early.

So, too, did defensemen Zach Werenski, a sophomore, and Michael Downing, a junior

Connor (Jets) and Werenski (Blue Jackets) were first-round draft picks. Compher (Avalanche) was a second-rounder, and Motte (Blackhawks) and Downing (Panthers) fourth-rounders.

So, Berenson’s return has become a rebuild.

“I don’t know what there is to say, I think that’s the trend with the NHL,” said Berenson, who is returning for his 33rd season. “I used to be preaching to everyone that college hockey was better than they thought and you could develop players for pro hockey in college because there weren’t many college players in the NHL. Now, it’s gone full circle and they are hauling them out right, left and center as soon as they have a good year.

Berenson thought he’d lose two or three players at the most — not five.

So the question is, how does he replace a line that produced 191 of the team’s 489 points and 83 of the 181 goals, and another 55 points from his defense?

“You don’t,” Berenson said. “I think we’ve backed ourselves up on defense. ... But forwards are going to be the question mark.

“(We) have to have some players step up.”

With that in mind, Berenson will be looking at a nine- or 10-member freshmen class next year. It’s a repeat of the 1998 class, when Berenson lost Hobey Baker winner Brendan Morrison and All-American Jason Botterill — and went on to win the national championship.

But, Berenson also had Marty Turco in goal and great leadership in Bill Muckalt and Matt Herr.

This time, it’s a class of relative unknowns.

“We recruited a Swedish kid that was an older kid who will come in this year,” Berenson said. “You’re looking for freshmen. You’re looking for players who are available. There might be the odd kid that is without a school who comes on strong at the end of the season or in the playoffs (in junior hockey).

“(But) you don’t want to throw scholarship money at players who are marginal players so you pretty much have to wait, and that’s the trouble with the recruiting cycle because we recruit so far in advance that you can’t just go out and find a player, even for two years from now, let alone this year.”

But the issue facing Berenson is nothing new — it’s happening in every major sport.

And that’s a reason some coaches don’t miss being behind the bench.

“So many things have changed,” former Michigan State coach Ron Mason said. “I used to call it the rat-race where after the first game of the series you were always working on how you’d win the next game, then the next season and so on. In today’s world there are so many things you can’t control. It has to be frustrating, but it’s the nature of the beast.

“I was talking to Boston College coach Jerry York and he’s losing five players (early), too. ... Kids want to get an offer (from college coaches) at age 14 or 15 and they want to go to the NHL by 19 or 20.”

And that’s one reason Mason said coaches have to rethink recruiting.

“Maybe instead of going for the top-shelf kid, go after the 20-year-old freshmen who will be playing until they become 23- or 24-year-old seniors because it seems like teams that get these kids aren’t losing them,” Mason said.

All Berenson knows is April is no longer his favorite month.

“It’s the worst part of my season ... trying to protect your players from making a bad decision,” he said. “You really have to redefine your team and put players in roles they are not used to.”

david.goricki@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @DavidGoricki