By Michael Caples -
The Wildcats are preparing for another season under Walt Kyle, yet they will be without some of their top scorers for the first time in four years. Who will step up in the absence of Gron and Florek?
During the 2011 CCHA playoffs, the Northern Michigan Wildcats were stopped from advancing to Joe Louis Arena by an underdog Bowling Green squad. The 2012 CCHA playoffs were a repeat of the year before. After two straight seasons of disappointing playoff finishes, can the Wildcats break out of their slump? They’re going to have to do it without their top two scorers; Tyler Gron and Justin Florek are now playing at the next level of their hockey careers. With revenge on their minds, Walt Kyle and the Wildcats will be looking for a strong finish in the final CCHA season.
Kyle is no stranger to the hockey scene in Marquette. He has served as the head coach of the Wildcats since 2002, when he took over for Rick Comley. He’s just the second coach the Wildcats hockey program has ever experienced, but as of right now, there’s no need to look elsewhere. Kyle has led the Wildcats to six 20-win seasons, and holds a career mark of 193-167-45. He has guided NMU to Joe Louis Arena for the CCHA championship weekend seven times, and last got the Wildcats to the NCAA Tournament in 2009-10. He has experience at the pro level, as well, having served as an assistant coach with the Rangers, and as coach of the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs. He knows what it takes to get his players to the next level, and he consistently fields a competitive team in Marquette.
Now, however, Kyle will be working without his two most talented players from previous seasons. Gron is now with the ECHL’s Reading Royals (an affiliate of the Washington Capitals), and Florek, a Marquette native, is now working his way through the Boston Bruins’ system (he was a fifth round pick in 2010). Matt Thurber and Stephan Vigier, who finished third and fourth in scoring, respectively, will need to make up for the combined 73 points lost by Florek and Gron graduating. Main goaltender Jared Coreau returns, but his back-up, Reid Ellingson, is no longer available for splitting time between the pipes. The second spot on the goaltending depth chart will be between freshmen Michael Doan and Mathias Dahlstrom, a native of Smedjebacken, Sweden. The Wildcats’ defensive corps remains largely intact.
If the water bottle is half full…
When you return your top four defensemen, and your goaltender, you have to be feeling pretty confident about your team defense. The Wildcats welcome back Kyle Follmer – who led all NMU defensemen in scoring with 26 points – along with Scott Macaulay, Mitch Jones, and Wade Epp. Coreau now has two seasons of college hockey under his belt, and looked like one of the top goaltenders in the CCHA last season. He posted a 12-7-2 record, along with a 92.8 save percentage and 2.22 goals-against average, in 2011-12. If the loss of Florek and Gron is at least somewhat managed, the Wildcats will be able to win some close hockey games this season.
If the water bottle is half empty…
The loss of Florek and Gron could be glaring for the Wildcats this season. Nobody else on the roster had more than 11 goals last season, and as mentioned earlier, they accounted for 73 points last season alone. You have to prevent goals in college hockey, but you have to score some, too. The fact that the Wildcats were a middle-of-the-pack team even with the two talented forwards means that the offense could struggle this season.
Coreau will be the backbone of this Wildcats squad. With freshmen behind him on the depth chart, Kyle will be leaning on his junior goaltender for big, big minutes. Coreau will need to deliver, too, since goal scoring could be an issue for this NMU team.
Thurber, a senior from Wisconsin, will need to take his game to the next level this season. If he can build on his totals from last season – 11 goals and 19 assists – he could become the offensive threat the Wildcats need. If he doesn’t, then there’s a very good possibility that the Wildcats stay near or below the middle of the CCHA standings.
From the CCHA preseason synopsis:
Head Coach: Walt Kyle (11th season)
2011-12 Overall Record: 17-14-6
2011-12 Conference Record: 11-11-6-3 (6th)
Letterwinners Returning/Lost: Team – 18/5; Forwards – 11/3, Defense – 6/0, Goalies – 1/2
Key Returnees: Jared Coreau, G, JR (12-7-2, 2.22 GAA, .928 Spct.); CJ Ludwig, D, JR (1-5-6); Reed Seckel, F, SO (8-12-20); Matt Thurber, F, SR (11-19-30); Stephan Vigier, F, JR (13-13-26)
Key Losses: Andrew Cherniwchan, F (10-10-20); Tyler Gron, F (17-20-37); Justin Florek, F (19-17-36)
NHL Draft Picks (0)
Impact Freshmen: Cohen Adair, F, Powell (BCHL); Ryan Aynsley, F, Castlegar (KIJHL); Darren Nowick, F, Vernon (BCHL);
Noteworthy: Northern Michigan returns 18 letterwinners from last season, including all 6 of their defensemen and their top goaltender Jared Coreau, who finished the 2011-12 season with a 12-7-2 record.