The University of Michigan has more first-round NHL Draft picks on its roster this season than any team in college hockey history.
There are seven of them to be exact, surpassing UND’s 2005-06 team, which had six (Jonathan Toews, T.J. Oshie, Drew Stafford, Travis Zajac, Joe Finley and Brian Lee).
The Wolverines’ first-rounders are rather prominent, too.
They have defenseman Owen Power, who went No. 1 overall to the Buffalo Sabres in the 2021 NHL Draft. He’s just the fourth No. 1 overall NHL pick to play college hockey, and he’s the first to come back for his sophomore season.
They also have the No. 2 overall pick (Matty Beniers), the No. 4 overall pick (Luke Hughes) and the No. 5 overall pick (Kent Johnson).
Add in the No. 24 overall pick (Mackie Samoskevich), the No. 29 pick from last year (Brendan Brisson) and the No. 30 pick from 2019 (John Beecher) and you have a collection of top talent unlike any other we’ve seen in college hockey.
Because of this, Michigan will be the most scrutinized team in college hockey this season. But the Wolverines will be examined from two different perspectives.
NHL fans and media will be wondering: Exactly how talented are these prospects and when will they be ready to join The Show?
The college hockey world has a totally different question: Will it work?
Loading up on young NHL talent has generally produced good, not great, teams at the college level.
Michigan will be the 12th college hockey team with four-plus NHL first-rounders on a single team. Of the previous 11, more have finished with a losing record (three) than have gone to the NCAA Frozen Four (two).
The only two that have made it to the national semifinals have been North Dakota squads coached by Dave Hakstol (2006, 2007).
There have been some cautionary examples from super teams in recent years.
In 2016-17, Boston University had five first-round picks. While the Terriers had a very good season going 24-12-3, they never came close to being college hockey’s greatest team ever assembled, as one national media outlet speculated before the season started. In fact, they didn’t win the Beanpot, the Hockey East tournament or go to the Frozen Four.
In 2019-20, Wisconsin had the highest number of first-round picks on its roster in the history of its storied program with four. But the Badgers finished dead last in the Big Ten by a wide margin. Their season was already over when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped it out for everyone else.
In the wake of those teams, especially the Boston University one, several college hockey powerhouses made conscious efforts to mix in older players with their young stars.
UND is one. Minnesota is another.
But Michigan has diverged from the pack.
Although the super team strategy hasn’t been overly successful in the past, there’s a big difference between this year’s Michigan team and the others. The Wolverines not only have the abundance of first-round picks, they also have guys who were taken at the very top of the first round.
Wisconsin’s 2019-20 team, for example, had four first-round picks. Michigan has four of the top five picks. A top-five pick is generally a much different player than someone who goes in the 20s.
Michigan is not hesitating to go forward with its team-building strategy. It recently picked up commitments from future first-round picks Adam Fantilli and Rutger McGroarty, who will presumably replace Beniers and Johnson next season.
Can this team end the droughts?
Michigan is currently mired in a few droughts.
The Wolverines haven’t won a national championship in 23 years. They haven’t won a regular-season conference title in more than a decade.
Ferris State, which didn’t win a Division-I game last season, has won conference titles in two different leagues (Central Collegiate Hockey Association, Western Collegiate Hockey Association) since Michigan’s last one. In all, 27 college hockey teams have won a regular-season conference title since Michigan’s last, including a program that didn’t exist (Penn State) back when the Wolverines won the CCHA in 2011.
If this star-studded Wolverines lineup wins big and ends those droughts, there’s little doubt that Michigan will double down on the philosophy. You may see others attempting to employ the same strategy — if they can find a way to reel in all those top prospects, which is no easy feat.
But if Michigan doesn’t win big this season — if the Wolverines are good, not great, like other NHL talent-laden rosters before them — everyone will have to ponder whether that philosophy can work.