MARQUETTE - A lack of depth at forward doomed the Northern Michigan University hockey team last season, resulting in a second straight first-round loss at home in a best-of-three CCHA playoff series to Bowling Green State and another year finishing on the fringe of the NCAA tournament.
Now in his 11th season, Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle is much more confident in what he has from top to bottom, with one exception.
Those at the top of his lineup aren't as proven as last year's leaders in Justin Florek, Tyler Gron and Andrew Cherniwchan.
Northern Michigan University center Stephan Vigier (40) takes a faceoff on March 2 against Bowling Green State in Game 1 of a best-of-three CCHA playoff series at the Berry Events Center that NMU lost. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
NMU’s Matt Thurber (12) checks the Falcons’ Ryan Carpenter during Game 2 of the series on March 3 in Marquette. Thurber is the Wildcats’ leading returning scorer with 11 goals and 19 assists for 30 points while Vigier is the leading returning goal scorer after posting 13 a year ago. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
The Wildcats may be deeper, but are any of the returning players true first-line guys that can continue the team's upward swing offensively?
"Our depth is much better, which is a really good thing, but our top end is not proven," Kyle said.
"We're lacking proven scoring. That's what we are lacking. We're certainly going to have some big minutes to fill with the loss of Florek and Cherniwchan and Gron."
Northern's top two lines in the 2011-12 season accounted for 74 percent of the team's scoring, with Florek, Gron and Cherniwchan combining for 46 goals - almost 44 percent.
The other 30 percent came from returning forwards Stephan Vigier, Reed Seckel and Matt Thurber, who posted a combined 32 goals.
Vigier, an assistant captain, is the leading returning goal scorer, having posted 13 goals as well as 13 assists.
It was a big jump from his freshman year of three goals and nine assists, though only four goals came after the holiday break last season for the junior out of Notre Dame, Manitoba.
"I just want to show up every day and work my hardest," Vigier said. "If I do that, I think good things will happen. Being a leader, guys look for guys like that to follow and that's my goal - to work hard and good things will happen."
Thurber, a senior, had 11 goals and 19 assists a year ago as a junior transfer out of the University of Wisconsin to finish third on the team in scoring with 30 points and in the top 20 in the CCHA.
He worked all season with Seckel, a third-year sophomore out of downstate Melvin, who posted eight goals and 12 assists as a redshirt freshman in 2011-12.
"We had good chemistry last year," Thurber said. "We're back together again right now. Hopefully we'll stay like that."
The duo teamed most of last season with Gron and was great at home, but not so much on the road.
Seckel scored once away from Marquette - in the opener at Wisconsin - while Thurber had four away from the Berry Events Center.
Kyle said he is expecting Seckel and Thurber to join Vigier in the teens when it comes to goals scored, but Seckel said he is focusing on his consistency - not scoring - which he admits was lacking last season.
"I'm not going to think about goals, assists and points," said Seckel, an assistant captain. "I'm worried about how I can improve and how to be consistent and how to lead - how to have all 20 guys on the ice be on the same page every game."
Seckel and Thurber look to start the season as the 'Cats top line with junior Kory Kaunisto taking Gron's spot.
Kaunisto, who had two goals and six assists last year, played with Seckel and Thurber early on last season, as was with them again Sunday in the exhibition win over Brock.
Kyle said Kaunisto has taken big steps this offseason, and while he's not looking for the 6-foot-1, 197-pound forward to be a huge offensive threat, the Sault Ste. Marie native will add a physical presence to the line.
"I don't know how much Kory is going to score, but he should impact games through his effort and his ability to play physically and protect pucks and drive nets," Kyle said. "He'll help other guys be good."
Vigier will center the second line and like many other Wildcat forwards, be paired with some young and inexperienced forwards.
In fact, Kyle projected four, if not five, freshmen could be in the Wildcats' lineup each night, all up front.
Vigier and sophomore Ryan Daugherty - both were healthy scratches for Sunday's exhibition - have teamed with freshman Justin Rose out of Gibbon, Alberta, in practices this fall.
Rose had 38 goals and 37 assists last year for Fort McMurray in the AJHL and posted an assist Sunday working with freshman Cohen Adair and junior Erik Higby in the exhibition.
Adair, at 6-2, 207 pounds, had 32 goals and 26 assists for Powell River in the BCHL and scored the second NMU goal late in the third period against Brock. Opposite him at wing will either be Rose or freshman Ryan Aynsley.
Aynsley was on campus last season, but wasn't allowed to practice with the team as an ineligible player. He came to NMU out of a lower-level junior league - the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League - but has caught the coaches' eyes leading up to the season, earning him a spot in the lineup Sunday against Brock.
Freshman Darren Nowick of Long Beach, Calif., is slotted to center the fourth line, where he could be joined by freshman Robert Lindores of Port Alberni, British Columbia, as well as senior Brian Nugent, junior Jake Johnson or sophomore DJ Vandercook.
"Cohen Adair, Justin Rose, Ryan Aynsley and Darren Nowick all have an opportunity to move up in the lineup," Kyle said. "They could all impact the team offensively."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.