March 27, 2012

Michigan hockey could see early departures

As John Beilein and Michigan basketball fans have unfortunately learned lately, the offseason isn't always calm. Hockey coach Red Berenson knows this all too well, and with his team's season ending March 23, the question now becomes: will it be a quiet summer for U-M hockey?

Typically, it is not. At least not since 2000 anyway. Michigan has seen at least one player (to have signed a letter of intent or worn the winged helmet) leave the program in every year since 2000, including multiple departures in 2001 (two), 2002 (two), 2005 (three), 2007 (three) and 2011 (two).

In total, 19 players have left Ann Arbor to sign a professional contract before exhausting their collegiate eligibility. And this list does not include players kicked out of school (like Kevin Quick in 2008) or recruits that renege on their verbal commitment (like Lucas Lessio in 2010).

Some years, Berenson sees it coming, like with Jack Johnson and Andrew Cogliano both leaving after their sophomore campaigns in 2007. And other years, he's blindsided, like when Max Pacioretty left in 2008.

Berenson, like every coach in his position, has a process he will take with his potential departures (when they afford him the chance, and not all of them do), and while he usually sells them on returning, once in awhile, he gives them his OK to leave.

"Cogliano and Jack left after their second year and they both stepped right into the NHL, and I can't blame them for that," he said.

"'Are you ready to play in the NHL? Do you think there is a player that graduated from Michigan that would give up his senior year to play in the American League?'

"There is no way. And now that we have Coach Wiseman on board, and he coached in the AHL last year, he is living proof. 'Is that a developmental league? Will you be more ready to play in the NHL playing in the American League for a year than you would be if you stayed at Michigan?'

"So that's what we talk about: 'Your preparation, your development, and then graduation. Why did you come to school to start with? Just to play hockey? If you did, then you came to the wrong place. We graduate players here.'

"Unless they're too good for college hockey and they're going to step right into the NHL because then there is something to talk about."

This summer, there are again a few high-profile candidates that will be watched closely from now until September: sophomore defenseman Jon Merrill, freshman forward Phil Di Giuseppe and incoming freshman defender Jacob Trouba. While junior forward Lindsay Sparks may also leave for a better opportunity.

A second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2010, the 6-3, 206-pound Merrill has the most NHL-ready game, but maturity issues off the ice cost him half his sophomore season and the feeling in hockey circles is he has to repair his image and prove himself one of the nation's top blue liners (a task he should have accomplished this year) before the Devils will make a serious run at him.

"I haven't spoken to anyone yet. I want to take my time and make the right decision," Merrill said.

However, Berenson, and other sources, are confident he will be back.

"Right now, his heart is at Michigan," Berenson said. "I don't see him doing anything."

Di Giuseppe is in his draft year, and will likely be a second- or third-round pick. Earlier in the season, the 6-1, 200-pounder was regarded as a potential late first-rounder, but his stock has dropped some. had heard through a source close to the family that Di Giuseppe would listen to offers this summer from the NHL team that drafts him or from OHL teams, but that talk has died down, and strong confidants believe he will be back for his sophomore season, telling that "the family feels it is in Phil's best interest to continue at Michigan and stay away from the OHL."

A refrain that Di Giuseppe himself echoed Monday.

"I love it here. I don't want to leave this place," he said. "When it comes to the rink, and off ice with the guys, it's just the most fun I've ever had, and I wouldn't want to leave this place for anything.

"A couple weeks ago I was talking to one of my buddies that had a chance to play at Michigan but he was a first-round OHL pick and he decided to play major juniors, like Lucas Lessio did, and he just told me he regrets his decision.

"It's hard being at that young age with the way they come after you and try to sell you that's the 'Canadian way' but I made a great decision to come here, and I wouldn't change it."

Playing for the U.S. National Team Development Program, the 6-2, 194-pound Trouba is a projected top-10 pick at this summer's NHL Entry Draft June 22, and depending who selects him, that team may push for him to sign this summer.

"The first-rounders get a lot of pressure," Berenson noted.

In fact, of the nine U-M first-round picks since 2000, six of them left school early, only forward Eric Nystrom (2002 Draft), defenseman Mark Mitera (2006 Draft) and defender Chris Summers (2006 Draft) staying all four years.

But Trouba is a Michigan native (Rochester), is a great fit at U-M and understands the growth opportunity both on the ice and off he can have if he plays for the Wolverines, at least for a few years. And the chance to play, potentially, with Merrill is very appealing to him, a source has shared with

That leaves the 5-9, 176-pound Sparks, who would fall more into the 'disgruntled' category than seeking a professional contract.

After spending much of his first two seasons a healthy scratch, Sparks worked to become a mainstay in the lineup this year, and at first, it looked like he would occupy a consistent role, scoring five goals with six assists in Michigan's first seven games. He had just two more assists the rest of the season, though (and didn't score another goal), while finding himself a scratch in 14 games, including all five postseason contests.

It may just be time for him to move on, though, it is too early to say his departure is likely. More apt, it's possible.

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