MARQUETTE - After a ninth place finish in the CCHA and a first-round exit from the league's final postseason tournament in 2012-13, Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle said he would "shake the tree" this offseason in preparation for the program's return to the WCHA.
No position got a bigger shakeup this offseason than on defense, where two of last season's seniors are being replaced by a pair of former Hockey East defensemen in junior Luke Eibler out of Northeastern and sophomore Barret Kaib, formerly of Providence.
Both are on campus not just to challenge for ice time, but take some away from those who underperformed a year ago.
Northern Michigan University junior defenseman Luke Eibler looks to make a pass during an exhibition game Sunday at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Eibler, who last played at Northeastern University in 2011-12, is one of two transfer defensemen on the Wildcats’ roster this year with sophomore Barrett Kaib, who played with Providence in 2011-12. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
"Barrett and Luke both have college hockey under their belts," Kyle said. "They're not like freshmen coming in. We think these guys can step in and add something to our team right away."
From 2010-12, Eibler appeared in 71 games for Northeastern and after sitting out last year while still attending Northern, he earned an 'A' on his jersey for road games as an alternate captain this season, starting with Friday and Saturday's series at the University of Wisconsin.
Eibler should not only help improve puck movement among defensemen at the blue line, but according to Kyle, the native of downstate Pinckney could be the quarterback NMU was missing on the power play all last year.
2013-14 NMU Hockey Season Preview: Freshmen will add more depth to NMU's group of forwards.
Kaib, the Pittsburgh native who played 31 games in 2011-12 for Providence, should also help spark the offense on the blue line after posting 21 assists in 47 games with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL in 2012-13.
"Defensively, last year I didn't feel we moved (the puck) to the forwards as well," Eibler said. "That first pass is critical and we seem to be doing it right now, getting better at it."
In addition to Kaib and Eibler, Kyle added freshman defenseman Brock Maschmeyer. He was an all-league player in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2011-12 after posting 12 goals and 32 assists in 60 games.
He'll challenge sophomore Ryan Trenz, junior Jake Baker and senior Wade Epp for ice time, in addition to junior Mitch Jones, who is moving back to defense after filling in as a forward last season because of injuries up front.
Kyle singled out Epp and Baker at the end of last year for lackluster campaigns, with Baker recovering from a concussion he suffered early on and Epp getting distracted by whispers of a possible pro contract.
Kyle said Baker is back to being 100 percent.
Epp, meanwhile, is back on track to being the shutdown defensemen he was as a sophomore, paired with C.J. Ludwig.
"Jake Baker looks like he's taken a big step," Kyle said. "Epp has been a very focused, very determined guy and he looks like he's ready to have very, very, solid year."
Ludwig, the senior captain of the 'Cats in 2013-14, was the exception to the rule when Kyle spoke of underachieving defensemen at the end of last season.
Ludwig capped 2012-13 with a plus-1 rating after finishing even as a sophomore and minus-13 as a freshman.
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.
"C.J. Ludwig had a great year," Kyle said. "He's certainly the heart of that group and he's the heart of our team, to a degree.
He's the leader of our hockey team. I give him a ton of credit for the year that he had."