Michigan will miss Jon Merrill for the next six weeks while he recovers from a cracked vertebrae, but junior defenseman Mac Bennett showed last week against RIT, and will prove again tonight against Bentley, that he's more than capable of filling the void.
When Merrill went down in an exhibition against Windsor Oct. 9, there was legitimate reason for consternation. The junior figured to be Michigan's top defender this year, at the very least U-M's top offensive defenseman, and the Maize and Blue would miss his presence in the defensive zone and on the power play.
What Michigan needed was for everyone to raise their game a little bit to compensate, and while most of the blue liners did just that in a split with Rochester Institute of Technology Oct. 11-12, Bennett skated at an incredibly high level, realizing his immense potential as a top two-way defenseman.
"I thought he was strong on Thursday when we weren't as good defensively, and he was even better on Friday - like he definitely stepped up," head coach Red Berenson said.
"He's in a good way right now. He has confidence. He knows he's a captain and a leader on this team and he has to play well because the team needs him, maybe more than they did three weeks ago before Jonny went down."
The 6-0, 193-pound Bennett was the Montreal Canadiens' third-round selection in 2009, the scouts seeing a dynamic skater that could use his speed, hockey IQ and offensive instincts to become a man-advantage quarterback in addition to a stout defender. And in his first two seasons, he showed some flashes, contributing six goals and 27 assists, with a plus/minus of plus-28, in 73 games.
"I don't think I'll ever realize my potential because every step I make pushes it further," Bennett said.
"I can't get complacent, I know that. I just have to come in every day making sure I'm doing the little things right, and making the extra effort to be a better player."
There is a learning curve with every player that takes time to progress. When Bennett looks at footage of his play now, he notices all the little things he can improve upon, which is actually a sign of just how far he's come.
"If I watched a game from my freshman there would be a few things that would jump out at me immediately, but after being here for so long and becoming comfortable, it's only the details that stick out - like stick on puck, moving my feet when I'm coming out of the zone," he said.
"I didn't like my puck retrievals against RIT. I have to head-check more. There are still little things in the defensive zone I can improve. I thought offensively I had some jump, which is good, and my neutral-zone play was pretty good, but I have to skate more coming out of my own zone. There were a few times where I'd break the puck out and my feet were stagnant and I was looking to make a pass.
"I can be better. But it's good to see that when I look at video it's not, 'Oh my god, look at that.'"
Bennett had a goal and an assist in the series with the Tigers, and was the only defenseman to finish plus-2 over the two games.
"We've seen glimpses of great puck touches and great skating and great rushes from Mac Bennett, and now you can see it's starting to come together - he has the whole package," Berenson said. "He's bigger, he's stronger defensively. He's really involved. He's not just doing what he's good at but doing all the other things too."
The Canadiens had two scouts in attendance and they also came away impressed.
"Our guys liked his poise out there, his ability to handle and move the puck," said Trevor Timmins, Montreal's Director of Amateur Scouting. "He's a gifted skater. That's the one thing that he can rely on to get him to the NHL. He's not a big guy so he's had to add some size and strength, but he's in a great situation at Michigan, with some outstanding coaching, and we're seeing that development there.
"Similarly to Greg Pateryn last season, this season Mac is being leaned on to log a lot of ice time, and to play in all situations - be a leader on the team - and that provides Mac with greater confidence in his ability.
"He's just going to keep developing his game with all the ice time he's getting."
Michigan hosts Bentley tonight in a single-game series with the puck dropping at 7:35 p.m. It shouldn't be a difficult game, but it is an opportunity for Bennett and his blue line brethren to gain even more confidence leading into next weekend's series with Miami (Ohio).
"Jonny being who he is, he's a big part of the defensive corps and losing him definitely hurts but between the other defensemen we have on this team, we have the talent and the depth to still be really solid there and be a strength for our team," Bennett said.