MiHockey Previews: Western Michigan looks to repeat

The custom cover we designed for the Broncos during our "Pride of the Mitten" cover contest

By Michael Caples -

The Broncos captured the Mason Cup in their first year under new bench boss Andy Murray. With their star players returning, what can the Broncos accomplish in Year 2?

Rewind

Seems like just yesterday that the Broncos were celebrating at Joe Louis Arena. After finishing tied with Michigan for the second spot in the CCHA regular season, Western Michigan took care of business at the Joe, topping the Wolverines 3-2 to clinch the Mason Cup for the second time in school history.  Despite a first-round exit in the NCAA Tournament, it was a successful first season for new coach Andy Murray. With minimal turnover during the offseason, the Broncos should be eagerly awaiting the 2012-13 season, and rightfully so.

Bench Boss

Murray returns for his second season behind the Broncos’ bench. The former NHL coach should like what he’s seeing at practice so far, as he has the luxury of returning many of his top players. It will be interesting how Murray navigates the recruiting scene; his own starpower, along with the fact that the Broncos will be one of the founding members of the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, means he should continue to attract elite talent to Kalamazoo. Murray finished with a 21-14-6 record, good for the most wins recorded by a Broncos team since 1995-96.

Photo by Dave Reginek/DRW

Line Change

The conclusion of the 2011-12 season meant an expiration date for some of the Broncos’ leaders. Greg Squires, Derek Roehl, Kyle O’Kane, J.J. Crew, and captain Ian Slater have all moved on, as has defenseman Matt Tennyson, who signed with the San Jose Sharks during the summer.  There are currently only four freshmen on the 2012-13 Broncos’ roster – Colton Hargrove (Boston Bruins pick), Nolan LaPorte, Kenney Morrison, and Josh Pitt – while according to Chris Heisenberg’s master list of commitments, Red Wings draft pick Mike McKee will show up in K-Zoo in 2013. But there are still plenty of big names on the roster – like Frank Slubowski, Danny DeKeyser, Chase Balisy, Garrett Haar, and Shane Berschbach

If the water bottle is half full…

Like I just hinted at, the big guns are back for the Broncos. Their top two scorers – Balisy and Berschbach – return. So does DeKeyser, who was arguably their best defenseman last season. And the goaltender that turned some heads down the stretch – Frank “The Big Slubowski” – is back too, and now he’s a sophomore with a full season under his belt. Confidence should not be an issue, nor will coaching. Murray got a taste of winning at the college level last season, and with his track record, one can be sure he will do what it takes to get the Broncos back to the Big Dance.

If the water bottle is half empty…

There’s something to be said for depth and leadership. While the big scorers are there, will the Broncos be able to overcome the loss of their senior class? Secondary scoring could become a concern, as Walters and Squires accounted for 24 goals and 48 points alone last season. Plus, it’s always an adventure replacing a captain, as Slater turned out to be a pretty good one for the Broncos last season. And what if Slubowski hits a sophomore slump?

Frank Slubowski accepts his CCHA postseason MVP trophy from CCHA commissioner Fred Pletsch and the Red Wings' Mike Bayoff. (Dave Reginek/DRW)

MVP

Slubowski seemed like the real deal down the stretch last season. He posted a 17-11-4 record, along with a 2.03 goals-against average and .911 save percentage, as a freshman. You have to have something special to put up those kinds of numbers as a fresh-faced rookie in a league like the CCHA. Plus, he played every minute of the Broncos’ run to the Mason Cup. Slubowski has made a name for himself, and he’s going to have a strong team in front of him, which will only help his numbers in 2012-13.

Difference-maker

OK, let’s be honest here, I’m really just using the ‘Difference-maker’ label here to do a co-MVP. If Slubowski isn’t crowned king of Kalamazoo by the end of the season, Balisy will be. The California native and NTDP alum was second on the team in scoring as a freshman, and led the Broncos last year with 32 points. He has 62 points in 78 career games as a Bronco. And he’s only going to get better with age.

Chase Balisy (Dave Reginek/DRW)

From the CCHA preseason synopsis:

WESTERN MICHIGAN

Head Coach: Andy Murray (2nd season)

2011-12 Overall Record: 21-14-6

2011-12 Conference Record: 14-10-4-4 (T-2nd)

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: Team – 15/6; Forwards – 8/5, Defense – 5/1, Goalies – 2/0

Key Returnees: Chase Balisy, F, JR (13-24-37); Shane Berschbach, F, JR (10-22-32); Dennis Brown, D, JR (2-20-22); Dan DeKeyser, D, JR (5-12-17); Trevor Elias, F, SR (6-5-11); Nick Pisellini, G, SR (4-3-2, 2.41 GAA, .903 Spct.); Frank Slubowski, G, SO (7-11-4, 2.03 GAA, .911 Spct.); Dane Walters, F, SR (16-13-29); Luke Witkowski, D, SR (2-11-13)

Key Losses: J.J. Crew, F (4-7-11); Kyle O’Kane, F (7-4-11); Derek Roehl, F (5-9-14); Greg Squires, F (8-11-19); Ian Slater, F (7-8-15); Matt Tennyson, D (11-13-24)

NHL Draft Picks (4): Colton Hargrove (BOS ‘12); Chase Balisy (NSH ‘11); Garrett Haar (WSH ‘11); Luke Witkowski (TB ‘08)

Impact Freshmen: Colton Hargrove, F, Fargo (USHL); Nolan LaPorte, F, Green Bay (USHL); Kenney Morrison, D, Omaha (USHL); Josh Pitt, F, Ottawa (CCHL)

Noteworthy: The Bronco’s return their top line of Balisy, Berschbach and Walters, who racked up 39 goals and 98 points last season, almost one-third of Western Michigan’s scoring.