MARQUETTE - The blue line was supposed to be the least of Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle's worries in 2012-13.
With seven returning defensemen, including the six that ate up the most ice time last season, plus junior Jared Coreau back in goal, defense was supposed to be a strength for the Wildcats in their final CCHA campaign.
Instead, it was a disappointment.
Northern Michigan University junior defenseman C.J. Ludwig looks to pass the puck on Jan. 18 against Ohio State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Ludwig finished with four goals and 11 assists after only totaling six points in each of his first two seasons. (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
"I was really disappointed with our core defensemen this year," Kyle said. "We thought that was going to be an area of strength, but it wasn't."
Despite having the second-ranked penalty kill in the CCHA in 2011-12, the Wildcat defense still ranked 10th among its league rivals giving up 2.76 goals per game regularly starting two juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen.
That year of experience, and the bumps and bruises that come with playing such young defensemen, was supposed to pay off this year. But the numbers say otherwise.
Heading into the CCHA semifinals at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit this weekend, NMU is once again 10th in the league in scoring defense, giving up an average of 2.87 goals per game.
Only Michigan State and Michigan gave up more than the 109 goals Northern surrendered.
As for the penalty kill, it fell from second with an 86 percent kill rate to 10th, only succeeding 77.8 percent of the time.
"(Defense) is an area right there where we are going to have to shake the tree," Kyle said. "We're going to have to have better performances out of people."
While his fellow league coaches didn't agree, Kyle said junior defenseman and assistant captain C.J. Ludwig had an All-CCHA year.
Defensively, Ludwig finished with a plus-1 rating after finishing even as a sophomore and minus-13 as a freshman. He was at plus-6 before finishing minus-5 in his last five games.
His penalty minutes increased from 40 to 51 from a year ago, but were still nowhere near his freshman total of 88.
Offensively, Ludwig finished with four goals and 11 assists after only totaling six points in each of his first two seasons.
"I think C.J. Ludwig took a big step forward for me," Kyle said. "C.J. is a fierce competitor. He's one of our grittiest performers. I thought that C.J. had, on a team that wasn't very good, an all-league year.
"Going forward, I feel really comfortable with Ludwig. He can be a (number) one or two on any team in the league.
"After that, I didn't think we had the performance out of people that we had expected."
Kyle called senior captain Scott Macaulay the second defensemen on the team after he turned a minus-4 rating as a junior into a plus-5 this season.
Offensively, Macaulay was nearly matched his three goals and 14 assist performance from a year ago with five goals and 11 assists.
Senior Kyle Follmer went from a minus-1 defender to plus-1 defenseman, but his greatest impact was expected to be on the offensive end.
After finishing as the fourth-leading scorer among CCHA defensemen with four goals and 22 assists - earning him preseason All-CCHA honors - Follmer only mustered three goals and nine assists as a senior.
Junior Wade Epp and sophomore Jake Baker both took steps backward.
Epp only appeared in 26 games this season after starting all 36 as a sophomore, finishing with two goals and four assists and an even rating.
"Wade Epp has the ability to be a real impact defenseman, provided he's willing to play the game he has the ability to excel at," Kyle said. "He needs to focus on being an elite defender with a physical presence."
Baker slipped on both sides of the blue line after suffering a concussion six games into the season against Notre Dame.
He went from a plus-2 rating with a goal and seven assists as a freshman to a minus-7 rating as a sophomore with just a goal and two assists.
Sophomore Mitch Jones, who rotated between defenseman and forward, finished with the worst plus/minus rating on the team for the second year in a row, falling from minus-11 to minus 13.
Meanwhile, true freshman Ryan Trenz led in plus/minus with a positive 6 rating in 26 games.
Another depth player, fourth-year junior Austin Handley, was plus-3 in 18 games.
"We have to look, was it under-performance there or will guys bounce back and be better performers there. or do we need better players there?" Kyle said. "That's something we have to evaluate.
"It's an area we need vast improvement in."
Kyle said competition is wide open on the blue line next season, especially considering the talent transferring in from the Hockey East conference.
Green Bay Gamblers defenseman Barrett Kaib of Pittsburgh verbally committed to NMU in February. He played 31 games during the 2011-12 season at Providence and before that, two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development program.
Already on campus this year for NMU was junior Luke Eibler of downstate Pinckney. He appeared in 71 games over two seasons from 2010-2012 for Northeastern, but had to sit out this season due to transfer rules.
Unlike the 20-year-old Kaib, Eibler couldn't pass that time in the USHL.
While Kyle couldn't comment on Kaib because he hadn't signed his National Letter of Intent yet, the 'Cats' coach did say he expects big things from Eibler.
"We're absolutely sure he's a top four guy, maybe higher in our lineup than that," Kyle said. "We've kind of already taken a step forward to correct some of our weaknesses there."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mattwellens