ANN ARBOR — With Michigan's hockey team struggling midway through last season, head coach Mel Pearson paired freshman Quinn Hughes and junior Joseph Cecconi together to generate more offense from his defensemen.
The move did just that. Hughes, the seventh-overall pick by the Vancouver Canucks in June's NHL draft, had four goals and 15 assists in his final 21 games after registering one goal and nine assists in his first 18 games.
Cecconi, this year's team captain, had two goals and 13 assists in his last 18 games after just 12 points in his first 22 games.
Not coincidentally, the Wolverines drastically improved during the second half of the year, finishing the season on a 14-5-1 run before losing to Notre Dame in the Frozen Four.
Hughes discusses team chemistry and his relationship with Cecconi on and off the ice:
"I think they are, if not the best, one of the best pairings in college hockey and have the potential to have a great year," Pearson said after practice on Monday. "They have to stay healthy, have to play within themselves and have to make sure they complement each other on the ice. They did that the second half of last year and I expect them to pick up right where they left off."
Hughes had a whirlwind of a spring and summer, beginning with the World Championships in May. He had a strong showing playing with the U.S. as the only college player on the roster.
His play during the second half of last season and at the World Championships made him a consensus top 10 pick heading into the draft, where he was selected seventh overall.
The 5-10, 175-pound Orlando, Florida native contemplated whether to sign a professional contract with the Canucks or return to Michigan to complete some "unfinished business."
The desire to win a national championship and continue to get an education trumped any contract offer from Vancouver.
"I went back and forth a lot," Hughes said of his decision after Monday's practice. "It is pretty much on your mind the whole day. For me, it just came down to Michigan life and going to class and going to practice.
"I think everyone on the team thinks we can do better this year. We know how tough it is and how many good teams there are, but we feel confident in our abilities."
With Hughes back in the fold, the Wolverines have a legitimate Hobey Baker Award candidate as the best player in college hockey. He finished second among Big Ten defensemen in scoring with 29 points last season as an 18-year-old.
Hughes enters this season as one of six unanimous Big Ten preseason watch list selections. He knows there is plenty of hype surrounding him this season but is only focused on what he can control.
"I'll tell you what, I had a lot more pressure on me last year than this year," Hughes said. "Your draft year is the worst (last season). I am not too worried about anything like that (preseason accolades) this year.
"I am just having fun trying to get better every day. I am just going to try and bring my best every night. It is not only the games this year, it is about getting stronger in the weight room, getting a second year of education. Those are the big things for me."
Cecconi, a 2015 fifth-round draft pick of the Dallas Stars, said he also had the opportunity to sign a pro contract this summer but opted to return for his senior season.
"The main thing was I didn't want to give up on my teammates and classmates here, especially (fellow seniors) Nick Boka and Brendan Warren," Cecconi said. "And I want to win. I want to win at Michigan and bring home a national championship."
Hughes was happy to hear his partner would be back again as well.
"We clicked last year, and I think a big part of that is because we are close off the ice," Hughes said. "It helps when we are on the ice for sure. I like Joe a lot. Our games complement each other well. I think that should be good for both of us."
Michigan opens the season against Vermont at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Yost Ice Arena.
This article is written by Ryan Zuke from MLive.com, Walker, Mich. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.