Yost Arena in Ann Arbor can be a fun place to play. With nine minutes to go before the game starts, the fans at the University of Michigan rink begin to sing the Canadian national anthem, even though only three Canucks are in the lineup that night. They even have a Maize and Blue-colored Canadian flag. The locals had a Texas flag when Chris Brown (now with Washington) skated there and New York Rangers speedster Carl Hagelin got a Swedish flag. Hagelin, who captained the Wolverines in his junior year, made such an impact that the team all signed that flag for him and the pep band learned Sweden's anthem for his final game.
But with success comes attrition and after making the NCAA tournament for more than two decades without missing, the Wolverines have been left at home the past two seasons. If they hope to return to the promised land, they're going to do it with youth.
Michigan is coming off a two-game sweep of American International, which in the glory days wouldn't even garner mentioning, but it brought the Wolverines record up to 4-5 on the year. The team had been swept itself by Michigan Tech (who, to be fair, are still undefeated) and things were looking grim early on. Fortunately, the home sweep of the Yellow Jackets has the team gaining confidence.
“It was a big weekend for us," said center J.T. Compher. "With how the season has gone so far, we had to take some strides and get some wins. It was good to get it under our belts but we know we're going to play some better teams and it's going to start next weekend.”
That's when the Wolverines take on an upstart Penn State squad that has looked dangerous in just its second true year of Division 1 hockey. But if Michigan is going to prevail, it will do so thanks to players such as Compher, the Buffalo Sabres second-rounder and sophomore assistant captain. In fact, a lot of underclassmen will have to be good for the team. The roster that iced American International on Saturday night featured just six juniors and seniors combined (not counting backup goalie Steve Racine).
But look at who did the damage in the 6-3 win and you'll find freshman center Dylan Larkin, the Detroit Red Wings first-rounder, with two points and 17-year-old frosh defenseman Zach Werenski with a pair as well. Werenski in particular was invaluable to the blueline corps, playing in all situations and demonstrating a level of skill and expertise far beyond his years. it also doesn't hurt that he comes in at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds.
“He's a special player," Larkin said. "To have that size...and he's so fluid with the puck. Always has his head up and poised to make the right play. You don't see that a lot with defensemen, especially how young he is, stepping into college hockey.”
Werenski is looking like he could threaten for a top-10 spot in the 2015 NHL draft and therein lies the rub in being a marquee NCAA program: Michigan attracts some of the best prospects in the world, but keeping them long-term is tricky. I would suspect Werenski would return for his sophomore campaign, but after that? He's probably in the NHL.
Think about this: Technically, this Michigan squad could have John Gibson in net, Jacob Trouba on defense and Max Domi up front this season, but those elite names either left early or never made it to campus, choosing major junior instead. The first two are in the NHL now anyways, but you can see the level of talent Michigan both attracts and sometimes loses due to the recruits' high trajectories.
And sure, this is also a problem for the Minnesotas and Boston Colleges of the world too, but for whatever reason the Wolverines haven't been able to recover as well lately. Michigan has dates with both those aforementioned teams this season, so the schedule doesn't get any easier from here on out.
The team will lose at least one player to the U.S. world junior squad (Compher) and possibly four (Werenski, Larkin and Chicago pick Tyler Motte). There are only two games on the docket during that span, but every match is going to be important this season.
It seems counterintuitive, but upperclassmen such as Florida selection Zach Hyman, Rangers prospect Boo Nieves and Jets pick Andrew Copp will have to hold the fort until the kids come back. Because a happy Yost crowd is one that gets to hear "Hail to the Victors" early and often.