Monday, September 07, 2009

Five Burning Questions Heading into 2009-2010

Now for a cheer, they are here, triumphant!

The offseason, which was a couple weeks longer than it should have been, is almost over. Football's back, which means that hockey is just around the corner. Yessireesir, hockey fans, we are only 26 days away from dropping the puck on the 2009-2010 hockey season.

Here they come with banners flying, in stalwart step they're nighing, with shouts of vict'ry crying, we hurrah, hurrah, we greet you now, Hail!

It also means that it's high time I get off my duff and start the season previews. We'll kick things off with five questions facing the hockey team as they enter a season that will officially start in the Final Frontier, and will hopefully end at Ford Field.

Far we their praises sing for the glory and fame they've bro't us. Loud let the bells them ring for here they come with banners flying.

1) Who will be the regular six defensemen?
Normally it's not a good thing to ask a question such as the one above, but in this case, it's a very good thing. The Wolverines are very deep on the blueline. Mark Mitera is the only departure on the blueline from a team that ranked fourth in the NCAA in team defense last year, and he only played in 8 games. (Granted guys like Miller and Turnbull played a big role defensively as well.)

The Wolverines are carrying nine defensemen on the roster right now: Chris Summers, Steve Kampfer, Brandon Burlon, Chad Langlais, Tristin Llewellyn, Scooter Vaughan, Greg Pateryn, Lee Moffie, and Eric Elmblad. The first four are locks to be in the lineup every night, barring injury. There are fewer games to go around (at least in theory) for the third-pairing defensemen since Kampfer and Burlon are healthy after missing a combined 24 games a year ago.

Tristin Llewellyn is likely to be the fifth regular. He played in all but one game a year ago, pulling ahead of Vaughan and Pateryn on the depth chart. Assuming Michigan Defenseman Hating God doesn't come back, I would imagine T-Loo will play fewer games than a year ago, but he'll still regularly be in the lineup.

They've got options for the sixth spot. There have been rumblings every now and then about a potential move of Scooter Vaughan to forward, but he's still listed as a defenseman on MGoBlue. With Vaughan, you have a guy with 58 games of experience. He had a horrible start to last season--7 of his 15 career minus ratings came in the first 18 games last season--but after the GLI he made the most of his sporadic apperances in the lineup. In the seven games he played in the second half last season, he had four assists and was +6. He's not an offensive threat, but, first half of last year aside, he's been a pretty reliable defenseman during his time in Ann Arbor. I would guess that there aren't too many programs that have the luxury of potentially scratching a defenseman that has played almost 60 career games.

Greg Pateryn had a pretty decent freshman campaign. He played in 28 games and posted 5 assists with a +5 rating. He saw some power play time on the second unit as he really does have a nice shot, despite not scoring a goal last season. His ability to play on a power play unit might give him an edge over Vaughan.

Eric Elmblad likely won't see time barring injury, but he filled in admirably last season. He played eight games and didn't look remotely out of place. He was -2 and only took one penalty. Can't ask too much more out of your eight/ninth defenseman--eat some minutes, don't hurt us when you're in there.

The lone addition to Michigan's back-end is freshman Lee Moffie. Moffie wasn't drafted, but had a pretty good season in the USHL. He had 9 goals and 35 assists in 55 games for Waterloo, which were really similar numbers to what Chad Langlais put up his final year in that league (6-40--46 in 51 games). He was -1 on the season and posted 97 PIMs. He also had 123 shots on goal, which was 42 more than any other defenseman on their team. He was also very effective on the power play, putting up 26 of his 44 points with the man advantage. If he can come in and be a shot in the arm to our power play (which sucked last season) that's his ticket into the lineup.

Far we their praises sing for the glory and fame they've bro't us. Loud let the bells them ring for here they come with banners flying. Here they come, Hurrah!

2) Can Bryan Hogan carry the load in net and can Shawn Hunwick take some of the pressure off/fill in if need be?

If you read any of the Michigan hockey boards, one of the big concerns people have had this offseason is the backup goaltending situation. Billy Sauer graduated and it was very unlikely the Wolverines were going to be able to recruit a goalie given that Hogan has two years left and JMFC is set to come in in 2010. "How would you like to compete for the backup job this year and then battle for 3rd/4th string next year?" isn't a very persuasive recruiting pitch.

Hogan showed last year that he could handle being the starter for Michigan. He played in 31 of the 41 games and finished the year 24-6-0 with a 1.97 goals against and a .914 save percentage. You'd like to see the save percentage a little higher since he was only 28th nationally in that stat, but his mark tied Bob Gray for the third-best save percentage in Michigan history, behind only Billy Sauer's junior year and Al Montoya's sophomore season. His 1.97 goals against was second-best in team history (also to Sauer's junior year). Currently, he would have the best career goals against and save percentage in the history of Michigan hockey.

Red Berenson isn't scared to let a goalie take the reigns and not look back. On ten occasions we've had a goalie play 40+ games. Turco, Montoya and Blackburn all did it three times. Sauer did it in his sophomore year. So, again barring injury, we can expect Hogan to see a lot of action this season.

Behind him we've got Shawn Hunwick, who has just 2 minutes and 52 seconds of playing time to his credit. He made two saves on two shots in his only appearance--the beatdown of UNO in the playoffs in 07-08. He also gave up one goal on 12 shots against the US NTDP in 07-08. Prior to coming to Michigan, he was speaking with schools such as Northern Michigan and Holy Cross about goaltending position. He got injured and was set to go to Adrian before Michigan came calling.

He hasn't looked remotely out of place when he's seen action. I've underestimated a Hunwick before and it didn't work out so well for me. I still wish Red could have gotten Hunwick into a couple blowouts last year, knowing that he was going to be the backup this season.

I would imagine they'll pull someone from the club team to be the emergency goalie.

Hail! to the Victors, valiant. Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes. Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the leaders and best.

3) Can Robbie Czarnik rebound from a disappointing freshman season?

If you're looking for a good pick for Breakout Player of the Year, let me nominate Robbie Czarnik. He was the third leading scorer for the USA U-18 team in 07-08 and the only forward with more points than him was first-round pick, 45-point-as-a-freshman Jordan Schroeder. While success with the NTDP doesn't in it of itself doesn't guarantee success at the college level, a good number of the games he played in--and had success in--were against collegiate teams and it's reasonable he could replicate that.

He got off to a rough start last year, scoring just one goal in his first 27 games. Down the stretch, however, he had 4-4--8 over the last 12. Still, five goals as a freshman (and only one at even-strength) is probably not what the Wolverines or Czarnik were hoping for. Disappointing season and all, his numbers would have been good for fifth in goals, second in assists, and third in points on FYS's team. Owww!

For a good portion of last season, he was the 08-09 version of Louie Caporusso. If someone was going to have the puck hop over his stick with an empty net to shoot at, ring one off the post, or have the goalie make a sprawling save, it was Czarnik.

He had his opportunities, he just didn't convert them. Caporusso had the same problem in 07-08. Cappy didn't have that problem (at least as much) in 08-09 and ended up as a Hobey Finalist. While I'm not projecting a similar season for Czarnik as a sophomore, I think it's entirely likely that we could have a new impact player this year. I fully expect him to be up around 15 goals, 30 points, and top five on the team in scoring.

Only three guys on the team had more shots on goal than Czarnik (Hagelin, Caporusso, and Turnbull), but 11 players had more goals. Some of these pucks are going to start going in and it's going to be great for the Wolverines when it happens.

Hail! to the Victors, valiant. Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes. Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the champions of the West!

4) Can Louie Caporusso repeat his stellar campaign without high-scoring teammate Aaron Palushaj?

It's tough to lose a 50-point scorer who set up 37 goals and not feel it. Much in the way that Kevin Porter got a chance to prove he could do it without TJ Hensick, Louie Caporusso will get a chance to prove that he wasn't an Aaron Palushaj creation.

The thing is, he shouldn't have to. Even though there was a span in the middle part of the season where Palushaj and Caporusso seemed to connect on every goal the Wolverines scored, for the season Palushaj assisted on just eight of Caporusso's 24 goals. With Palushaj gone to World Juniors, Caporusso didn't miss a beat, winning GLI MVP by scoring four goals over the two games.

A better question is can Caporusso find some consistency? Even though he had a phenomenal season a year ago and could have made a legit run at the Hobey Baker (in a very weak year) if the Wolverines had cruised to the Frozen Four with Louie playing well in the process, he was still very streaky. He scored in 16 of our 41 games last year. )By comparison, Porter scored in 24 games during his Hobey season.) The bigger problem was after the GLI, he really cooled off. I didn't expect him to keep up his near goal per game pace, but after the GLI, he scored just six goals over the next 21 games (and only scored in two of the next 14 games--though he had two goals in each of those).

He also struggled offensively in some of the big games. While he was great in the GLI, in our four games against Miami, our three games against Notre Dame, and our tournament game against Air Force, he had a 0-3--3 line, with 16 shots. All those points came in one weekend against the Red Hawks (and 7 of the 16 shots came in one game). He was held off the scoreboard in the other five games.

If he can find some consistency--even if it's not quite at the level he played at in the first half of last year--we're going to be in really good shape. Maybe he will be a Hobey finalist again and maybe he won't, but I still expect a very good season out of #29.

We cheer them again. We cheer and cheer again. For Michigan, we cheer for Michigan. We cheer with main and might. We cheer, cheer, cheer. With might and main we cheer!

5) Is this finally the year that the Wolverines break through and win another NCAA title?

I'm a homer. You know it, I know it. I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't pick them to win the title every year. There have been three different CCHA teams in the NCAA Championship the last three years and none of them have been Michigan. That's depressing. Michigan hasn't had a whole lot of success in the NCAA Tournament the past few years. After having gone winless in the NCAAs just one time in the history of the program, it has happened three times in the last four years.

But there are a lot of things to like about this team. After losing 87 and 78 goals the past two offseasons (50% and 46% of our scoring), the Wolverines lose just 40 goals (27.5%) this year. The incoming class may not have any stud scorers, but Lynch, Treais, and Brown (at the very least) should all be quality players out of the gate.

The strength of the team, however, is going to be on the back end. They lose Mark Mitera, but for all intents and purposes they didn't have him last year either. Michigan only had a 100% Mark Mitera for a couple of periods, so they're pretty well prepared for his loss on the ice. And even without Michigan's top blueliner, even without Steve Kampfer for almost half the season, even without Brandon Burlon for a good portion of the early going (note that they were all out at the same time), they still were #4 in the country in team defense at 2.05 goals per game.

Bryan Hogan may not have ended the season in the best fashion, but he still proved to be a darn good goalie. The great thing about him last season was he only had one game where he didn't at the very least give Michigan a chance to win. The offense scored 3.54 goals per game. There was only one game the entire season where Hogan gave up more than three--5 in that brutal game against Notre Dame in the CCHA Championship. You can't ask a whole lot more out of your goalie than that. When there's only one occasion where the goalie gives up more goals than your offense averages, you're going to win an awful lot of hockey games. I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do in his second year as a starter.

Is this the year for Michigan? I don't know. I do know that they're as good on the blueline as any team in the country. I do know that they've got a quality netminder. And I know they're going to find a way to put the puck in the net. It all adds up to a team that is going to be right in the mix once again.

It's going to be a fun season.

Hail! to the Victors, valiant. Hail! to the conqu'ring heroes. Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the champions of the West!


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't necessarily call Z's freshman year a disappointment. Sure the stats weren't what we were expecting, but he contributed. A disappointing player who I'd love to see turn it around would be Winnett. And someone I'd love to see take it to the next level is Hagelin. As great as he is, I think he's got it in him to make a Kolarikesque jump in production.

Anonymous said...

re: defense. who plays and how much likely have an impact on next year too -- got 3 incoming stud defenseman in merrill, clare and bennett

Anonymous said...

I've heard that another little bro, Patrick Summers, is going to be the 3rd goalie for the 2009-2010 season.

Packer487 said...

Re: Summers
That actually makes a lot of sense and I'm kind of pissed at myself for not thinking of it sooner. He played for Little Caesars and actually dressed with the USA NTDP for a little while at the end of the season after Yanakeff was let go.

@Anon #1: I didn't mean for it to sound like I didn't think Czarnik contributed. He played better than his numbers indicated and his numbers weren't even that *bad*, but I'm sure he didn't get off to the start he was looking for with 1 goal in 27 games.

I think Winnett kind of is what he is at this point. Solid enough defensively, makes a pretty nice play here and there (he made a couple HUGE breakout passes last year), but not at all what I was expecting with him coming out of the BCHL and all.

You're right about Hagelin (and I would put Rust in that mix as well). They've both got it in them to put up huge numbers offensively and I'd love for them to show it. Hagelin actually led the team in shots last year. I wouldn't have bet on that...

@Anon 2: Yeah we're going to have an even bigger log-jam next year, assuming Burlon doesn't leave early. Summers, Kampfer and Elmblad leave, 3 studs come in. You're at 9 defensemen again if Burlon's back, but all 9 would be in the mix for playing time.

Anonymous said...

Re: Winnett. I guess wishful thinking is that he came in when the team was deep at F but with many departures there, it's time to step it up in 09/10. Still glad to have him even if he doesn't make that jump to the next level.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, its true about Summers. He told me a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty surprised, but good for him.

I think this is the year that Rust and Hagelin really turn it on, though. I'm very excited to see what the off-season has done to these guys.