On the ice, there hasn't been much to complain about with the Michigan Wolverines lately. The program has been a recruiting juggernaut, grabbing top-end talent both before and after said players were drafted into the NHL, often in the first round and sometimes in the top-five. Off the ice, this summer was filled with turmoil as an investigation by law firm WilmerHale (commissioned by the university) into coach Mel Pearson detailed numerous accusations of culture problems involving the coach and former director of hockey operations Rick Bancroft.
Pearson is now out and the interim head coach is Brandon Naurato, a former Wolverines player who cut his teeth as a player development consultant with the Detroit Red Wings. Last year was Naurato's first as an assistant coach with the program, so he wasn't involved in any of the alleged cultural problems, but either way he's bringing a positive mindset to the Wolverines.
"We have really good kids and we're just preaching 'Good Dudes Only,' " he said. "Everyone treats everyone the way they want to be treated: with respect. We haven't had any issues with work ethic, discipline or people not treating people the right way. It's really easy as a coach - I'm sure at some point in my career that will come up, but if we recruit the right type of people and the right type of families, we should be in a good spot moving forward."
Getting even the interim job at Michigan is a big deal, but the 37-year-old already had a pretty impressive network of coaching minds to draw from between his playing days and beyond. Mike Hastings, Mark Carlson and Red Berenson all coached Naurato, while his mentors with the Red Wings included Shawn Horcoff, Dan Cleary, Kris Draper, Steve Yzerman and Jeff Blashill. Oh, and he's already talked with University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.
There are also the skills and development experts Naurato knows, such as Adam Nicholas (Montreal Canadiens) and Brian Keane (Chicago Blackhawks). While Naurato doesn't want to be pigeonholed as just a "skills guy," a team that features Luke Hughes, Adam Fantilli and Frank Nazar does sound rather exciting with a young forward-thinking mind behind the bench.
"Our whole offensive philosophy is CPR: Creativity, Predictability and Responsibility," Naurato said. "Creativity, we want these guys to be themselves and do what they do well. We want to be predictable to each other, so when you're getting outnumbered or pressured, they know the routes they can run to support their teammates to break that pressure. And we want to be responsible to each other: We want to be ultra-aggressive and to do that, we need to know when to make the right decisions, when to jump, when to pinch. So we need the responsibility of F3 or other players on the ice to allow guys to be aggressive so that we don't have to sit back."
Being the boss may be new to Naurato, but he plans on using a lot of communication and empowering people in the program to do their jobs. As for that skills background, Naurato has been sure to give his young charges the resources - whether it's video clips from NHL games or drills - to continue on their development paths. Given that a number of Wolverines have already been drafted, some have been given directives already. All of that can benefit the whole group.
"A lot of these guys are drafted and have skating progressions from their NHL skating or development people," Naurato said. "So we're empowering them, almost like they're working for me at a summer skills session, to teach each other. Because when you teach, that's how you learn. When they do morning ice, we'll be out there to support and monitor them. But then there will be days when we're not out there and they just do it on their own and have a plan to do so."
Playing under Berenson, Naurato noticed that the legendary coach always gave freshmen an early opportunity to make an impact and he saw the positive effect that had. His team's newcomers include Fantilli, Nazar, Rutger McGroarty and Seamus Casey this season, so the potential is certainly there for big gains.
Last year's Wolverines were a high-octane bunch that made it to the Frozen Four semifinal before getting ousted by the eventual champs from Denver. While Michigan lost a lot of talent over the summer, expectations will still be high. And with Naurato behind the bench, we know the team will be exciting to watch because he wants his players to lean on their strengths.
"Do what you're great at," he said. "We'll figure out the other stuff as we go."