If you’ve made your way to Michigan’s legendary Yost Ice Arena this season, chances are you’ve noticed a burly, 6-foot-2, pushing-200-pound defenseman patrolling the blue line for the Wolverines.
After all, it doesn’t take much to notice Jacob Trouba playing hockey, and occasionally you’ll find out something new about him each time you watch him play.
“When we recruited him,” Wolverines coach Red Berenson said, “We saw him as a physical defenseman … and as a defenseman that would be good in his own zone, but probably average in the offensive zone. But we’ve really been impressed with the offensive side, too.”
It’s difficult to come away unimpressed after watching Trouba play. That’s an opinion that seems to be unanimous regardless of the audience, whether it be Michigan, USA Hockey or even the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets, who made Trouba the ninth overall selection in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.
“Pretty much every kid’s dream is to hear your name on [draft] day,” Trouba said. “It was a pretty cool day for my family and my coaches and everything.”
Still, after being drafted by the Jets, Trouba took his talents to Ann Arbor, joining a program the Rochester, Mich., native cheered for as a kid and learning from a coaching staff he holds in the highest regard. In turn, he has reaped the benefits even in a difficult season for the 10-16-2 Wolverines.
“It’s awesome,” Trouba said. “[Berenson] obviously knows a lot and has coached a lot of good players, so I’m just learning as much as I can from him and the other coaches.”
In a conference as competitive as the CCHA, and with the pressure of playing on a team with high expectations like Michigan, his coach has become one of Jacob’s biggest fans.
“He’s into the game the whole game — every shift — and if you put your head down he’ll flatten you up,” Berenson said.
“Jacob has found that this is tough hockey, it’s physical hockey, it’s intense and every team we have played is as good as we are or better. He just shows up and puts it on the line. It’s been a good test for him, and this is a tough conference but he’s the type of player that can play well in this kind of hockey.”
The kind of hockey that Trouba has seen at Michigan is the kind of hockey that’s helped him realize he made the right choice when it comes to his current situation.
The idea of joining the NHL ranks becomes prevalent in the mind of many top-10 draft picks. Some wonder if the NHL had avoided a lockout to begin the year whether Trouba would have flirted with the idea of becoming a professional hockey player.
He said it wouldn’t have mattered.
“Michigan was the place that I wanted to be,” Trouba said. “I think that was my plan this year so I can come here and keep developing and get bigger and stronger and work on my game. And I think this was a great place to do that, with the resources they have at Michigan.”
His coach seems to be on the same wavelength.
“I don’t think the lockout has had anything to do with it,” Berenson said. “Jacob was committed to Michigan, he knew he needed to go to school and mature and get his game going and grow his game until he was ready to play at the next level.
“I think this year, he was totally dedicated to come up to school. He’s not worried about Winnipeg right now; he’s worried about Michigan.”
Trouba has been able to compete for the Wolverines in a significant role on a nightly basis and had the opportunity to play for the United States in the World Junior Championship, capturing the gold medal.
“It’s always a pretty special opportunity to play for your country,” Trouba said. “And it’s an honor to play against the best players in the world and see better competition and get better as a player.”
As for Trouba’s future professional home, the Jets are pleased with his progression after electing to play in college.
“One thing about a player like Jacob and the competitor that he is, we know exactly what he’s going to be doing when he’s out there,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “He’s the type of player that lays it all on the ice each and every night, and as he gets stronger and gets more and more of a opportunity to throw around his frame, it’s going to be better each night he gets the opportunity to be out there.
“NHL-ready is kind of a real nebulous term. I think for young players you want to make sure that you don’t put them in situations that they are not ready for. We’re in it for the long haul and we believe that Jacob is a player that’s going to be a big part of the success of our franchise for years to come.”
Cheveldayoff and the Jets’ brass have frequent communication with Berenson’s staff at Michigan, monitoring the progress of their prized prospect. It’s easy to speculate about Trouba’s future beyond this season and wonder whether he may be trading in his textbooks for a passport to head north next season. For all involved, it’s a wait-and-see process.
“That’s something I haven’t really put much thought into yet,” Trouba said. “But that’s something I’ll sit down with my coaches and my parents and we’ll figure out what’s best for me at that time. And if that’s what we feel is right then it’s something I’ll try to do.”
“There’s no question he’s going to play at the next level; it’s just a matter of when,” Berenson said. “We have always said there’s no rush to get there because you want to stay there when you get there. You don’t want to just go there for a cup of coffee.
“If he keeps his head on straight — which he will — and he continues to grow his game, it’s just a matter of time before he’ll play there, and I say that because we’ve had some pretty good players play here before Jacob and even in our conference. Players like Jack Johnson, and [Mike] Komisarek, and we’ve seen players like Rob Blake come out of Bowling Green and so on around our league, and I think Jacob’s right there. He’s going to be an NHL defenseman down the road.”
The Jets will continue to keep an eye on their second top-10 pick in as many years since the franchise moved from Atlanta in 2011.
“We’ll evaluate and watch, and we’ll have great conversations,” Cheveldayoff said. “We’re just more focused on the now and making sure that all the proper steps are taken so that the future takes care of itself.”
And when Winnipeg does call and both sides feel it’s time for Jacob to go pro?
“When Winnipeg says its time to come, I’ll drive him to the airport because he’ll be ready when they think he’s ready and when the kid thinks he’s ready,” Berenson said.