The University of Michigan hockey team started the season ranked third in the preseason USA Hockey national poll. But on the day the poll was released, I had the foresight to write this:
That's part of the reason why seemingly every year, there is a team that starts the year pretty highly ranked and ends up having a dreadful year--possibly looking in your direction, Michigan.
Not quite halfway into the season, Michigan sits with a terrible 5-8-2 overall record, seventh place in the CCHA, and looking like they'll need a miracle CCHA tournament run to continue their unprecedented 20+ year streak of making the NCAA tournament. The whole college hockey world is definitely looking in their direction as the biggest disappointment in college hockey this year.
So what has happened? Why is this team just not that good?
Early departures and losses to the CHL are one possible explanation. The Wolverines lost forward Chris Brown, who would have been a senior this year, in somewhat of a surprise last summer when he signed a pro contract with the Phoenix Coyotes. Incoming freshman defenseman Connor Carrick also bolted on the program late in the summer to play for the Plymouth Whalers. Add in some other key departures to the CHL, including committed players Jared Knight, Jack Campbell, John Gibson and Lucas Lessio, along with a handful of others that never officially committed but were definitely leaning to Michigan if they had gone that route like Matia Marcantuoni and that's a lot of talent that they are missing.
I have a tough time buying that as a viable excuse though. Losing Brown has certainly hurt. But he was a high 2nd round NHL draft pick. Expecting to get four years out of a player like that isn't really reasonable in this day and age. Frankly, they should have felt lucky to get three solid years, and not been counting on needing him so much as a senior. Carrick is a nice player, but I have a tough time believing Michigan's record is any different with him in the lineup. The CHL players would have been nice, but that's an issue Michigan has dealt with, quite successfully, since the days when Eric Lindros was using Michigan as leverage to get traded away from Sault Ste Marie.
The real issue is that Michigan just hasn't recruited well enough in recent years to make up for those losses in the same ways that they used to. I wrote a story in October of 2010 hypothesizing that Michigan may have been on a bit of a bubble after a few years struggling on the recruiting trail, especially at forward, and that bubble appears to have burst.
Armed with two more years of hindsight, however, the question as to why it is has changed for me a little bit. Did Michigan lose their golden touch in recruiting, or did they fall victim to some particularly weak birth years locally? Their recent recruiting success suggests they haven't completely fallen off. They seem to have netted the top local forwards for each of the next three birth years in '95 Tyler Motte, '96 Dylan Larkin, and '97 Brendan Warren. The problem is that there aren't really comparable Michigan-born talents in the '92, '93, and '94 birth years. The list of good local players they missed on playing college hockey elsewhere: Bryan Rust, Matt Berry, Matt DeBlouw, Austin Czarnik, is pretty short, and there were some extenuating circumstances with some of those players that gave Michigan no chance at them.
There's also a shorter, much simpler solution that is pretty easy to spot when you look at the stats. There's an old joke that if you didn't watch a college hockey game, and just attended a coach's post-game press conference/media scrum, you'd think there were only four people out on the ice: the two goalies and the two officials. The reason for that is that often times, college hockey games simply come down to which team has the better goal tending, and which team has the better special teams, and right now, Michigan is absolutely terrible at both.
In CCHA conference play, Michigan is dead last in scoring defense at 3.45 goals per game, a third of a goal worse than 10th place Northern Michigan. In terms of save percentage, 13 goalies in the league have played enough minutes to qualify for the league stats: Michigan's Steve Racine ranks 11th, Jared Rutledge ranks 13th. It's never entirely the goalie's fault, and Michigan's defense does contain a lot of offensive defensemen that aren't as strong in the defensive end, but it's not like there's been a lot of turnover from last year's team. Strictly defensively, I'd take the trade of Jacob Trouba for Jon Merrill straight up, especially when looking at how Merrill played late last year. They did lose Greg Pateryn to who logged a lot of ice time and was very solid, but is that really enough to justify a nearly 6% drop in save percentage?
Special teams isn't very pretty either. In conference play, they're a slightly below average 7th overall in power play, and 8th in penalty kill. Combine the two and Michigan ranks second-to-last in the league in combined special teams. That's bad, but perhaps more of a symptom than a cause. A goalie is always the team's best penalty killer, and talented scorers excel on the power play. Michigan is coming up really short in both of those areas.
There is some good news for Michigan. With the CCHA standings being such a crazy mess, they're just six points--essentially one sweep--behind 4th place, the final spot to earn a bye in the first round of the CCHA playoffs, and home ice in the second round. They'll get Jon Merrill back eventually and his presence should only help. The goal tending numbers can't get much worse. The downside is that the CCHA's poor play out-of-conference, Michigan included, means that they're unlikely to gain the 20+ spots in the RPI necessary to get into position for an at-large berth to the NCAA tournament. Unless they can get hot and capture some magic at Joe Louis Arena in late March, this looks like the end of Michigan's tournament streak.