Top line of stars: But Northern Michigan University hockey team’s depth just as important

Northern Michigan University’s Troy Loggins, right, looks for an opening as he moves the puck into the offensive zone as Michigan Tech’s Mitch Meek defends during the first period of the WCHA playoff championship game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on March 17. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“We’ve got a dogfight at every position this year to find guys who are going to play because we have great options.” — Grant Potluny, second-year head coach, NMU hockey

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Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series previewing the Northern Michigan University hockey team for the 2018-19 season. Monday’s first part was an overview about the upcoming season, with today’s looking in depth at each position and the players expected to make the most significant contributions.

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MARQUETTE — When looking at the Northern Michigan University hockey roster and thinking about players who can make plays, it starts with the top line of team captain Denver Pierce, assistant captain Adam Rockwood and senior Troy Loggins.

Northern Michigan University's Adam Rockwood, left, and Michigan Tech's Dylan Steman face off in the MTU zone during the third period of the WCHA playoff championship game played at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on March 17. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

Rockwood led the nation in assists last year and was the WCHA coaches’ pick for Preseason Player of the Year, while Loggins was an All-WCHA First Teamer, was the media’s pick for POTY and led the country in shorthanded goals.

Pierce is a hard-nosed competitor who NMU second-year head coach Grant Potulny has credited for allowing Rockwood and Loggins to catapult to the next level.

“I think what’s kind of gone a little bit unnoticed is that those guys kind of took off when Denver (Pierce) came to their line,” Potulny said during the WCHA conference call with the media nearly two weeks ago. “Denver adds that north-south, heavy, gritty hockey to them.

“It gives them a little bit of room to operate. Denver is a guy who had a very good year last year and we look forward to him continuing to build his offense.”

This line has the makings of some real star power.

Northern Michigan University’s Adam Rockwood chases after the puck in Alabama-Huntsville’s zone on Dec. 1 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal file photo)

“They are a legitimate (NCAA) Division I top line and not every program has one,” Potulny said. “There’s teams that have a line that’s first on their line chart, but I don’t know that maybe more than 15 teams in college hockey … can say that they really feel they have a legitimate top line.

“Those three give us a legitimate top line and they’re going to be counted on heavily to lead the way and be productive, but our depth is much improved than where it’s been before.”

That trio will get much of the attention, and deservedly so, but the Wildcats are remarkably deep at forward with Darien Craighead and Joe Nardi more than capable of adding punch to the offense. Craighead was a WCHA Third Teamer in 2018 and is a preseason Second Team selection. He also led the nation in game-winning goals.

“Joe has really taken a step, Darien has really taken a step,” the coach said. “Those two guys are in different positions than they were last year. Coming into the year, I think they have a lot more confidence.

“Joe was just a freshman and Darien was still kind of finding his way a little bit. He became a dominant player in the league. He was an all-league player last year and this year, some people thought in the preseason recognitions that he was a guy that was going to have a good year and I think that they’re going to be right.”

Grant Potulny

Those are just the veterans, though. Potulny has a talented freshmen class that he thinks will be able to contribute quickly and could challenge the upperclassmen for ice time — a good thing.

“When you get into some of our freshmen, the ability that they have to come in and play in those situations is great,” he said. “Whether it’s Ty Readman who is going to get the chance to start the year with Nardi and Craighead.

“Then you have Griffin (Loughran) who was the Clark Cup MVP and he’s a hard-working high-energy guy. He gets his production out of just sheer will, and Jarrett Lee, who is a player that we actually didn’t plan on having this year. We lost a recruit to a Canadian college and Jarrett was somebody that we really thought long and hard about bringing in because we really thought he’d be a huge piece going forward to our program and we didn’t want to bring him in before he was ready. He’s come in and done a fantastic job.

“Vincent (de May) scored 20 goals in the USHL last year, Garrett (Klee) played big minutes, Luke (Voltin) played a lot of minutes for us last year.

“With the addition of Grant Loven, he’s been maybe the surprise of camp. He skates and he’s powerful. We’re at a position where now I think guys are going to have to earn their ice time. I know that as a coach, you feel much more confident in your group when guys are earning their ice time and it’s not given to them. This year, guys will definitely have to earn the right to play.”

On the back line, Northern lost a key defenseman in Jordan Klimek to graduation, but it’s still stable and the ‘Cats have a new leader to anchor it in offensive d-man Phil Beaulieu.

The junior assistant captain was a Second-Team All-American last year and is an All-WCHA preseason First Teamer. Potulny said that he’s already looking like he did in March and he’s got some good support from veteran teammates James Vermeulen, Ryan Black and Adam Roeder, along with newcomers such as Notre Dame transfer Tony Bretzman.

“I really feel good about the ‘D’ corps headlined by Phil Beaulieu, an All-American last year,” Potulny said. “Phil really put the work in this summer. He’s right back at the form that he looked at the end of the year when he was dominating games and he’s right back into that shape and form.

“James had an unbelievable summer. He really worked on his skating and his stick. His confidence is sky high and he put about 15 pounds on his body, so he’s in a great position. Ryan is coming back with a ton of confidence. Robbie Fosdick had a good summer, Connor Frantti is in great shape.

“With the addition of Tony from Notre Dame, and Adam, who went to development camp in St. Louis and is in really good shape, we’ve got a dogfight at every position this year to find guys who are going to play because we have great options. As a coach, that makes you sleep a little better at night knowing that you do have some depth.”

Where the Wildcats lack depth is at goaltending, but if Atte Tolvanen stays healthy, they might not need it.

Two years ago, Tolvanen tied the NCAA record for consecutive shutouts, and last year he was WCHA Goaltender of the Year. He’s got the top spot on lockdown and if he can play like he’s played the last three semesters, the Wildcats will be in terrific shape.

“Atte is one of the elite goaltenders in college hockey and I believe he’s going to have a fantastic year,” Potulny said. “I believe that he’s going to be in the conversation for some individual awards at the end of the year.

“The thing for Atte was like last year was a little different for him. As a goalie, you like feeling pucks. It gets you in the game and it helps your numbers and that helps your confidence. Atte, for sure, saw less pucks than he’s ever seen. We gave up I think the second-least amount of shots in college hockey, but we would give up some doozies.

“Now, I think Atte understands the type of game he’s going to see. He has a feel for that and as the year went, it was an adjustment to start the year, but obviously as the year went, he became the dominant goalie in our league.

“I have no doubt that he’s going to go back to that form and he’s the backbone of our team. You can talk about the forwards and the defense and all those things, but Atte is the backbone of Wildcat hockey.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.

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