Big Men On Campus

Stocked With First Round Draft Picks, Michigan Takes Aim At Another NCAA Title
Tom Worgo

Mel Pearson calls the 2021-22 Wolverines his dream team.

That may be putting it mildly.

His University of Michigan roster boasts seven NHL first-round picks-the most in college hockey history. The Wolverines also feature six other draft choices selected from 2019 to 2021.

Pearson draws quips and one liners from his fellow head coaches. He enjoys their wry comments.

"Coaches say, 'We will bring our own puck to play with,'" Pearson laughs.

Other wisecracks he's heard: "Do we even need to play the game? You could probably make the playoffs in the NHL."

Pearson's team also has earned several comparisons, and there's one in particular that he takes as a huge compliment. Michigan men's basketball coach Juwan Howard called this year's Wolverine hockey team the "Fab Five." That moniker originated with the 1991 and 1992 Michigan men's basketball teams that Howard helped advance to consecutive NCAA title games.

When it comes to hockey, Howard is referring to the Michigan players taken in the first round of this year's draft.

With all of that talent, Pearson understands he will likely have this larger-than-life team for one season, but it might give the Wolverines their best shot to add to its NCAA record nine national titles.

"This is the only year this team is going to be together and that's the way we are trying to present it to our players," says Pearson, who is in his fifth year as the head coach after serving 22 years under legendary coach Red Berenson. "These guys have a chance to have a memorable year."

What makes that possible is the return of four sophomores who were all first-round picks in the 2021 NHL Draft and opted to forgo the bright lights of the NHL to stay with the Maize and Blue for one more season: defenseman Owen Power, center Kent Johnson, and forwards Matty Beniers and Brendan Brisson.

They will be joined by junior Johnny Beecher and freshmen Mackie Samoskevich and Luke Hughes.

The decision to return to Michigan seemed harder for Power (Buffalo) and Beniers (Seattle) since they went one-two in late July's draft.

Hughes went No. 4 overall to New Jersey and Columbus chose Johnson at No. 5.

That's the first time four players have gone in the top five from the same college team.

"I don't think it will happen again," Pearson said. "Things just fell into place. It's pretty unique."

According to Mike Snee, the executive director of College Hockey, Inc., it's just further proof that  the level of play in college hockey has never been better than it is right now.

"The game is more international than it's ever been. We have 150 plus Europeans playing. Five years ago, it was in the 40s. And it seems like more higher-end Canadians are playing college hockey," Snee said.

"But the foundation of it is the American player. Hockey in the U.S. has just grown so much. College hockey has never been this good and I think the primary reason for that is hockey in America has never been this good."

Pearson and his staff wasn't sure if any of his sophomores would return for another season but he thinks they all made the right decision.

"After that second year, they are just different players," Pearson said. "When you step into the NHL, you are going to have to deal with a lot. You have to deal with physically strong players, the travel, maybe not getting as much ice time and sitting out games. How do you deal with that?"

The coach cites two former Michigan players, Quinn Hughes and Zach Werenski, as proof that a second year of college made them NHL-ready.

Snee agrees with Pearson that the Fab Five are making the right choice by not rushing into the future. He points to the fact that 70 percent of NCAA alumni in the NHL played three years of college hockey and 40 percent played all four-something that bodes well for Pearson and the Michigan faithful.

"Players that play three years of college hockey have a realistic shot at an NHL career, especially if you look at all the players that left after one or two years," he said.

"You are on the ice a lot. You get 40 to 45 games. You have a nice schedule of practices. You have time while you are there to get bigger and stronger. It helps you when you get to the professional ranks."

The Michigan coaching staff emphasizes player development as much as winning, and that can make for a smoother transition to the NHL. Obviously, the players have bought in.

"When you go to practice with all these elite players every single day, you will get better," said Beniers, who played two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program.

"You are pushing each other to get better on the ice and in the weight room. We have that type of atmosphere. That's what it is going to be like all year."

The 19-year-old Beniers, a Massachusetts native, thought about playing for the Kraken this season, but as the school year drew closer, he decided to return. He wanted to compete for a national title and savor the college experience another year. Fortunately, Seattle agreed with the decision.

"They were on the same page as me and thought it was a good idea," Beniers said. "I had the NHL in the back of my head and had conversations with Seattle, but I didn't get too heavily into it. I just wanted to come back to Michigan."

Hughes felt the same way. He is looking forward to playing with his brother, Jack, with the Devils, but that will have to wait a season or two. The 6-foot-2, 186-pound Luke knows what to expect at Michigan since his brother spent two years there.

"I watched him for two years and saw how he developed as a player and person, and that has prepared me for college," the youngest Hughes said.

Samoskevich has played with the older Hughes brothers and he thinks Luke may be the most talented of the three siblings who were all chosen in the first round.

"His skating is the best of the three of them," he said. "He is a smart-puck moving defenseman and he will be very good offensively."

Luke's defensive game can't be overlooked. He's solid in his own end and should improve as he matures.

"I walked into a rink about a month ago and I hadn't seen Luke play in a year and a half because of the pandemic," Pearson said. "His skating just blew me away. The overall package that he presents is outstanding. He's had really good training being around his brothers."

Pearson said Hughes could be paired with Power, who surprised a lot of people by returning to Ann Arbor after being named the first overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres.

The Ontario native turned a lot of heads with his performance at the 2021 IIHF World Championship where he averaged 20:07 minutes of ice time.

"He has great reach and size," Pearson said. "He understands the game and has really good hockey sense. When you put the whole package together, he is very attractive."

Samoskevich, the Connecticut native, was the last one drafted of the "Fab Five" by Florida at No. 24. The speedy winger who has a tremendous shot should play a big role on the Wolverines after leading the Chicago Steel to the Clark Cup title last season.

The New York native Beecher (Boston) and Brisson (Las Vegas) round out the group of first-round picks and both players were taken late in the first round.

Brisson, who is from Manhattan Beach, Calif., finished fourth on Michigan with 10 goals and 11 assists last year.

And don't forget they're supported in the lineup by bevy of other NHL draft picks.

The players are conscious of the burden of the lofty expectations.

It's pretty much national title or bust. Added motivation for a run at a championship is fueled by how last season ended abruptly in the NCAA Tournament because of Covid-19 protocols.

"We have a lot of eyes on us this year," Samoskevich said.

"We like the pressure. We want to prove we are the team everyone says we are. We are going to use all the outside noise as motivation. We are the most talented team on paper. We just have to show it on the ice. We are going to do some damage."


Tom Worgo is a freelance writer based in Annapolis, Md.




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