Coming off a tough overtime loss in the NCAA championship game to end last season, the Michigan hockey team returns to the ice this Saturday night to drop the puck on the 2011-12 campaign.

The Wolverines have a heavy load to begin the new year as they will play five games in seven days, beginning with an exhibition game against the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Saturday night.  Monday the Wolverines host the U.S. National Team Development Program Under-18 Team in another exhibition.  Tuesday they play their first real contest against Niagara.  And next Friday and Saturday they host Bentley.

There’s been a lot of comings and goings during the off season.  Some expected, some not expected. 

Up front the Wolverines lost Carl Hagelin, Louie Caporusso, Scooter Vaughan, Matt Rust and Ben Winnett to graduation.  Forward Jacob Fallon, who was suspended for off ice issues, will also not return.  On the blue line they lost Chad Langlais to graduation, Tristin Llewellyn due to off ice issues (he would have been in the graduation category, too), and Brandon Burlon, who bypassed his senior year to sign with the New Jersey Devils.  In goal they lost Bryan Hogan.  And behind the bench they lost long time associate head coach Mel Pearson, who took the head coaching gig at his alma mater Michigan Tech.  Altogether that’s ten players and one coach, which is quite a bit.

THE OFFENSE
Hagelin, Caporusso, Vaughan, and Rust were four of the team’s top five scorers, too, and there’s no really proven scorers on the team beyond them.  Defenseman Jon Merrill is the team’s leading returning scorer with 25 points, which, as good as Merrill is, it’s also a bit worrisome that a defenseman is our top returning point producer.  I can’t remember the last time Michigan returned so little production from their forwards as this year and without a top notch freshman like Jeff Tambellini or T.J. Hensick, who knew was going to come in and put up big numbers.

Senior David Wohlberg and juniors Chris Brown and Kevin Lynch will be looked upon to step up offensively.  Wohlberg tied a career high with 15 goals last season and had a four game goal scoring streak before an injury ended his season early.

Lynch netted a career high 11 goals last season, though his overall production remains spotty.  He recorded just 16 points in each of his first two seasons and has gone long periods of time without seeing his name on the score sheet (Lynch went 18 games without a point last season).

Brown took a little bit of a step back offensively last season as he posted nine goals and 14 assists, which was down from his freshman campaign of 13-15-28.  But he also saw his plus/minus rating improve from a +6 his rookie year to +16 last season, and seven of his nine goals came during the second half of the year.

One more player poised to take another step forward is junior A.J. Treais, who saw his point production increase from 13 points his freshman year to 22 points his sophomore season.

But for the most part the offense is the biggest question mark going in to the season.  As I said, there’s no proven scorer to carry the load and it will most likely be scoring by committee while hoping some one has a break out year.

THE DEFENSE
The defense is perhaps the strongest aspect of the team on paper.  The Wolverines return five players and welcome three freshman in to the fold.

Sophomore Jon Merrill returns after a fantastic freshman season which saw him log tons of ice time and pick up several accolades along the way.  Merrill was named to the All-USCHO Second Team, Inside College Hockey All-Freshman Team, NCAA All-Frozen Four Team, All-CCHA Second Team, All-CCHA Rookie Team, and was a finalist for CCHA Rookie of the Year, Best Offensive Defenseman, and Best Defensive Defenseman.  All that as a freshman.  But there’s still room for improvement.  Despite looking like a veteran most of the season, Merrill had perhaps his worst performance in the NCAA championship game against Minnesota-Duluth with sloppy play and not looking comfortable against UMD’s speed and having to make quicker decisions.  Hopefully he has learned from the experience and will take his game up a notch, be it UMD or Niagara.

Senior Greg Pateryn has been a steady presence on the Michigan blue line and saw his production almost triple last season.  Pateryn had career highs in goals (3), assists (14), points (17), and plus/minus (+15).  He had five points his freshman year and six points his sophomore season.

Junior Lee Moffie started to come to life last year with a career high eight goals and nine assists.  Five of his eight goals came on the power play, too.  He and sophomore Mac Bennett gelled on the blue line during the second half of the season and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pair together again.

Sophomore Kevin Clare also returns and is probably in line to start on the third pairing with one of the freshmen.  Clare only saw action in 18 games as a freshman but did play the entire NCAA tournament run after Burlon went down with an illness.  He’ll be an interesting one to watch because he looked shaky in his limited play, yet ended up with a +12 rating.

THE GOALIES
There’s Shawn Hunwick.  And… well, there’s Shawn Hunwick.  The fifth year senior returns and it all rides on his back.  The past two years Hunwick stole the show with his second half performance and late season heroics, but now he’s pretty much the only option.  Hunwick split time with Bryan Hogan to begin last season and it looked like the latter was poised to take over as the No. 1 goalie until a groin injury during warm ups at The Big Chill at the Big House changed those plans.  The team was simply playing better in front of Hogan on Saturdays than Hunwick on Fridays.  But a shut out at The Big Chill, a prolonged injury for Hogan, and Hunwick stepping up his game and that was all she wrote.  This was his team till the end.

The diminutive netminder who was recruited by Red Berenson to “never play a game” helped lead Michigan to the Great Lakes Invitational title, CCHA regular season title, and NCAA championship game.  He won the CCHA Best Goaltender Award for lowest conference goals against average (1.95), set a Michigan single season record with a .925 save percentage, and was named to the All-USCHO First Team, about the only organization to honor his play.  Anyone who watched Hunwick play saw him time and time again bail out the Wolverines, yet he was always overlooked when it came to the accolades.  And as this season starts, USCHO just released a preseason top 10 list of goalies to watch and the organization that voted him First Team now doesn’t even consider him top 10.  Really?  Wow.  Snubbed again.  I’d rather watch Shawn continue to take care of business on the ice than worry about awards, though seeing him recognized from time to time would be nice.

After Hunwick there’s Jack Campbell, John Gibson, uh… sophomore walk-on Adam Janecyk, who played in one game for one minute, 32 seconds and made one save.  And new third string walk-on sophomore Luke Dwyer, who used to play for Ann Arbor Huron High School.  Maybe one of them is the next Shawn Hunwick in waiting.  On second thought, I’d rather not find that out.

Goaltending is one of the team’s strong points, but also one of the weak points.  Should anything happen to Hunwick… pray.

THE FRESHMEN
The Wolverines welcome eight freshmen to Ann Arbor.  They are forwards Alex Guptill, Zach Hyman, Andrew Sinelli, Travis Lynch and Phil Di Giuseppe, and defensemen Brennan Serville, Mike Chiasson, and Mike Szuma.

Michigan head coach Red Berenson recently told CCHA.com for a preview that Hyman, the Canadian Junior ‘A’ Player of the Year, has the best shot of playing among the freshmen.  A one time Princeton commit, Hyman tore it up with the Hamilton Red Wings and got a lot of hype after committing to Michigan, however as I pointed out back in May, we need to keep our expectations in check.

A poster on The Wolverine compared Hyman’s stats his last year to Andrew Cogliano and Louie Caporusso, who played in the same league.  Hyman posted 42-60-102 in 43 games this past season.  Cogliano in his last year with St. Michael’s had 36-66-102 in 49 games.  Caporusso in his last year with St. Michael’s had 29-44-73 in 49 games.  Where the flaws are in this comparison is that Hyman put up those numbers as an 18 year old in the league.  Cogliano and Caporusso’s stats were as 17 year olds.  Age certainly makes a difference in the Junior A ranks.  If you want to make a fair comparison, look at Hyman’s stats as a 17 year old, in which he put up 35-40-75 in 49 games.  That would put him more on par with Caporusso than Cogliano, which would make him a good player, but not the elite player he’s being hyped up to be.  The potential to be an elite player is there, though, if he doesn’t end up like senior year Louie.

I’m not expecting Zach to step in and score 20+ goals as a freshman like Michael Spath at The Wolverine predicted he could do, though maybe that extra year of age before going to college will help his cause.  Cogliano and Caporusso only netted 12 goals each their freshman year, and not even Michigan greats Mike Comrie, Andy Hilbert, Mike Cammalleri, and T.J. Hensick scored 20 goals their freshman year.  Only Jeff Tambellini has done it over the past 14+ years.  If Hyman can accomplish it, I’d be thrilled because we need the scoring punch.

Alex Guptill will be another forward to watch.  A third round draft pick of the Dallas Stars in 2010, Guptill jumped from Canadian Junior ‘A’ hockey to the USHL this past season, where he posted 25 points in 43 games with the Waterloo Black Hawks (not one of the better teams).  Guptill battled through injuries and Berenson commented that he didn’t think we saw Guptill perform to his potential last year because of that.  Guptill brings good size at 6’3, 189 pounds and I expect him to probably start on one of the bottom three lines.

Travis Lynch posted 20-24-44 for USHL Clark Cup runner-up Green Bay last season.  He’s expected to be a role player while chipping in offensively here and there (think Tim Miller).

Phil Di Giuseppe is the sleeper of the group.  The youngest player on the team, he doesn’t turn 18 years old until October.  He tallied 63 points in 49 games with the Villanova Knights of the Ontario Junior Hockey League last season and was the top 1993-born scorer in the league.  He participated in the NHL R&D Camp this past summer, which invites top prospects to attend, and apparently had a good showing there.  I don’t know what to expect from him this year, but he sounds like a kid where a year or two down the line his offensive potential is going to really shine through.

Andrew Sinelli had nine points in 45 games with Youngstown (USHL) last season.  He’ll probably be riding the pine with an occasional fourth line role.

Defenseman Brennan Serville was a third round pick of the Winnipeg Jets this past summer.  He posted 42 points in 55 games with Stouffville (OJHL) last season.  Berenson said he possesses “good smarts and good puck skills,” and I expect him to jump in to the defensive rotation immediately.

Mike Chiasson is the son of the former Detroit Red Wing blue liner.  He was captain of the Omaha Lancers last season and had 15 points and 41 PIM in 50 games.  Assistant coach Billy Powers said Mike is an “honest, smart, stay-at-home defenseman.”  As a 20 year old freshman, hopefully the added years of maturity will allow him to transition to the college game more smoothly should he be called upon to play.

Mike Szuma played for Flint of the North American Hockey League.  Sounds like he’s another solid defenseman with a little more offensive upside than Chiasson.  Powers said “he’s another intelligent, high hockey IQ defenseman who’s reliable.”

THE COACH
After Mel Pearson departed Ann Arbor, the Michigan assistant coaching job was one of the hottest openings of the summer.  Berenson narrowed it down to three former Wolverine greats—Brian Wiseman, Matt Herr, and Bill Muckalt, with Wiseman ultimately being offered the position.  Wiseman started out as an assistant coach with Princeton and last year was an assistant coach with the Houston Aeros of the American Hockey League, who lost in the AHL Finals.  Berenson said he was one of the first players back in the day who always wanted to return to Ann Arbor, and no doubt he’s excited to do so.  It will be fun to see what he brings to the table.

On a related coaching note, former Wolverine defenseman Mike Van Ryn took over one of the assistant coaching positions with Houston after Wiseman’s departure.  Van Ryn was an assistant with the Niagara Ice Dogs of the OHL last season.

THE HOCKEY SID
Bonus news… out is seven year hockey Sports Information Director Matt Trevor, who moved on to cover Michigan football and lacrosse.  In is former Atlanta Thrashers SID Rob Tillotson.  Lets see how many times he forgets to leave me credentials at the door!  Matt, if you’re out there, I kid, I kid (though it is true!).  Matt was awesome and made everyone feel welcome.  He always tried to take the time to stop by and chat with everyone during games, and typically whenever he did with me Michigan scored (that is true, too!).  Best of luck to Matt and welcome Rob!

WHAT TO EXPECT
An offense that is trying to find it’s identity and probably a lot of line shuffling during that process.  A defense that should be solid and reliable.  And a goalie who will hopefully pull some more magic out of his ass and steal some games for U-M.  I’m not expecting a first place finish, and think if there’s any year our streak of 21 consecutive NCAA appearances may be in jeopardy, this is it.  A lot needs to be figured out offensively for the Wolverines to be contenders, but right now I don’t think they have the depth and scoring punch they need to finish in the top two of the CCHA.  I’m predicting a finish somewhere between 3rd and 5th.