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Ryan Zuke | MLive.com | October 8, 2018

10 things to know about Michigan hockey coming off Frozen Four run

ANN ARBOR -- Michigan's hockey team opens the 2018-19 season at home on Saturday against Vermont.

The Wolverines, who finished 22-15-3 last season, are coming off their 25th Frozen Four appearance in program history and first since 2011.

Below are 10 things you should know about the team heading into the season.

1. The Wolverines won't be sneaking up on any teams this season. They enter the year ranked No. 4 in U.S. College Hockey Online's preseason poll after an impressive late-season run in 2018-19 to reach the Frozen Four before losing to Notre Dame 4-3 on a goal in the final 10 seconds.

"We're building off it," Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said of the team's run to the Frozen Four. "You can't sweep it under the rug, you can't hide from it. You don't want to blow it up into something it wasn't, but at the same time, I think there is some unfinished business.

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"When you get a taste of it, I think that is the best thing about it for our team is that they did get a taste of getting close. They know what it takes to get there, and once they get there, they know they have a chance."

A big reason Michigan is ranked so high is because of the return of sophomore defenseman Quinn Hughes, who was selected seventh overall in the 2018 NHL draft by the Vancouver Canucks.

Hughes spent most of the summer contemplating whether to sign a professional contract or not, but he opted to come back to Michigan instead.

The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder was second among Big Ten defenseman last season in scoring with 29 points (five goals, 24 assists). He is one of six unanimous Big Ten preseason watch list selections this year and could be in the discussion for the Hobey Baker Award come April.

"We are ecstatic to have him back," Pearson said. "I just told that, just like our team, we are picked higher and there are higher expectations, and there will be for Quinn, too. He has high expectations for himself. I just have to make sure he relaxes and doesn't get too hard on himself, because he is a perfectionist.

"He wants to do well and he wants Michigan to succeed, but he has to understand there might be nights where it might not go his way. Everyone knows who he is now. He is a tremendous player and is going to have a great year and is going to play at the next level. He just has to make sure he is ready to go every game and plays up to his potential."

2. The line of Cooper Marody, Tony Calderone and Dexter Dancs was one of the best in the country last season. The trio combined for 122 points, with Marody finishing sixth in the nation in scoring with 51 (16 goals, 35 assists).

It will be tough for the Wolverines to duplicate that production this season, but they should have more depth.

3. Sophomore forward Josh Norris, a 2017 first-round pick, is likely to be the team's No. 1 center to begin the season after playing a shutdown role last year.

He had eight goals and 15 assists as a freshman, but Pearson said he believes Norris can elevate his offensive game.

"Josh looks excellent," Pearson said. "Just so much better than last year at this point. He is quicker, stronger, more confident."

4. Junior Jake Slaker finished fifth on the team in scoring with 15 goals and 12 assists, while junior Will Lockwood is back after missing the second half of last season with a shoulder injury.

He had four goals and seven assists in 17 games after registering 30 points as a freshman.

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Pearson said he also has high expectations for redshirt sophomore Luke Morgan, who sat out all of last season after transferring from Lake Superior State. He had 22 points as a freshman with the Lakers.

"He and Lockwood are going to be big pieces," Pearson said. "They are both good hockey players. It is going to take them a little bit to get up to game speed. They haven't played for a while but they are both very valuable, both very talented. They can both skate and add some offense to our team."

5. Junior Hayden Lavigne took reigns of the starting goaltending position midway through last season and was one of the best in the NCAA during the second half. He started each of the Wolverines' final 20 games, going 14-5-1 and allowing two goals or fewer in nine of those games.

Nevertheless, Lavigne's final numbers weren't great. He was fifth in the Big Ten with a 2.81 goals-against average and fourth with a .908 save percentage.

He still owns the starting job heading into this season, but Pearson said freshmen Strauss Mann and Jack Leavy have a chance to push him for playing time.

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Mann is the more highly-regarded prospect after he recorded a 1.86 GAA and a .932 save percentage last season with the Fargo Force in the United States Hockey League.

"We really liked Strauss," Pearson said. "He won a championship in prep school then went to the USHL and won a championship. He is a winner. He looks good.

"I think he is going to push Hayden. Jack has come in and has looked good, too. I think (goaltending coach) Steve Shields is happy with all three of them. We are going to create some competition there, but it is Hayden's job to lose. We expect him to have a real big year."

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

We are getting close, only 30 more days until we’re back at YOST!

A post shared by Hayden Lavigne (@hlavigne30) on

6. The Big Ten was one of the top conferences in the NCAA last season and is expected to be just as strong this season. The Wolverines were picked by league coaches to finish second behind Ohio State in 2018-19.

"We all know polls are just polls," Pearson said. "It is flattering at times when you are picked high, but we welcome expectations here. That is what we expect at Michigan.

"Now you have to go out and prove it. You always have something to prove, whether you are picked to finish last or first. We just have to play. We have a lot to prove to ourselves first and foremost, regardless of the polls. I think the guys are anxious. They know they have to go out and perform and do well on the ice."

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7. Last year's Big Ten champion and NCAA runner-up Notre Dame is predicted to finish third. All three teams reached the Frozen Four last season and are ranked in the top four in the USCHO.com preseason poll.

Overall, five of seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the USCHO.com poll.

"You look at that teams, I think everyone has improved," Pearson said. "Ohio State, they didn't lose anybody early. They kept their top players and look good. Notre Dame is obviously a good team. Minnesota has a new coach, Wisconsin is looking to bounce back, Penn State is top-10 depending what poll. Michigan State is improved. Every night in the Big Ten helps you prepare for any situation."

8. Last year's freshman class featured highly-touted NHL prospects Hughes and Norris, but this year's 10-player class doesn't have any NHL draft picks.

That doesn't mean Pearson isn't excited about what each of them can bring to the team. It is an older, more experienced class than Michigan has had in the past.

"They have adapted well," Pearson said. "Right from day one, the transition has been pretty smooth for them. I give credit to our upperclassmen to make them feel welcome. The freshmen all have something they add to this team. We just told them to come on in, be yourself and just play. We will work on the other things. It is a unique group. They all have something different to add. It is a big class. We need them to step in and help."

RELATED: USCHO Rankings 

9. The Wolverines return five of their top six defensemen from last season, but freshmen Nick Blankenburg and Jack Summers will be pushing to earn a role right away. Blankenburg, 20, had 16 goals and 26 assists for the Okotoks Oilers from the Alberta Junior Hockey League last season, while Summers, 19, had one goal and 10 assists in 58 games with the USHL's Tri-City Storm.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

📸 from tonight’s win over Waterloo! #GoBlue

A post shared by Michigan Ice Hockey (@umichhockey) on

Michigan also will need some freshmen forwards to step in and have an impact right away.

Jimmy Lambert, 21, registered 23 goals and 38 assists in 55 games with the Vernon Vipers of the British Columbia Hockey League last season, while Jack Randl, 18, had 20 goals and 12 assists in 49 games for the USHL's Omaha Lancers. He also spent some time with the U.S. National Development Program U-18 team last season.

RELATED: DI Men's Ice Hockey Championship History

Pearson said all of the freshmen will get in a game early in the season and lineup decisions will become more concrete after the first few weeks.

"It is going to be a revolving door a little bit early trying to get everybody into games to see what they can do," Pearson said. "Practices are one thing, games are another."

Pearson enters his second season at Michigan after spending the previous six years as the head coach at Michigan Tech, leading the Huskies to a 118-92-29 record and two NCAA Tournament appearances.

Pearson served as an assistant coach for Red Berenson for 23 years, beginning in 1988. Although Pearson said it felt like he never left Ann Arbor when he returned last year, there was an adjustment period the first half of the season as he continued to get to know his players and vice versa.

This year, he has a stronger rapport with the players, which he hopes leads to a faster start out of the gate.

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"I would say a it is a little less stressful, a little more settled," Pearson said of this season. "Last year, I was still trying to learn the players, with all the returnees, I know who they are, what they can do, what their weaknesses are, what their potential for growth is.

"And then the new players, I know all of them coming in. I think that is one area where you are more comfortable, you understand what you have. I think that helps ease things, but you still have to play and still have a lot to prove."

10. The Wolverines have three seniors this season, led by captain Joseph Cecconi.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Last year of pre game mac and cheese #RickyyyyyyB

A post shared by Joe Cecconi (@josephcecconi) on

"It is awesome," Cecconi said of being named captain. "Last year I had a leadership role (alternate captain), so that was the first time since playing U-16s I was able to experience that. Now being the captain, I can lead more and work harder on and off the ice."

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.

"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."

Boka, a defenseman, had one goal and six assists in 39 games last year, while Warren, a forward, had nine goals and six assists.

Notable home games for the Wolverines this season:

  • • Oct. 19 vs. Western Michigan
  • • Nov. 9-10 vs. Notre Dame
  • • Dec. 1 vs. Michigan State
  • • Feb. 8 vs. MSU
  • • Feb. 9 vs. MSU at Little Caesars Arena
  • • Feb. 22-23 vs. Ohio State

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 legal@newscred.com.