Monday, June 06, 2005

1. University of Michigan

University of Michigan

Key losses: Eric Nystrom, F; Brandon Rogers, D; Eric Werner, D; Milan Gajic, F; Jason Ryznar, F; David Moss, F; Nick Martens, D; Mike Woodford, F
Key Returnees: T.J. Hensick, F; Jeff Tambellini, F; Matt Hunwick, D; Al Montoya, G
Key recruits: Jack Johnson, D; Andrew Cogliano, F; Mark Mitera, D; Jason Bailey, F
Projected leading scorer: T.J. Hensick


Offense: A-
Defense: B
Goalie: A-
Coaching: A


It’s a quirky tradition in Ann Arbor that as summer starts to fade, at least one expert somewhat close to the Michigan football program comes on the radio or says in the newspaper that this year’s Michigan football team has a shocking resemblance to the 1997 national championship team, or is Michigan’s best team since 1997. Of course, none of the team’s since then has contained Charles Woodson and every team has fallen short of the ’97 team, but nonetheless, the prediction still gets made annually, presumably until Michigan wins another national championship.

I share that story, because my own assessment for Michigan’s hockey team is going to sound surprisingly similar. Next year’s Michigan team may not have many things pointing in their favor, but one thing they do have is that they look to be very similar to the last Michigan team that won a national championship in 1998.

In 1998, Michigan had to replace one of the greatest classes in college hockey history, with a large group of freshmen. Next year’s Michigan team will be very similar. While the outgoing class of led by Eric Nystrom lacked the high-profile scorers and national championship that the class led by Brendan Morrison had, they still leave a huge legacy that included 116 total wins, 3 league titles, 3 playoff titles, and two Final Fours. That’s an impressive resume. Michigan will have to rely on a very large class of freshmen to help shoulder much of the load next season.

Among those freshmen will be defenseman Jack Johnson. Though he’s only 18, Johnson should be one of the best defenseman in college hockey next season. He’ll be joined by a bunch of former NTDP teammates in Mark Mitera, Zac MacVoy, Jason Bailey, and Danny Fardig. Michigan also receives a speedy, talented scorer from Ontario, a staple of their program, in Andrew Cogliano. Michigan will also be adding a trio of hard-working USHL forwards, and the talented, but extremely green Tyler Swystun. Though only freshmen, there will be a lot of expectations on these players to produce from the start for Michigan, and be a contributing factor at the end of the season, just as Michigan’s 1998 freshmen class was.

The 1998 Michigan team was led offensively by two supremely talented offensive players in Bill Muckalt and Matt Herr. This year’s Michigan team will rely on senior Jeff Tambellini and junior T.J. Hensick. Tambellini and Hensick were two of the top 6 scorers in all of college hockey last season. They should be racing each other to see who can put up the most impressive Hobey resume. Both should get serious consideration. Hensick is the more consistent performer, but Tambellini has amazing physical gifts that make him virtually unstoppable when he gets on a hot streak like he did at the end of the last season. Tambellini finished the season with 21 points in his last 10 games. There is the potential for Hensick and Tambellini to be the best 1-2 punch in college hockey next season.

Besides the stars, Michigan also got great seasons out of unsung heroes Bobby Hayes and Dale Rominski. This year’s Michigan team will also feature a pair of very good, but underappreciated players in Andrew Ebbett and Brandon Kaleniecki. Andrew Ebbett hasn’t received much attention at Michigan, mainly because he’s never reached double digits in goals in his first three seasons. But Ebbett has been a playmaking machine, registering over 100 points in his Michigan career by dishing off passes to grateful teammates. Brandon Kaleniecki has never been that highly regarded since he was an underclassmen at Detroit Catholic Central High School, but Red Berenson should reap a fourth productive year out of Kaleniecki after taking a gamble on him four years ago. Kaleniecki has made a career of being in the right place at the right time and being the one to score the ugly goals.

The final comparison is in goal. Both teams featured a goalie that was almost too talented for their own good. Al Montoya spent much of last year under a microscope, and while he was very shaky at times, no one could complain about his postseason performance. The same was very true for Marty Turco. His regular season performance was often average, with the occasional awful blunder. Turco was given a little benefit of the doubt because he already had an NCAA title to his name as a senior, but most Michigan fans were ready to tether Turco to his goal through most of his senior until his epic performance in the NCAA tournament. Montoya will have to be more consistent during the regular season this year, however, to help give a young team time to get their feet under them. Ultimately though, Montoya will be judged by how he does in the NCAA tournament, and he’s proven that he will always show up in March.

By no means does this mean that I am guaranteeing a Michigan national championship. That team ended up with some tremendous luck that helped them catch a four game win streak at the right time. If anything, I think this Michigan team will be like the ’98 version in that they will face many challenges throughout the season. Michigan fans who thought this past year was tumultuous will be in for a very long ride this year. Much like the 1998 team, I think next year’s team will struggle offensively at the beginning of the season until they can develop a solid second, third, and fourth line. The 1998 team was also a period and a half away from not even making the NCAA tournament against Notre Dame in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. I don’t think next year’s Michigan team will cut it that close, but I do think there will be some scary moments on the way.

Despite all this, Michigan is still Michigan. People predicting a monumental fall from grace for Michigan with a young team need to remember that Michigan has managed to finish either 1st or 2nd in the CCHA for 15 straight years. It’s hard to imagine them finishing anywhere but first or second. Michigan also has an NCAA record 15 straight tournament appearances, all of which have resulted in at least a trip to the quarterfinals. That’s a record that I predict will never be broken. Some day that streak will end, as all streaks must, but it won’t happen this year with all the talent that Michigan has on their team.


The Shadow said...

Finishing 1st or 2nd in the CCHA is no special feat these days since the CCHA is a distant 3rd in terms of best conferences in college hockey behind the WCHA and Hockey East. Michigan will probably finish high in the CCHA again despite their inexperience for no other reason than the most of their league isn't very good. Put them in the WCHA and they'd be fighting for home ice.

Chris said...

Things like conference strength tend to be cyclical. Because Michigan's run has spanned over a decade and a half, they've seen both ends of the spectrum. For much of the early to mid 90's the CCHA was arguably the best league in college hockey. The quality of the league has dipped some, but that's certainly not Michigan's fault.

Michigan would have easily had home ice in the WCHA last year, mainly because they actually played a full season, something the third and fourth place teams in that league could not say. I'd suspect that they'd match up pretty well against the WCHA next year as well.

While I realize WCHA fans love to be arrogant about how great their league was last year, another thing to keep in mind was that one of the recurring themes in my CCHA previews(WMU, LSSU, BGSU, Miami, UAF, UNO, and OSU) was how young those teams were and how they won't be losing any players for next season. While the CCHA was a step below the WCHA this year, once those players mature, they should be on pretty close to equal footing.