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Cam York and the University of Michigan’s transition game

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It’s deep dive time!

COLLEGE HOCKEY: FEB 01 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The University of Michigan hockey team just crossed the midpoint of their season, and with that has also come what’s set to be a two week pause to all athletic programs as a COVID-19 precaution, which in some ways feels a bit anti-climactic, reasonable as the call may be. It does, however, open up a space for us to tuck in and take a deeper look at their season to date.

The Wolverines have certainly found some success this season—with a 8-6-0-0-1-0 record and 23 points in the standings, they’re sitting at second in the Big Ten by points and third by points percentage. It hasn’t been a completely smooth run, there have been a couple of ugly losses along the way, but the team certainly seems to be figuring out, and as they do, they’re looking more and more dangerous. Finding equal contributions from a dynamic group of new freshmen, as well as the crop of established returning players (including Flyers prospect Cam York), this is a team with a lot of talent, and a real force to be reckoned with, when they get rolling. But how exactly is that success coming? And is it sustainable? Well, that’s just what we’re here to talk about. So let’s talk about it!

And just as a quick note before we dive in, we’re working with Michigan’s full season data minus their last two games against Notre Dame, as those aren’t available to stream online, and as such, couldn’t be tracked. So it goes.

Okay, good talk, let’s get after it.

All scoring stats via The Big Ten, all entry and exit data is at 5-on-5 only and was manually tracked by Madeline Campbell (that’s me!). You can find the complete spreadsheet here.

Team trends

Before we dive into some of the individual standout performances from this season, we should set up a bit of context and talk about how the team is doing, as a whole.

To be brief, we can say that Michigan is a strong team in transition. They move the puck up-ice well and they use that to create a good number of their chances. On the season, the team has averaged a 52.22 Controlled Entry percentage (from carry-ins and passes) and a 66.91 Possession Entry percentage (controlled entries plus dump-ins recovered), and a 66.41 Controlled Exit%.

We also saw them generally being pretty efficient on both their entries and exits, clocking in under 15 percent in both, as they’ve totaled a 13.58 Failed Entry percentage and 11.98 Failed Exit percentage, so a solid performance therein as well.

And this is all working well to feed what’s been a very successful offense (which makes sense, given what we know about controlled entries on average driving more shot attempts). Across all situations, Michigan has put up 555 shots, averaging 34.69 per game, which is good for second in the Big Ten, while posting a 55.5 SF% on the season. The scoring numbers have reflected this sound underlying process as well—Michigan is also second in even strength scoring, putting up 42 goals and averaging 2.63 even strength goals per game, as well as a 68.85 even strength GF%.

This is all to say that Michigan is playing a pretty well-rounded and efficient game. Each element of their game is working well together, each building on each, and it’s left them with a solid foundation that they’re continuing to build on as the season progresses. We’re always a bit concerned that downward regression is lurking just around the corner, but really all areas of the underlying process seems sound. Michigan, even if they’re still looking to completely lock down their consistency, has been getting some pretty remarkable results, and all signs point to them being sustainable.

The kids are alright

Now, to be clear there have been more than a handful of really notable individual performances from the skaters this season, but Michigan is in a somewhat unique position in that three of their biggest standouts in their transition game, in one way or another, are all only just eligible for the 2021 draft.

Michigan’s freshman class in general in a strong one, but they’ve been getting quite impressive contributions from their trio of draft eligible players in forwards Matty Beniers and Kent Johnson and defenseman Owen Power.

If you caught any of the United States’ World Junior games, you might have noticed Beniers’s impacts in transition, his strength as a (more or less) straight line puck mover, and that’s been a role that he’s settled into well in his time with the Wolverines as well. Beniers has had a respectable workload with exits, totaling 55 in his 12 games tracked and averaging a 74.55 Controlled Exit%. And while he’s certainly not afraid to go end to end and completely lead a whole rush on his own (which is always impressive when it happens), where he really stands out is on the entries, specifically. He’s cruising along with 73 individual entries, 71.23 percent of which have been controlled and 79.45 percent ultimately resulting in possession via retrieved dump-ins, good for second and third on the team in those areas, respectively.

And maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given what the eye tells us—Beniers is quick, good on his edges, which makes him elusive, and just strong overall on pucks. Once he has possession of the puck, he’s hard to push off of it, which makes him a real force in transition. Beniers has been nothing if not consistent in this area, and it’s been fun to watch.

Johnson hasn’t asserted himself as the same level of one-man breakout machine as Beniers, but he’s still more than holding his own as an 18 year old on a college team. His season numbers are solid, with a 63.33 Controlled Entry% and 73.33 Possession Entry% (well above the team averages of 52.22 percent and 66.91 percent, respectively). But what really stands out about his game is that he has established himself as Michigan’s bulk generator of zone entries. He’s totaled 90 successful entries and 106 attempts in 14 games tracked, averaging 6.43 individual entries per game, and 7.57 individual attempts, and he’s leading the pack in those areas by a pretty comfortable margin—second to him is Thomas Bordeleau, who’s averaging six individual exits and 7.42 individual attempts per game. And that seems a good word to echo, comfortable—Johnson is sinking into his own role with the team, and despite his still adjusting to the college level, he’s already comfortable being The Guy on entries for his line, which is certainly encouraging to see.

And turning now to the back end, Power has asserted himself well as not only one of Michigan’s most dependable defenders in general, but also their most well-rounded when it comes to puck moving. Power leads the defense corps in Controlled Exit percentage, having averaged 81.16 percent over his 14 games tracked. This total is also good for second among all skaters, behind just Brendan Brisson (who’s working with a smaller sample, having completed 30 fewer exits than Power’s 69). He’s also put up just about an even split between carry-outs and breakout passes, with a 30/26 split on those 56 controlled exits.

But in addition to that, we also have seen Power rarely shying away from activating on the rush and leading entries. Power falls third on the team in Controlled Entry%, with a 66.07 percent, and he’s tied for fifth on the team in carry-ins, with 29, which seems no small feat for a defenseman.

In short: Power is projected in many rankings to go first overall in this year’s draft, and based on his play so far this season, it’s really easy to see why.

But, you know, it’s not only the draft eligible freshman that are blowing everyone away this season. We see you, Johnny Beecher, with your team-best 76 Controlled Entry% and 86 Possession Entry%. That’s pretty stellar. Keep up that good work.

Yeah yeah yeah, just tell me about Cam York

Okay, yes, this is a Flyers blog, and that means that we’re particularly interested in the play of the Flyers’ prospects, so it’s time that we pivot and hone in on York’s play this season.

Overall, York’s graded out well in transition. He ranks third among defensemen in Controlled Exit% (second if we limit the scope to regulars in the lineup, as it’s Jay Keranen sitting 2.25% above York, and he’s only played eight games, sitting just on the outside of the regular defense rotation), averaging a 71.08 percent over his 12 games tracked. And this is an impressive total, given his workload—he’s totaled 83 successful zone exits on the season, averaging 6.92 individual exits per game, good for second among defenseman (behind just Nick Blankenburg, who’s averaging 8.21 playing alongside Power, mostly). York’s often been called upon to get the breakout going for Michigan (often specifically making use of that great first pass), and he’s proved dependable in being able to do it successfully and do it with control.

One interesting additional piece that the numbers don’t capture, however, is York’s specific tendency to start a breakout in his own zone, then make a pass to a forward somewhere in the area around the top of the face-off circles and letting them carry the puck out of the zone, rather than doing it himself. Is it still effective? Absolutely. Many of the Wolverine forwards have also been strong on exits, so it’s a strategy that’s been working. But it’s an interesting quirk, all the same.

And what does this all tell us about the growth of York’s game? Well, it’s good news, folks. One of the bigger qualms we had about York’s play in his freshman season was that he simply didn’t look as confident moving the puck—at times he seemed a bit tentative in his decisions, a bit too deferential to his partner, and he was losing effectiveness because of that.

It was understandable—no one expects to jump to the college level to be seamless, but it was something we were tuned in to. It was a piece we were hoping he would work out of his game as he got settled in, and it’s something that’s come along a good deal in his sophomore year.

In short, it’s exactly what we needed to see happening. After all, the scouting book’s headline on York when he was drafted was that he was a strong puck mover with great offensive instincts, and when a big key to your game like that isn’t working, that’s a real concern. There’s still some polishing that needs to go into York’s game, he’s not a finished product just yet, but it’s a significant step forward that he’s taken, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of that.