With his size and physicality, Michael Downing has been projected by many to have a future as a shutdown defenseman. While Downing hasn’t disproven that theory, the 20-year old blueliner has continued to prove that he is capable of more.
Entering his junior season, the Canton, Mich. native is coming off of a solid sophomore campaign with his hometown University of Michigan. Recording 22 points (6-16—22) in 36 games, Downing along with 2015 eighth overall draft pick Zach Werenski (Columbus Blue Jackets), were the team’s top two producing defensemen.
A self-described “two-way defenseman”, Downing ranked second among Michigan defensemen in both goals and points, while tying for the lead in assists. The young defender is proud of his individual accomplishments this season, but is more concerned with the fact that the Wolverines did not qualify for the NCAA National Championship Tournament.
“I had a good year,” said Downing. “We had a pretty good team. We missed the tournament again though…for the second year, which is not good. Hopefully we can come back this year. We have a good class coming in so I think it’ll be a good year all around. We have solid D coming in, a couple of good forwards so we’ll see how it goes.”
Selected by the Panthers in the fourth round (97th overall) of the 2013 National Hockey League Draft, Florida selected the rugged defenseman after a 23-point season (3-20—23) that saw him serve 107 penalty minutes with the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the United States Hockey League (USHL). Despite winning a Clark Cup with Dubuque in 2013, being selected by the Sarnia Sting in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) Draft and earning an offer to play for Michigan, Downing was not satisfied with his final outing in the USHL, from an individual standpoint, and used that as motivation to grow his game.
“I’ve grown a lot in the defensive zone the last couple of years,” said Downing. “ I mean, I got drafted [by Florida] pretty late…I didn’t have the best draft year. I think since then my game’s gone up a lot. I think it’s been good. I think the people here really like me so we’ll see how it works out.”
Like many young defensemen of his age group, especially those who grew up close to the Detroit Red Wings, Downing idolized Nicklas Lidstrom. Growing up in Michigan, playing hockey in many ways is part of the culture. Names like Lidstrom, Steve Yzerman and Gordie Howe are local legends. While kids his age were starting on the ice, trying to emulate their heroes, Downing’s first taste of hockey came from strapping on roller blades.
“I think it was roller hockey that me and my brother [started at],” said Downing. “We would go to this place called the ‘Skating Station’. It was kind of like just taking laps on roller blades and then we found a league in the same place and went to ice. Nothing really made me start, I went one time and I liked it, so I kept doing it.”
As the school year begins and college hockey gears up, the six-foot-four, 204-pound blueliner isn’t able to attend Panthers training camp or rookie camp. It’s his annual trips to Development Camp in the summers that he looks forward to. Meeting up with his fellow prospects, as well as the new ones, Downing, now a D-camp veteran, enjoyed his third trip to the Florida Development Camp this past June.
“It was good,” said Downing at Development Camp. “Getting the kids who just got drafted down here, so they know what it’s like…I think it was good for us to come back and get to know each other a little more. Me being a third year guy, I know a lot of these guys, but it was good just to come out.”
When asked about his advice to the new prospects at camp, Downing preaches more of a ‘slow and steady’ approach on the ice.
“Just play your game,” stressed Downing. “A lot of these kids come in and try to do too much and try to show that they should be here, but we all know they should be if they were drafted. So you just have to make sure they are staying calm.”
Downing heads to Michigan this season as one of the team’s most experienced players. With no seniors on the Michigan blueline, Downing is one of only three junior-year defenders. Downing’s leadership role at Development Camp will prepare him for this upcoming season with Michigan as he helps lead a group of young defensemen for Head Coach Red Berenson’s Wolverines.