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TRAIKOS: Why the No. 1 overall pick in NHL draft decided to return to college

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The plan was at all times to return to varsity.

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Whether or not he was picked first or fifth within the draft or no matter, Owen Energy mentioned he was going to spend one other 12 months on the College of Michigan. He needed to proceed his research in sports activities administration and to proceed to develop and develop extra as a hockey participant and as an individual. And when he was prepared, he would make the leap.

It’s what he informed his mother and father. It’s what he informed his teammates. Coaches, scouts, everybody knew it was the sensible factor to do. However then the Buffalo Sabres chosen the extremely touted defenceman with the No. 1 choose within the NHL entry draft.

And one after the other the questions started.

Was Energy nonetheless going to return to varsity? Was he actually going to move up an opportunity to play within the NHL, to begin incomes hundreds of thousands of {dollars}, for one more 12 months of college? Was he positive?

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Sure, he mentioned.

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The NHL might wait. Going again to varsity was the sensible factor to do — even when it was extremely uncommon.

Energy is the primary No. 1 choose in 15 years — and solely the third participant up to now 26 years — who received’t be leaping proper from the draft ground into the NHL. It was a choice that value him upwards of $925,000 US in base wage and probably one other $2 million or so in bonus cash.

And it’s one which had him spending extra time on the library than on the rink this week, whereas finding out for a mid-term economics examination that his father mentioned was “stressing him out.”

Not that Energy regrets his alternative. There’s loads of time to earn a dwelling within the execs. The possibility to take pleasure in one other 12 months of faculty life, nonetheless, is what he referred to as a once-in-a-lifetime expertise.

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“I’m in no rush to get to the NHL,” mentioned Energy, who’s from Mississauga. “I believe you see extra guys rush in or get in too early and it doesn’t find yourself in addition to if you see guys take an additional 12 months and be somewhat extra affected person.”

He isn’t speaking about anybody particularly. However whereas every of the previous 15 prime picks jumped straight to the NHL, not everybody made the instant impression that Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews made as rookies.

Jack Hughes, who went first general in 2019, scored solely seven targets in his first NHL season. Final 12 months’s No. 1 choose, Alexis Lafreniere additionally struggled to make the adjustment from newbie to professional, ending exterior the top-10 in rookie scoring.

And but, scouts consider that Energy might have simply made the leap and cracked Buffalo’s rebuilding roster.

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At 6-foot-5 and 215 kilos, he definitely has the dimensions to deal with taking part in towards males, as he confirmed on the world championships in June, the place Energy logged greater than 24 minutes in Canada’s 3-2 extra time win within the gold-medal recreation towards Finland.

“Might he play on the NHL stage? I believe he might have completely,” Michigan head coach Mel Pearson mentioned. “Can he make a distinction? Can he do it each evening? I believe that’s the place the questions are available. One of many issues he can do is get somewhat stronger and somewhat bit faster. He’s already made strides.

“You possibly can’t overlook how massive he’s on the ice,” mentioned Pearson, who first began teaching at Michigan as an assistant in 1988. “He skates so effectively.”

So, one other 12 months to get higher. To get thicker and develop extra of his two-way recreation. To dominate. And to win the nationwide championship that Energy and his teammates have been robbed of competing for final 12 months due to a constructive COVID-19 check days earlier than the playoffs started. It was a choice that had a domino impact on the remainder of Michigan’s roster.

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As soon as Energy had determined to return to highschool, Matty Beniers, who went second general within the draft to Seattle, additionally selected to come back again.

The identical went for defenceman Luke Hughes (fourth general, New Jersey), ahead Kent Johnson (fifth general, Columbus) and winger Mackie Samoskevich (twenty fourth general, Florida).

In complete, Michigan’s star-studded roster contains 13 NHL draft picks, with seven of them chosen within the first spherical — essentially the most in NCAA historical past — coming again for what the gamers hope is a victory lap.

“That’s a part of the rationale I got here again,” Energy mentioned. “I wish to win a nationwide championship. I believe having these guys again goes to play an enormous half in having the chance to do this. Seeing them come again, it helped me attain that call in deciding what to do.”

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“I believe everyone knows what the objective is that this season. It’s why we got here again,” Johnson mentioned. “We really feel that we nonetheless have so much to perform and do right here. There’s so much we didn’t get to do final 12 months.”

What a screwed-up 12 months it was — for everybody. Like each different trade, hockey was turned on its head by the pandemic. Some leagues cancelled the 12 months. Others shortened their schedules.

For those that continued, it was a season of empty arenas, restricted social interactions and the overall uneasiness of not realizing when the lure door was going to drop beneath you due to a constructive COVID-19 check.

For Michigan, which didn’t have a single participant check constructive for the virus all season, it got here on the worst attainable time.

On the day that the Wolverines have been speculated to play Minnesota-Duluth within the opening spherical of the playoffs, the NCAA pressured the workforce to forfeit after two gamers examined constructive. It didn’t matter that it was an remoted incident and that the contaminated gamers have been again dwelling in Michigan quarantining whereas the workforce was in Fargo, ND, for the nationwide match.

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The season was over.

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“We didn’t discover out till an hour earlier than we needed to go to the sport,” Energy mentioned. “Guys had examined constructive on the weekend earlier than and we had been informed that we have been superb to play the entire week. After which on Thursday morning, all of us wakened from our naps and have been informed by textual content that we had a compulsory workforce assembly. So we sort of noticed it coming. It was actually powerful. It sucked not with the ability to win a nationwide championship. But it surely was additionally powerful seeing guys who have been seniors who didn’t get to play one other faculty recreation and have their faculty profession ended like that.

“It undoubtedly did play a task. I wouldn’t say it was the largest half.”

From a mother or father’s perspective, Energy’s determination to return to varsity made lots of sense. Who amongst us wouldn’t commerce a 12 months of working 9-to-5 for an opportunity to expertise yet another 12 months of faculty life? To go to pep rallies and attend sold-out soccer video games, whereas dwelling in an off-campus home with two of your buddies?

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“You’re solely younger as soon as,” mentioned Energy’s dad, Zee. “As you and I do know, when you begin working there’s no going again.”

Plus, taking part in for Michigan isn’t fairly the identical as taking part in for Buffalo. The Wolverines are stacked. It’s not simply Energy. Even with out him, this may need been essentially the most proficient workforce within the historical past of the NCAA.

Pearson calls Beniers “the engine” of the workforce, a two-way centre who “works onerous each methods and doesn’t cheat on defence to create offence.”

Hughes, whose older brothers are each within the NHL (Jack is a future teammate with the Devils, whereas Quinn is a defenceman with the Canucks), is a slick, puck-moving defenceman.

“I at all times inform folks Quinn was the value of admission,” Pearson mentioned.

Johnson, who as soon as scored what may need been the strangest — and slowest — objective within the historical past of the shootout, is taken into account the human-highlight reel.

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“Extremely inventive,” Pearson mentioned. “Simply tries issues offensively that lots of payers wouldn’t take into consideration or perceive.”

And Samoskevich may need “probably the greatest pictures within the league.”

Then there’s the so-called older guys, like Brendan Brisson and John Beecher, who went twenty ninth and thirtieth, respectively, within the 2019 draft.

“I believe folks know that we’re speculated to be workforce,” Energy mentioned.

Certainly, Michigan hinted at presumably what’s to come back this 12 months in a 7-1 win towards Bowling Inexperienced of their closing exhibition recreation, which featured a beautiful tic-tac-toe objective on the facility play that has since gone viral.

“I’ve seen it on Instagram a few occasions,” Energy mentioned of the objective. “It’s enjoyable to play with good guys. It adjustments the sport. They’re so expert that it’s really easy to play with.”

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“After we play the way in which it ought to be performed, it’s lots of enjoyable,” Johnson mentioned. “Passes are crisp. It’s lots of enjoyable to play. I’m positive it’s lots of enjoyable to observe. I’ve been on fairly good hockey groups. However there’s been nothing like this.”

Properly, there was nothing prefer it on skates. The newest Michigan workforce that was this proficient and this a lot enjoyable to observe did its injury on the hardcourt, when a gaggle of 5 freshmen, together with Chris Webber and Jalen Rose, dominated faculty basketball.

“I used to be right here as an assistant when the Fab 5 was right here,” Pearson mentioned. “You speak about hype, it was by way of the roof. There’s lots of similarities in terms of the pressures. I simply hope that they’ll win yet another recreation than they did.”

Regardless of the expertise, Michigan’s Frozen 5 didn’t precisely head into the season as the general favourites. Not one of the pre-season rankings have them No. 1.

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“We’re younger,” Pearson mentioned. “Numerous groups acquired guys again for a sixth 12 months due to COVID. That’s modified the panorama. As proficient and extremely regarded as we’re, we’re younger.”

The Sabres ultimately thought the identical of Energy. Although Buffalo might positive use a lift in ethical after the gutting that has gone on with the roster, there was no purpose for Energy to come back up instantly, simply so he might to burn a 12 months off his entry-level contract on a workforce that tasks to complete final. Higher to carry him up not solely when he’s prepared, however the Sabres are as effectively.

“You’re seeing a development of fellows going again and having that additional 12 months,” mentioned Energy, mentioning Quinn Hughes, Cale Makar as simply two of the numerous examples of gamers who benefited from an additional 12 months of faculty. “You at all times see faculty guys say that they cherished the additional time. I believe Michigan is an actual good place to develop.

“With the ability to play one other 12 months and dominate will assist me in the long term.”

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