MARQUETTE - While the Northern Michigan University hockey team will have some question marks at forward come 2012-13, head coach Walt Kyle appears set defensively and in goal after once again dedicating minutes to a young group of players.
Northern turned to two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen on the blue line, while sophomore goaltender Jared Coreau beat out senior Reid Ellingson as the Wildcats' No. 1 guy in net.
Kyle said defense and goaltending will once again be a strength next season, thanks to the growing pains suffered at times in 2011-12.
Strong goaltending, led by sophomore Jared Coreau, shown here, allowed the Northern Michigan University hockey team to gamble with a young defensive group this season. While splitting time in goal with senior Reid Ellingson for much of the season, Coreau took over as the No. 1 netminder late in the campaign. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
"We have some guys who need to continue to work on their game back there and learn to become better defenders," Kyle said.
"Defensively, that was a position of strength. I think that position was pretty solid for us."
The strongest of the strong this season, according to Kyle, was sophomore C.J. Ludwig, who went from a minus-13 player as a freshman to an even player in the plus/minus category this season.
Ludwig, who Kyle said had to play injured during the entire first-round CCHA playoff series against Bowling Green State, also reduced his penalty minutes by more than half, from 88 to 40, while posting one goal and five assists.
"He was in pain every night and did a great job. He clearly was our go-to guy at that position," Kyle said.
"I think C.J. Ludwig had a tremendous year. C.J. Ludwig to me is clearly our No. 1 guy. He took huge, huge steps for us."
The Wildcat blueliners became more than just defenders in 2011-12 and got involved in everything from 5-on-5 attacks to the power play to the penalty kill.
Junior Kyle Follmer led the team in assists with 22 while also posting four goals to finish fifth on the team in scoring. His 26 points was fourth among CCHA defensemen.
"Follmer had a great offensive year," Kyle said. "I thought he struggled at times defensively, but had a very good offensive year.
Junior Scott Macaulay finished with 17 points while also serving as a co-captain with senior forward Justin Florek of Marquette, wearing the "C" on the road.
Another defenseman who emerged as an offensive threat was freshman Mitch Jones with his six goals and eight assists.
Kyle gave credit to Jones for quarterbacking a power play that ranked second in the CCHA behind Western Michigan, converting on 20 percent of its chances.
"Take a guy like Jones, who had a tremendous emergence in the second half of the year," Kyle said. "He started the first half of the year minus-10, but he was minus-10 at Christmas. From Christmas on to the playoff series, he was even or plus-2.
"All of a sudden, he became the guy quarterbacking a pretty efficient power play. Big growth there."
While the defensemen's contributions to the power play were welcome, their penchant for taking penalties and having to march out for the penalty kill was just as noticeable.
NMU's six regular defensemen - sophomore Wade Epp, freshman Jake Baker, Ludwig, Jones, Follmer and Macaulay - accounted for 293 of the Wildcats' 606 penalty minutes, which ranked second in the CCHA behind Miami's 656.
Epp led all 'Cats with 27 penalties for 81 minutes.
"I think our special teams were good, but I thought we took way too many penalties," Kyle said.
"Some of those guys need to become better, more mobile where they don't have to wrap people up and take penalties."
The Wildcats were able to gamble at times with a young defensive group because of strong goaltending.
Coreau and Ellingson split time for most of the season, even though Coreau became the go-to guy down the stretch.
Coreau, who didn't play in Game 2 of the CCHA playoff series with BGSU due to illness, finished the year with 243 more minutes than Ellingson, appearing in 23 games and starting 20.
Coreau finished with a 2.22 goals-against average and .928 saves percentage, while Ellingson posted a 3.00 GAA and .904 saves percentage in 19 appearances and 17 starts.
"This year was definitely a growth period for me," Coreau said. "I worked really hard last summer.
"My goal was to compete for the starting job and I feel like I did a pretty good job this year. The biggest thing was consistency."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.