Now that football has ceased, a glance at some ongoing sports you may not have paid much attention to yet.
They're real bad
photo not meant to reflect poorly on Jack Lafontaine [James Coller]
Let us cut to the chase. This is the worst Michigan hockey team since Red Berenson rescued the program from its mid-80s doldrums. The three Michigan teams that missed the tourney prior to last year were at least within shouting distance of a bid. Flip a game or two and those guys squeeze into the tournament.
This year's team is 6-7-1 and currently 31st in RPI, in the bottom half nationally. Compounding matters: they're probably the luckiest team in the country. After getting bombed by Penn State their Corsi* is 59th out of 60 teams, ahead of only Alaska-Anchorage. They've survived because their goalies have a collective .927 save percentage, and that has nothing to do with the quality of shots they've faced. While having a good save percentage is, you know, good, SV% is a notoriously fickle stat requiring something more than a full NHL season to produce anything even sort of predictive. Michigan's ranking there could be skill; it could be luck. If it's the latter, Katie bar the door.
The eye test is little better. They were just blown off the ice by Penn State 6-1 and 5-1; when they played LSSU it looked like a bad WCHA team playing itself. Jake Slaker, a 20-year old former St. Lawrence recruit, went from nowhere to the top line. He's scoring some; he's also –9.
Without a turnaround for the ages the only thing keeping this team from the cellar of the Big Ten is Michigan State.
*[Your percent of all shot attempts in a game. Broadly more predictive than actual goals.]
Slaker, a late add, went from St. Lawrence commit to M's top line [Coller]
Last year's team was fool's gold that forestalled Red Berenson's perpetually impending retirement yet again. They had an insane amount of Talent. Tyler Motte, Kyle Connor, and Zach Werenski went directly to the NHL, with JT Compher not far behind. Those four guys drove so much of Michigan's play, and they also lost two productive scoring line wingers in Justin Selman and Boo Nieves.
A decent but not great incoming recruiting class could not replace that production. The academic suspension of promising freshman Cooper Marody (10-14-24 a year ago) did not help. This team has two guys—Alex Kile and Will Lockwood—who look like top six forwards on a good Michigan team.
The defense is hypothetically deep and good, but in practice teams are piling up excellent scoring chances because Michigan can't exit their own zone, can't enter the opponent zone, and are giving up the constant parade of odd-man rushes that's been characteristic of the program over the past few years.
All of this traces back to the head coach. Every player with an opportunity to go pro does so as quickly as possible, even guys like Andrew Copp who are total shocks. Marody's suspension is just about unprecedented in hockey. For years Red has tolerated guys like Tristin Llewellyn and Michael Downing who take awful penalties and constantly pinch at the wrong time.
Even last year's massive pile of talent was outshot 49-27 in a 5-2 loss to North Dakota in the second round of the tournament. Michigan had an NHL first line and the most prolific rookie defenseman in the NHL this year and still got blown off the ice by a program it used to look at as a peer. What does this program look like with good, but not transcendent talent?
Is there any hope?
Not realistically. This isn't a one year issue, but a steady decline over the last half decade that last year's talent managed to defy. This team still has more talent (9 draft picks!) than the majority of teams they'll play in the Big Ten, but one of the teams they have more on-paper talent than just blew them off the ice. One of the others, Ohio State, is sixth in RPI.
Michigan teams have picked themselves off the mat at midseason before and gone on runs to make or narrowly miss the tourney; the difference between those teams and this one is the distance they'd have to go to go from losing games to winning them.
Suck it up and wait it out, I guess. I have to imagine that a fourth missed tournament in five years would be the point at which Red Berenson walks away to prevent damaging his legacy even further. Michigan would have good options afterwards, but the point to talk about that is later.