While the last few seasons, and likely this current one as well, have been disappointments for the University of Michigan, largely stemming from their inability to develop defensemen and goalies, one area where the Wolverines have unquestionably excelled is their development of elite offensive producers.
Dylan Larkin, Tyler Motte, JT Compher and even Zach Werenski all came to Michigan with impressive pedigrees out of the US National Team Development Program. All four were considered very talented all-around players, but the biggest knock on all four in the year prior to enrolling at Michigan was that they lacked true elite scoring ability. But all four developed into elite scorers during their time at Michigan, and have continued that success at the NHL level, minus Compher, who appears on the cusp of the NHL after some early success in the AHL.
Enter Michigan freshman Will Lockwood, a third round pick of the Vancouver Canucks last summer, who, to this point, matches that description exactly. Lockwood came out of the NTDP program last season, and in our NHL Draft profile on him, we mention flashes of finishing ability, but overall say he’s a fast two-way player with limited offensive upside.
I took a closer look at Lockwood when Michigan faced off against Lake Superior State on November 25th at Yost Ice Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan, to get a better sense of how Lockwood was developing.
Lockwood hasn’t quite taken off in the same way as the others mentioned above yet, but a dozen games into his NCAA career, he is Michigan’s top scorer and has clearly established himself as their number one option at forward.
Here it is worth noting that while they’re wearing the same jersey, the situation of Lockwood is drastically from a Larkin or Motte or Compher. Michigan’s top five scorers in Larkin’s one year in Ann Arbor were all drafted prospects and have all already played in the NHL. Motte and Compher took off last year playing together alongside the tremendously talented Kyle Connor.
Lockwood has no such supporting cast. The Wolverines only have two other drafted forwards on their roster, a third and seventh round pick, and at this point, no other players that look like even a moderate bet to play in the NHL. That has positives and negatives. On the plus side, Lockwood is pretty much the guy for Michigan’s offense. He sees top line minutes and Michigan’s top power play unit runs the puck through him, and he also gets penalty kill time. So there is a lot of ice time for him. But he’s also not getting the same support and easy opportunities he’d get from playing with a great college player like Connor.
Lockwood has spent the first half of his rookie year playing right wing on the first line with center Jake Slaker, a 20-year-old freshman that produced good, not great junior numbers, and talented but maddeningly inconsistent left wing Alex Kile.
Lockwood’s best asset remains his speed. He’s great in open ice. He’s got the agility to side-step checks to get through the neutral zone, and his speed keeps opposing defensemen off-balance and forces them to be conservative with their gaps, allowing him to gain easy zone entry. Even though he gained the zone quite easily on most rushes, he sometimes struggled to set up possession once inside the zone.
The other big asset his good skating provides him is a quick burst off his first step. Lockwood is excellent in puck retrieval, which allows his team to extend possessions and maximize offensive zone time. He’s not very good in physical one-on-one battles along the boards, but can win battles cleanly by being first to a loose puck along the boards and making a quick spin before the defender has a chance to check him.
The big area Lockwood needs to improve on is getting stronger on the puck. His quickness could really be a much bigger offensive asset if he had the ability to gain a step on a defender, then lower his shoulder and use that extra bit of position for leverage to muscle his way to the net. He’s not there yet though. He’s knocked off the puck a little too easily right now. That should come with a few years spent in the weight room though.
Most of the offensive chances that he creates are the result of his speed, not necessarily crafty play-making. That’s not terrible, since his speed is a legit weapon, but it makes him a little one-dimensional. His shot is heavy, though it doesn’t have elite accuracy. The Wolverines like to set him up on the left half-wall on the power play where he can create a little with his speed or use that shot. His passing ability isn’t particularly noteworthy. He has more goals than assists so far this year, but some of that comes with not being paired with big scorers.
Overall, I’m not ready to put Lockwood in the Larkin/Compher/Motte category yet, but I still see the potential, and I think he’s in a good position where he’s going to get lots and lots of opportunities to develop the skill side to his game. He’s still at least two more seasons after this one from being ready to sign with the Canucks, but definitely shows potential to be a reliable third or fourth liner with great speed in a few years, with perhaps some upside of playing more of a scoring role if he can continue to develop that area of his game.