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March 25, 2013

Three questions: Who could leave this offseason?

Michigan's NCAA Tournament streak is over, but the Wolverines should be back in the postseason next year with the arrival of a talented freshman class and a strong nucleus, led by presumed captain Mac Bennett. What will this offseason hold? We discuss in today's Three Questions.

Will this be a quiet offseason for the Maize and Blue?

Doubtful. No, scratch that, impossible. Let's start with Kevin Clare. The junior defenseman missed 19 games with injuries and was a scratch in the final 14 games of the year. TheWolverine.com has learned that he was indefinitely suspended (though likely also injured) and it is our belief that he will not return next season, realizing that U-M is not the right fit.

In the pro department, junior defenseman Jon Merrill is expected to sign an NHL contact with the New Jersey Devils. Though Merrill could still improve his game at the college level, and though he is said to really enjoy college life, Merrill has missed parts of each of the past two seasons (suspension in 2012 and injuries in 2013) and is thought to have too much at stake to risk another year at Michigan.

Is his game NHL ready? Depends who you ask. Merrill thinks one or two steps ahead of almost everyone else on the ice. He's a terrific skater and he makes crisp passes and smart plays, but yesterday's loss to Notre Dame continued to expose his weakness against big, physical, forechecking forwards. He simply doesn't play with strength, but he never has. He needs the proper defensive partner and he should be fine.

Rookie blue liner Jacob Trouba, meanwhile, could also go pro though sources expect him to return for at least one more season in Ann Arbor. The 6-2, 195-pounder was the CCHA's Best Offensive Defenseman this year and excelled down the stretch for the Maize and Blue on both ends of the rink. He could probably play for the Winnipeg Jets right now, and they will take a run at him, but for now, we put his odds at returning at 60-40.

Three more to keep an eye on: sophomore forwards Alex Guptill and Phil Di Giuseppe, and freshman center Boo Nieves. All three should be back for another season, especially Nieves, who comes from a well-grounded family that preaches academics.

Guptill has led U-M in scoring with 16 goals in each of the past two seasons and hit his stride down the stretch, scoring eight times with nine assists in Michigan's final 10 games, but he clashed with the coaches earlier in the year and could decide to take his skills elsewhere. Still, we expect him to return.

Same with Di Giuseppe, who hasn't impressed the Carolina Hurricanes yet with two rather pedestrian seasons of 11 and nine goals, respectively. The smooth-skating left-winger has the speed, the stick and the shot to be a dynamic offensive player, but he has to put it together before his NHL parent team would likely come calling.

Finally, junior defenseman Mac Bennett might have been a candidate to keep an eye on a year ago or so, but the Rhode Island native is expected to wear the 'C' next season and he's become as Blue as any Wolverine on the team. He will be back.

How much of this late-season run will carry over to next year?

I expect most of it because in these past five weeks the truest sense of a team was forged. Senior alternate captain Lee Moffie admitted yesterday there was locker room divide for much of the year (as we reported in Inside The Fort) but that the seniors grabbed control, the younger players and the troublemakers all bought in, and the results were … well, they speak for themselves.

Bennett will be in charge from the get-go next season, and with the help of other strong leaders - likely alternate captains Derek DeBlois and Andrew Copp - the locker room should be more harmonious. Bennett won't put up with the crap that confounded this team for most of the year, and more importantly, the coaching staff won't. Head coach Red Berenson has three more seasons left on his contract before an expected retirement, and he wants to go out on top, so if there are anchors on the team they will be dealt with more quickly.

Much of course will depend on Michigan's goalies. Freshman Steve Racine was the breakout player of the past 10 games, going 8-1-1 with a 2.10 goals against average and a .921 save percentage - numbers that over the course of an entire campaign would have ranked him fourth and fourth in the single-season annals. U-M will continue to recruit a goalie, but if Racine can play this well, he will the clear-cut No. 1 backstop for the Maize and Blue.

What is a fair expectation for the Wolverines in 2014?

Michigan has an incredibly talented freshman class set to arrive, one heavy on skill and high-character kids. Forwards Tyler Motte, J.T. Compher and Evan Allen among others should add some much-needed offense to the Maize and Blue while both Michael Downing and Nolan De Jong should step in as starters on the blue line.

If Trouba returns, and Guptill, Di Giuseppe and Nieves, U-M's returning core will be outstanding, featuring depth across four forward lines and a defense as experienced and skilled as any in the country. In other words, back to the same expectations that have always been the standard at Michigan - a conference title and a Frozen Four run.

The advent of the Big Ten Conference must be navigated and we don't know how that will impact the regular season, but the Wolverines should be good enough a year from now to win its league and make the NCAA Tournament. If the underclassmen (sans Clare and Merrill) return, Michigan will play for the national title in 2014.


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