Thursday, October 04, 2012

2012-2013 Season Preview: The Defense and Goaltending

Photo: Bill Rapai
The blueline is unquestionably the strength of the Wolverine roster. They return seven defensemen from last year's solid group and add Jacob Trouba, who is arguably the top recruit in the country.

When you think about it, it's easy to see why Connor Carrick opted for the OHL. Where would he have played? Trouba, Merrill, Bennett, and Moffie are playing every night. Clare played 39 games last year, so he probably isn't coming out of the lineup either. Then you've got two other guys who played 30+ games in their freshman seasons last year (Chiasson and Serville). Plus Mike Szuma for depth (2 GP last year). That's a tough group to crack.

Really, that illustrates the depth of this team. Even without Carrick, who sits? You're going to have a guy who played 30+ games last year sitting out every single night.

So here's a look at the guys we've got:
Jon Merrill decided to come back for his junior season when it would have been really easy for him to bail. He had 11 points and was +11 in 19 games after being suspended for the first half of the year. He was phenomenal out of the gate (Michigan gave up just 10 goals in his first seven games back, and the PK was 96.1%) before faltering late in the year. One would expect that without a long layoff, he'll have a monster season for the Wolverines.

Merrill will be paired initially with Jacob Trouba, the ninth overall pick in the NHL Draft. The freshman has drawn rave reviews from practice, and it sounds like he's poised to wreck anyone cutting through the middle of the ice. They've actually had to reign him in in practice so he doesn't hurt anyone. Several guys from the team have referred to him as JMFT, and if that's not praise, I don't know what is. Red Berenson was asked about his freshman and he responded, "You never know. The only one I'm sure of is Trouba. Trouba is ready."

Mac Bennett, one of the alternate captains, was about a half-point a game guy last year (4-17--21 in 41 games). He's a steady, puck-rushing/puck-moving defenseman who stays out of the penalty box (14 penalties in two seasons).

Lee Moffie had a breakout season last year with 32 points (good for 10th nationally in points per game by a defenseman) and a +22 rating. He was named to CHN's All Second Team in the preseason, as one of the projected top-four defensemen in the country. He, too, is wearing a letter this season and taking on additional leadership. Like Merrill, he faltered down the stretch and didn't play his best hockey in the NCAA Tournament.

Knowing that Merrill and Trouba will be one pairing, I would expect Moffie and Bennett to be split up, and anchoring pairs 2 and 3. They're both offensive-defensemen, so I'd expect each of them to be paired with a more-defensive partner.

Photo: Bill Rapai

After playing only 18 games as a freshman, Kevin Clare was a mainstay in the lineup as a sophomore. He played in all but two games and earned a +10 rating. He's a solid, stay-at-home type of defenseman, but he has only sat in the box for ten minutes in his career. He'll be a perfect guy to pair with a Bennett or Moffie to let them rush the puck when they want to. Clare actually got into the offense a little bit last year, scoring three goals, including the GLI Championship-winning goal against the Spartans.

Mike Chiasson, son of the late long-time NHLer Steve, came in as an older freshman and they plugged him in right away. Chiasson saw action in 30 games, put up 9 points and a +12 rating, and blocked 45 shots.

Brennan Serville is an interesting one. He's got really good size (6'3", 202), can definitely skate, and was a third-round draft pick of Winnipeg back in 2011. He came in fairly highly-touted and had kind of a rough freshman year, getting benched mid-game on several occasions. He seemed like he struggled to adjust a little bit, but man, if you're looking for a defenseman who could take a big leap forward maybe he's the guy. Great size, good speed, really talented. If the lightbulb goes on for him, that'd be pretty huge. He seems to be a pretty under-the-radar guy. Maybe I'll see if one of the guys with access to the coaches can get some comment about him. I'm curious what they're expecting out of him.

Mike Szuma only saw action in two games last season and I don't know that I actually got to see him play. He's a depth defenseman, and probably won't see a ton of time given the loads of talent in front of him. (That's not a knock on him because I certainly have no idea how good he is or isn't. It's just a testament to the defensemen on this team.)

That's a solid group. If you checked out the link to The Wolverine that I posted above, Moffie had some really good comments about how they are challenging themselves to be the best defense corps in the country.

That would certainly be welcomed, because there's a whole batch of unproven behind them, between the pipes.

Gone (tear) is Tiny Jesus, Shawn Hunwick. The greatest story pretty much ever rose from walkon-who-we're-scared-to-put-in-the-net to the freaking NHL, winning a whole helluva lot of games and setting a whole helluva lot of Michigan goaltending records (GAA and freaking save percentage) along the way.

Replacing him are freshmen Jared Rutledge and Steve Racine, and returning players Adam Janecyk and Luke Dwyer.

Rutledge played for the NTDP and posted solid numbers, even though he was frequently overshadowed by teammate (and now-Buckeye) Collin Olson. Rutledge was 17-8-4 with a 2.55/.904. Olson's GAA was a tick better; his save percentage a tick worse. He comes in as the presumed starter, but, as I mentioned yesterday, he hasn't practiced because of an eye issue that required surgery and may miss the start of the season.

I would assume that Racine gets the next crack in Rutledge's absence. He has good size (6'2") and, despite moving around a lot in juniors, had a fantastic finish to his season last year. After transferring to the OJHL's Georgetown Raiders, Racine went 15-0-0 with a 1.66/.938 in the regular season. He finished second in the league in shutouts, despite only playing 15 games. He's 21 and also brings some USHL experience to the table.

Adam Janecyk, the son of an NHL goalie, saw action in five games last year and was the goalie of record in two games. He posted a 3.17/.897, largely because he got shelled coming off the bench against NMU after Hunwick was ejected when he clocked someone after he had enough of the refs giving opponents free reign to run him. That 28-minute span accounted for four of the seven goals he allowed last year. In his one start, with Hunwick unable to go after taking a puck in the mask the night before, he made 34 stops in a 2-2 tie against LSSU and was a big reason Michigan stayed in the game. He can't be written off.

And really Dwyer can't either. I know when he arrived on campus, the coaches were said to really like him (and they must if they're keeping four goalies this year). We haven't really seen him, but after Hunwick's rise, you can't count any goalie out.

Next up: My CCHA predictions. Then we drop the puck!

Lastly, we lost The Yost Post blog during the offseason, but we've gained a new Michigan hockey blog: Yost Section 25. He's got some great photos of the new Yost, and I'm looking forward to reading what he has to write. The more, the better.

YostMeister from GBMWolverine has posted the first part of his season preview as well. His game previews absolutely blow mine away, so if you haven't yet checked that site out, I highly recommend doing so.

MHNet has your recruiting update for the week.


K. Black said...

Great post; very encouraging after looking at the forwards

Geoff Chiles said...

I can't wait to be a part of the Michigan Hockey blogging community!