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Is It Panic Time for Michigan?

I try not to show too much bias in my coverage here, but in all honesty, I probably wouldn't be writing a post like for a school like Western Michigan or Alaska-Anchorage. But I thought this was pretty interesting and worth discussing. I've mentioned before that Michigan could be thin on defense for the 2007-2008 season, but I decided to take a little closer look at it.

This upcoming season, Michigan should have one of their strongest defenses in years. They will have seven defenseman ranging from excellent to pretty good. Those defenseman will be Matt Hunwick, Jack Johnson, Mark Mitera, Chris Summers, Jason Dest, Steve Kampfer, and Tim Cook. That's a pretty formidable backline.

But the following season, they will lose Hunwick, Dest, and Cook to graduation, bringing the total down to four defenseman. Jack Johnson will be arguably the best player not signed to an NHL contract next season, so it's unlikely that he'll return for his junior season. Three defenseman. There have been rumors that Mark Mitera, who was a first round pick of Anaheim, will play one more season at Michigan before bolting to the pros. Mitera told NHL.com "As of right now, I committed to going back to school next year. Down the road, you know, we'll see how the cards fall and what's going to happen." In any case, Michigan can't count on him being back for 2007. Two defenseman. Chris Summers was also a first round draft pick in this summer's NHL draft, and while it's probably not likely that he'll sign a pro contract, there are no guarantees, especially when it comes to Michigan players signing pro contracts. That means that in a worst case scenario, Steve Kampfer could be the only regular returning to the blueline for Michigan in 2007. It is very likely that Michigan will have to replace at 4 or 5 defenseman for the 2007 team.

There are a few options already on Michigan's roster. Jon Montville got called up from the Club Hockey Team in December while Johnson and Mitera participated in the World Junior Championships, and ended up dressing in 20 games in the second half of the season, but only saw a handful of shifts per game. Forward Danny Fardig also played some defense while with the NTDP program, and could make the move back if necessary. But both players would probably never see a regular shift at defense, and likely couldn't be used in late game situations.

That means the majority of Michigan's defenseman for 2007 will have to be recruits. So far Michigan has recruited USHL defenseman Tristin Llewellyn, who is considered one of the better players for his age group, and Chad Langlais, a smaller defenseman who was excellent in his first season in the USHL. That is a good start for Michigan, but they'll likely need to add at least two more defenseman for 2007 to make sure they have the depth necessary. It may seem like Michigan has time to correct this, considering the 2007 class of freshmen won't report to campus for another 12+ months, but the clock is ticking, and there is actually less time than one might think.

Michigan has found themselves in a similar position before. Michigan needed three defenseman for their 2003 recruiting class. They took care of one of those spots early on when they got a commitment from elite NTDP defenseman Matt Hunwick in January of 2002. But they didn't get another commitment until August of 2002, when they got a commitment from USHL defenseman Jason Dest. They then got Tim Cook out of the USHL in October of 2002.

Granted, there are dozens of circumstances at play here, but did not getting more elite level prospects early on, and instead taking two USHL defenseman later hurt Michigan? Dest and Cook haven't been terrible for Michigan, and they have yet to play their senior season, where they should be their most dependable, but up to this point, depth on defense has been a huge weakness for Michigan in their three years.

In their freshmen season, Michigan lost a 2-1 lead to Boston College in the third period, after rotating four defenseman basically the whole game. BC scored the winner in overtime off a face-off after a four minute stretch without a whistle. Michigan was forced to put out their third defensive pairing after the long stretch without a whistle, and BC was able to take advantage.

The next year, Michigan built a 3-0 lead against top seed Colorado College, but their defense could not hold onto the lead and Michigan eventually lost the game 4-3.

Last season, Michigan struggled with late game defensive breakdowns, which caused them to have their worst season in over a decade.

That's not to say that Dest and Cook have been terrible, nor that they deserve all the blame for the past three seasons. They've both been serviceable defenseman, but not quite what Michigan needed to push them over the top in the NCAA tournament. One has to wonder, with the talented teams Michigan should field in the future, if a similar lack of depth on defense could cost them an opportunity to get back to the Frozen Four, and possibly win a 10th national title.