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Friday, July 15, 2005

With NHL deal in place, will U-M suffer?

The NHL finally came to an agreement on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement this week which is good news to NHL fans, but has potentially bad ramifications for those in Ann Arbor.

Michigan goalie Al Montoya and forward Jeff Tambellini, both seniors and two of the team’s tri-captains along with Andrew Ebbett, may deem it necessary to make the jump to the professional ranks after stellar careers as Wolverines.

Montoya was a first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers last summer and Tambellini went to the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round a year earlier in 2003. Both reportedly had opportunities to sign with their respective teams last summer, but opted to come back to Michigan.

This summer may tell a different story.

At times last year, Montoya appeared bored in net and wasn’t as spectacular as he was in his sophomore year. He could have Broadway on his mind. Tambellini single-handedly led U-M to the CCHA Super Six championship in March and nearly into the NCAA Frozen Four if not for a team collapse against Colorado College in the Midwest Regional in Grand Rapids on March 26.

If Montoya signs with the Rangers, odds are he’ll start the year with the Hartford Wolf Pack, New York’s American Hockey League affiliate, and be their starting netminder. He may even wind up in the NHL before the year is out.

Tambellini is probably a better pro prospect at this point and seeing how he dominated the second half of last year and the playoffs, would be able to make an impact right away in either the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs or with the Kings. He’ll probably start with the Monarchs and see NHL rinks by Christmas.

Should Montoya bolt, look for Michigan to bring in highly-touted goalie Billy Sauer, a 17-year-old from Buffalo who played for the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League last year, to fill the No. 1 role just as Montoya did three years ago when he fast-tracked through high school to head to Ann Arbor a year early. Noah Ruden will be the back-up to whichever goalie is pegged as the starter. If Montoya stays and graduates next May, Sauer will fill the No. 1 role a year from now.

Michigan has eight incoming forwards and eight returning skaters up front. They should all be able to pick up at least some of Tambellini’s slack and fill the void rather quickly.

And lest we not forget that junior forward T.J. Hensick, Tambellini’s linemate much of last season, is eligible for the NHL Entry Draft tentatively scheduled for July 30 in Ottawa. Depending on where he gets selected and by whom, he could also leave Michigan ahead of schedule. Incoming defenseman Jack Johnson is a surefire top pick and also may not stay at Michigan the full four years. Same goes for incoming forward Andrew Cogliano.

Only time will tell.

Stay tuned to Michigan College Hockey for further developments, if any.

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