MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle shook the defensive tree this season by bringing in a freshman and two transfers while also putting those who had a disappointing year in 2012-13 on notice.
The same goes for the Wildcats' forwards, however, Kyle is still shaking those branches, and will continue to jostle the lineup right through the holiday season.
"We brought guys in with the intent to not only fill holes, but to take jobs," Kyle said. "Whether they take those jobs, or whether the guy that was here a year ago takes those jobs, it doesn't matter to me. The best guy is going to get that job."
Northern?Michigan?University sophomore forward Darren Nowick brings the puck down the ice during an exhibition at the Berry Events Center on Saturday. Playing with an injured wrist as a freshman all season long, Nowick finished tied for fourth in goals with seven. Two scores came during the two CCHA playoff losses at the University of Michigan. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Northern returns its top five goal scorers from last season - all forwards - in junior Reed Seckel (13 goals), junior Ryan Daugherty (10), senior Erik Higby (9), sophomore Darren Nowick (7) and senior Stephan Vigier (7).
Kyle has also brought in two freshmen that will be in the lineup from Day 1 - Shane Sooth and Dominick Shine - plus another in Sami Salminen of Helsinki, Finland, who will be eligible to play on Oct. 26 at Michigan Tech.
In addition, the Wildcats could add up to two more freshmen forwards to their lineup after Christmas in 21-year-old Gerard Hanson of Sweden and 21-year-old John Siemer of Baldwin Park, Calif. and the BCHL.
"This is going to be a big freshman class that is going to play," Kyle said. "We think that it upgrades our talent and our depth significantly from a year ago.
"When you watch Sooth, when you watch Shine, those guys are going to come in and impact games from the day they're in the lineup."
Seckel, Daugherty and Higby all posted collegiate highs in goals last season with Higby rebounding from his sophomore slump of just two goals in 2011-12.
Meanwhile, Nowick came on late in his freshman year despite playing with an injured wrist to notch three goals in his last five games.
He was the only Wildcats to score in both CCHA playoff losses at Michigan and according to Daugherty, is a much more dangerous player than a year ago.
"He was obviously banged up last year," Daugherty said. "You can obviously tell he's a lot stronger on his stick and can actually shoot. I think his wrist is 100 percent."
Vigier took a dip offensively as a junior going from three goals as a freshman and 13 goals as a sophomore to just the seven a year ago.
Kyle said he believes Vigier struggled a year ago without his former linemate, Justin Florek of Marquette, but the senior from Notre Dame, Manitoba can bounce back and score at least 10-12 goals in 2013-14, the coach said.
"I just have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch," Vigier said.
"I'm trying to focus on getting more of those hard five-on-five chances instead of power play stuff. I've been working on my game down low. I want to be one of the go-to-guys for sure."
While Vigier missed Florek last season, the entire offense seemed to get lost without its leading assist man and scorer from a year ago, senior Matt Thurber (6 goals, 26 assists), who broke his leg days before the playoff series against the Wolverines.
In games without Thurber, NMU averaged less than two goals a game with just one win and a tie.
Kyle doesn't project Thurber's absence to hit the team as hard this season, not with a healthy Nowick and sophomore Justin Rose, plus the new class of freshmen forwards.
"We think we've upgraded some of the playmakers with some of the freshmen we brought in," Kyle said. "There's a lot more skill on the offensive side of the puck of this hockey team overall."
That skill has not only put pressure on the 'Cats to score more goals, but to put together a postseason run as well.
Since reaching the NCAA tournament in 2009, Northern has made three-straight first-round exits from the CCHA tournament.
Seniors like Higby want to prevent that streak from continuing in the WCHA, where finishing seventh or eighth means you miss the conference playoffs.
"We want to take this team farther into the playoffs than we have the last three years," Higby said. "It's kind of a lot of pressure and hopefully we can live up to it."