MARQUETTE - After reaching the CCHA Championship game and NCAA tournament in 2009-10, the Northern Michigan University hockey team has put together three losing seasons in the four years since and lost four consecutive first-round league playoff series.
But after devoting significant time to seven freshmen and two more fresh faces in 2013-14, head coach Walt Kyle is more optimistic this off-season than he ever was in previous years.
"I feel as good about what we have coming back as I have in a number of years," Kyle said. "I was really pleased with the growth. When you're doing that, it's a really big step."
Northern Michigan University redshirt freshman John Siemer, left, skates the puck out to neutral ice as he battles with Alaska junior Garrick Perry during the first period on Jan. 18 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Wildcats freshman defenseman Brock Maschmeyer skates out to neutral ice against the Nanooks on Jan. 18 in Marquette. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
Back in the WCHA for the first time since the 1996-97 season, the Wildcats (15-21-2 overall, 13-14-1 in WCHA) finished seventh in the new-look, 10-team league that better resembled the CCHA than the conference NMU won an NCAA championship as a member of in 1991.
NMU swept last-place Alabama-Huntsville on the final weekend of the regular season to clinch a WCHA playoff berth by three points over eighth-place Bemidji State and Lake Superior State, while also falling three points shy of home ice to third-place Alaska and Bowling Green.
"We were disappointed," Kyle said about the season. "I thought we would be a little bit better. We were excited about the new league.
Key losses: Sr F Stephan Vigier (16 G, 17 A), Sr F Erik Higby (12 G, 11 A), Sr D CJ Ludwig (5 G, 7 A), Sr D Wade Epp (3 G, 5 A), Sr F Jake Johnson (3 G, 0 A).
Key returnees: Jr F Reed Seckel (12 G, 11 A), Jr D Mitch Jones (3 G, 20 A), Fr F John Siemer (7 G, 11 A), Fr F Dominik Shine (6 G, 11 A), Jr F Ryan Daugherty (5 G, 12 A), Fr F Shane Sooth (4 G, 13 A), Jr D Luke Eibler (2 G, 14 A), Fr D Brock Maschmeyer (6 G, 9 A), So F Darren Nowick (6 G, 4 A), Fr F Sami Salminen (2 G, 8 A), Jr F Ryan Kesti (4 G, 4 A), Fr F Gerard Hanson (1 G, 7 A), Jr D Jake Baker (1 G, 5 A), So D Barrett Kaib (1 G, 3 A), Fr G Mathias Dahlstrom (2.64 GAA, .912 Sv %).
Projected additions: *Jr F Joseph Manno, Northeastern, Hockey East (transfer); *Fr D Marshall Donald, Sherwood Park, AJHL; *Fr D Jordan Klimek, Dubuque, USHL; Jr F Robbie Payne, Tri-City, USHL; Fr D Connor Frantti, Muskegon, USHL; Fr F Zach Diamantoni, Chilliwack, BCHL.
(* denotes signed National Letter of Intent)
"I thought the league was real competitive. I didn't think we competed well with the top of the league."
Northern traveled to second-place and eventual WCHA playoff champion Minnesota State for the first round, where it was swept in two games, falling short of a comeback in a Game 1 loss, 3-2, before dropping a back-and-forth Game 2, 5-4 in overtime.
In those final four games, the Wildcats received significant contributions from its freshmen, specifically defenseman Brock Maschmeyer, who scored three goals in the final four games with two coming in the playoff series.
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- NMU hockey 2013-14 results
- NMU hockey 2013-14 statistics
- Final 2013-14 WCHA standings
- NCAA Division I national individual and team leaders
- Follow Matt Wellens on Twitter for the latest this offseason on NMU hockey
"Brock in particular really, really grew and was able to quarterback that top power play," Kyle said. "He played his very best for us at the end. He was one of the guys to me that really emerged in the playoffs."
Maschmeyer emerged on defense and on the power play because of the loss of senior defenseman and captain C.J. Ludwig to a season-ending knee injury, suffered in the closing minutes of a 4-1 home loss to Ferris State on Nov. 29, just 13 games into the season and seven games into a 28-game conference slate.
In those first 13 games, NMU was 6-6-1 overall and 4-3-0 in conference play. After that, Northern finished 9-15-1 overall and 9-11-1 in league play.
"(Ludwig) was a guy we didn't plan on having to replace this year," Kyle said. "In my opinion, he was our best player. He was the best defenseman in the league this year. He's a guy that would log 25-26 minutes every night in every situation. His loss was huge."
Ludwig's loss this year hurt the Wildcats in the short term - possibly costing the team at least the game and a half it needed to finish in the top four, according to Kyle - but in the long term, it allowed a player like Maschmeyer to emerge and fill roles he never would have as a freshman.
Kyle was playing Maschmeyer as a fourth-line forward prior to Ludwig's injury just to get him in the lineup. After Ludwig went down, Maschmeyer was a regular in the lineup - missing all but four games to injury - and the quarterback of a power play that finished second overall in the WCHA at 20 percent.
Maschmeyer tallied a point in seven of final 10 games, had four goals in the final six games and finished tied for second among WCHA freshmen defensemen in scoring with six goals and nine assists.
"'Masch' contributed huge in these last couple of games," NMU junior defenseman Luke Eibler said.
"He's a little guy. He has a lot of skill, good shot, good vision and he was with pretty good guys on that first (power play) unit. He really stepped up and he moves the puck well.
"He was really big offensively for us."
John Siemer led NMU's freshmen class in scoring despite missing the first 16 games. The forward was ineligible the first semester and unable to even enroll at NMU until the winter.
In 21 games, Siemer scored seven goals and 11 assists. His average of 0.86 points per game tied the top-scoring freshman in the WCHA, Lake Superior State forward Alex Globke.
"He is dynamic offensively," Kyle said about Siemer. "He still has a lot of growth left to his game. He's got a lot of things he has to learn defensively and things that will help him be more dynamic offensively. He is a dynamic guy who really has the ability to create."
In addition to Siemer, the Wildcats added freshman forward Gerard Hanson in the second half. He finished with one goal and seven assists alongside Siemer and sophomore forward Darren Nowick (six goals, four assists) on what Kyle called the most dangerous line at the end of the year.
Sami Salminen of Finland appeared in 29 games as a freshman forward, scoring two goals and eight assists in a variety of roles.
Freshmen forwards Shane Sooth and Dominik Shine appeared in all 38 games for Northern with Sooth tallying four goals and 13 assists while Shine posted six goals and 11 assists.
Shine and Sooth played alongside the Wildcats' leading returning scorer next year, junior forward Reed Seckel, who posted 12 goals and 11 assists with 10 of the 12 goals and all 11 assists coming against WCHA foes.
In comparison, leading scorer and Ludwig's replacement as captain, senior forward Stephan Vigier, finished with 16 goals and 17 assists, but 10 of those goals and two of the assists came in the first 10 games of the season.
"Reed Seckel's value you can't always measure with goals and assists," Kyle said. "He has a real ability to create chaos. He can be a real presence night in and night out and he was that every night this year. I thought Reed had his best year."
At times, Seckel created too much chaos for the Wildcats. Heading into the Frozen Four, Seckel's 35 penalties sits fourth in NCAA Division I college hockey and his 103 total penalty minutes ranks third in the nation. His average of 1.06 penalties per night was tied for first in the country and his 3.06 penalty minutes per night average sits alone atop Division I college hockey.
Seckel was tossed from three games this season with two game misconducts and a game disqualification on Nov. 29, resulting in him being suspended for Game 2 against Ferris State the following night.
Kyle said the amount of penalty minutes Seckel took this year was "ridiculous."
"I couldn't find that perfect fire from playing the way I play and staying out of the box," Seckel said.
"Last year in the CCHA, I knew every ref. This year, I had to make all new friendships with the refs. Different guys and different mindsets."
In addition to the five freshmen forwards and Seckel, NMU returns juniors Ryan Daugherty (37 games played, five goals, 12 assists) and Ryan Kesti (38 GP, 4 G, 4 A) at forward, as well as junior defensemen Jake Baker (36 GP, 1 G, 5 A), Mitch Jones (37 GP, 3 G, 20 A) and Eibler (37 GP, 2 G, 14 A), as well as sophomore defenseman Barrett Kaib (29 GP, 1 G, 3 A). Both Eibler and Kaib transferred to NMU this season.
The most important piece returning for NMU, however, may be redshirt freshman goaltender Mathias Dahlstrom.
The Swedish netminder started 35 of the 36 games he appeared in, finishing with a .912 saves percentage and 2.64 goals-against average. In WCHA play, he finished with a 2.44 GAA and .914 saves percentage, good for sixth and fifth in the league, respectively.
Kyle said in his opinion, Dahlstrom was a star and the best goalie in the WCHA this year.
Dahlstrom's teammate, Jones, had a higher compliment for the rookie goalie.
"He's good," Jones said. "Another year that I'm here and our goalie is the hardest working player again. That's always a good thing to have."