Although he’s only a freshman at the University of Michigan, Buffalo Sabres prospect JT Compher is building a strong resume.
This week, Compher was named the inaugural Big Ten Freshman of the Year and was selected to the All-Big Ten second team, the only freshman to receive all-conference honors. He has 31 points (11+20) in 34 games for the 12th-ranked Wolverines this year.
Compher, a second-round pick by the Sabres in the 2013 NHL Draft (35th overall) called in to Sabres Hockey Hotline to talk about his season.
A native of Northbrook, Ill., Compher, who will turn 19 next month, has excelled in his first year at Michigan and used his experiences with the U.S. National Development Program to his advantage. He said it took him a little while to adjust to the speed of the college game, but playing against teams of that caliber with the development program accelerated his learning curve.
With this being the first year of the Big Ten for hockey, Compher didn’t really know what to expect when it came to the types of accolades that could await him at the end of the season.
“It was just a nice surprise. I hadn’t really thought about it,” he said. “With the Big Ten being new, you don’t really know what they do with all that kind of stuff. I was just playing hockey and it was just a nice surprise and a nice honor.”
Compher has a reputation for being a stingy guy to play against and his willingness to go up against any opponent, regardless of his size, is a point of pride.
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“I don’t really look at the size thing. I think that the way I compete, I think I can go up against anyone and win a battle,” he said. “For me, whether he’s 5-6 or 6-6, I’m going to go into the corner the same way trying to win the battle.
“Sometimes the guy’s a little older, a little stronger and I might get our-battled but I’m going to keep staying on him and try to win those battles. It doesn’t really change my mindset very much.”
He has tried to model his game after Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ryan Callahan because of both their similar body types and style of play. Both are 5-foot-11 and Callahan is listed at 190 pounds, just five pounds heavier that Compher.
“He plays a really gritty, hard-nosed game, blocks shots, will kill penalties, do anything for his team,” Compher said. “And that’s something I’ve kind of always tried to do, is do anything for my team.”
It wasn’t exactly a storybook regular season for Compher.
A foot injury during Team USA’s selection camp just before the start of the World Junior Champions forced him to miss that tournament. However, he was able to suit up for Michigan again during the winter break. He scored a shorthanded goal for the Wolverines in his first game back a week-and-a-half later.
“Obviously it’s another one of my dreams to play in that tournament. Luckily enough for me, I’m going to have another chance next year,” he said. “But that was something that I’d been working towards for the first half of the year and to go down with an injury. It stinks, but it’s life, it’s hockey, it happens.”
The way I compete, I think I can go up against anyone and win a battle. For me, whether he’s 5-6 or 6-6, I’m going to go into the corner the same way trying to win the battle. - JT Compher
He hasn’t yet had the opportunity to meet Sabres general manager Tim Murray but is confident that he’ll be able to impress the new leaders in Buffalo’s front office with his on-ice performance.
“For me, it’s just going to be about playing the same game. I know at times they have come up to see me and I’ll have a chance this summer at development camp to leave my mark, a first impression on them,” Compher said. “I think if I just play my game and focus on myself, I hope they like the way I play and what I can bring to the team.”
Earning his degree is a priority for him as well even it takes him a few extra years. He said if the Sabres want him to begin his professional career, he’ll certainly listen, but he’s not in any rush at the moment. He’s currently locked in on competing for the national championship both this year and in the years to come.
“Right now I’m just focused on playing at Michigan and one day, if they want to talk about that kind of stuff, I’m obviously always open,” he said. “It’s my dream to play in the NHL.”
Red Berenson has been behind the Wolverines bench for 30 seasons and has turned Michigan into one of the most prestigious programs in the country. The opportunity to play for Berenson is one of the reasons Compher chose to go to Ann Arbor.
“He’s definitely one of the reasons I came to Michigan along with the tradition and the program that he’s built. I was excited to play for him and it hasn’t disappointed. You can tell the great knowledge he has and he almost wants to be out there on the ice with you,” Compher said.
“With Coach Berenson, grades are really important. He’ll find out if you’re not going to class. [He’ll] ask the teachers, ask our adviser and he’s really, really big on getting your degree and going to class.”
Michigan handily defeated No. 1 Minnesota last weekend 6-2 on home ice. Compher believes that if they can play keep up that level of play, they’ll have a great shot at the national championship.
"I’ve had a lot of fun with my teammates. It’s been a good year. It’s been a little up and down for the team but I think that overall, the guys have been great," he said. "Being a freshman, the coaches have been great giving us opportunities so it’s been a good year."
The third-seeded Wolverines open the Big Ten Tournament with a match against Penn State on Thursday at 3 p.m. EST at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The winner of the game will play Friday afternoon against Wisconsin. All tournament games can be seen on the Big Ten Network.