Max Pacioretty bolted for the Montreal Canadiens last summer, it meant that Michigan coach Red Berenson once again lost not just a key component of his team, but also part of the young core of the 2008-09 Wolverines.When sophomore-to-be
Pacioretty (39 points in 2007-08) was to be the only remaining piece of what was one of the nation’s highest-scoring lines, along with the graduating Kevin Porter and Chad Kolarik. Together the dynamic trio combined for 158 points last season.
But this is nothing new in Ann Arbor, as the price of recruiting the best often means the best move on to greener pastures earlier than expected. Some programs eventually hit a stumbling block and have to rebuild, but Berenson and his teams retool. They do so by recruiting players they know they can count on right away and who have the potential to play as seasoned juniors and seniors when they are only freshmen and sophomores.
Last weekend's sweep of Lake Superior State gave the Wolverines (21-9-0), their 22nd consecutive season with at least 21 wins under Berenson. They enter a two-game set with Nebraska-Omaha this weekend ranked No. 4 in the nation and on pace to make the NCAA tournament for an astonishing 19th consecutive season. During this streak, the Wolverines have made 10 Frozen Fours and won two national championships.
Current Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick, who played four seasons with the Wolverines, credits his development as a player to the immediate "big time" experience he got as a freshman playing under Berenson.
"You're almost thrown right out there in big-time situations off the bat, getting major minutes and you have no choice but to adapt," Hunwick said. "I remember my freshman season. I was paired up with a senior, Andy Burns, and right away playing against the other teams' top lines on a nightly basis. That was such a huge, important experience for me."
Whether it has been due to graduation or early departures for the NHL, freshmen and sophomores are cast into crucial roles, and this season has been no different. With nine sophomores and five freshmen on the current squad, the young core once again was asked to step up. So far, they have delivered.
"Our young kids have had to step up and really provide offensive leadership," Berenson said. "They've jumped right in from the start and played in crucial situations."
Berenson pointed to the exceptional play of sophomore forwards Aaron Palushaj (35 points), Louis Caporusso (33 points), Carl Hagelin (21 points), Matt Rust (16 points) and freshman forward David Wohlberg, who has chipped in with 22 points.
"For young players, they have all had to grow fast because we have a small junior and senior class," Berenson said. "Even the young freshman Wohlberg has been a huge factor. These kids are matched up usually against the other teams' top lines and players a year or too older, and I've been quite happy with the way they respond to that."
Palushaj, a highly touted prospect drafted in the second round (No. 44), by the St. Louis Blues in the 2007 Entry Draft, may be a perfect example of that. While he has been the point producer Berenson expected when he recruited and signed him, his style has changed. Palushaj has become a playmaker rather than the sniper that made him such an attractive recruit. Berenson is happy with his production, but also believes Palushaj has the ability to be a better all-round player and score more often.
"We're still trying to figure him out, to be honest," Berenson said. "He came into the league with the reputation of a scorer, but he didn't score a lot last year, even though he was on our first power-play unit and still had a lot of points. He got off to a hot start this season with 6 goals in his first eight games and then he only had two since. So we're not sure if he's a scorer or playmaker. He's a great player, good vision and good hands, so we're not sure yet, but I think he can shoot and score more."
Palushaj agreed with his coach and recognized the need to shoot more.
"Coach has been on me to shoot more and I understand why, so I am making a solid effort to do that," said the Livonia, Mich., native who played for the U.S. at the 2009 World Junior Championship. "I know what I have to do and I'm going to keep trying hard, and when I have the shot, I'll take it."
Palushaj also shared the same feelings as Hunwick, but didn't use that as an excuse.
"I think at times my role has something to do with it and you need to make due to certain situations, but I know I can definitely shoot more and I'm making a sincere effort to do that," he said.
On Campus clips -- Ohio State freshman forward Zac Dalpe was named CCHA Rookie of the Week. He scored in Friday's 4-3 overtime loss to Notre Dame and assisted on three second-period goals in a span of 10:12 in Sunday's 4-1 win against the Irish. Denver junior forward Rhett Rakhshani and Wisconsin junior defenseman Jamie McBain were named WCHA co-Offensive Players of the Week. Rakhshani had 4 points for the No. 6 Pioneers in a weekend split with Minnesota-Duluth. McBain also had four points in a conference sweep against rival and No. 9-ranked Minnesota. ... The Hockey East Association, in conjunction with the New England Sports Network (NESN) announced a partnership for the remainder of the 2008-09 season with Rogers Sportsnet to air Hockey East games throughout Canada, including the 25th annual Hockey East Tournament at the TD Banknorth Garden on March 20-21. "This is a terrific development for our league and we appreciate NESN's efforts to make this happen," said Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna. "Perhaps a young Canadian hockey player will watch these games and proudly don a Hockey East jersey somewhere down the line." Sportsnet's coverage will kick off Feb. 20 with Boston College at New Hampshire live on Sportsnet East and Sportsnet Ontario. The Feb. 27 game between Massachusetts and Boston University will air live on Sportsnet East and Sportsnet Ontario. On Feb. 28, New Hampshire against Merrimack will be shown on tape delay Sunday morning on all of Sportsnet’s channels. On March 6, BC at Northeastern will be live on Sportsnet East and Sportsnet Ontario. NESN will provide the Hockey East feed every Friday that will be broadcast in 8.5 million homes throughout Canada. ... Hockey Weekend Across America takes place this weekend. For more information go to: http://www.usahockey.com/HWAA/default.aspx. ... The fourth annual Hockey Day in Michigan will take place this Saturday. The CCHA, FSN Detroit, the Detroit Red Wings and the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association will once again join forces to bring a celebration of hockey to participants and fans across the Great Lakes State. Michigan has more than 62,000 registered players, coaches and officials, with close to 3,800 teams registered with USA Hockey, which is the most of any state in the nation. Events include: contests, skills competitions, charity games and 'Hockey is Fun' clinics at Novi Ice Arena and Suburban Ice -- Farmington Hills. For more information go to: http://ccha.cstv.com/sports/m-hockey/spec-rel/hockey-day-in-mich.html.