Making a big statement

Six NMU skaters invited to NHL development camps

Northern Michigan’s Philip Beaulieu, left, and Bowling Green’s Alec Rauhauser race after the puck during Game 2 of the WCHA playoffs semifinal series Saturday night at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — Last season, Northern Michigan University made a huge statement in the college hockey world by contending for the WCHA regular season title, coming within one game of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight years, and winning 25 games for the first time since 2002.

It took a lot of work to turn the program around in a short period of time. In June, six of those players, five whom are still on the team, were awarded spots at NHL development camps.

“That’s the recognition of the work the guys have put in,” Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny said. “I know that it was probably Christmas and one of the guys from the (New York) Islanders asked if he could come down before the game and I said ‘Yeah, no problem.’ He came down here and was like ‘I haven’t been up here in a long time.’

“I think it’s just proof that we’re moving in the right direction and more importantly, it’s proof that the guys are getting some reward for the hard work that they put in.”

Most teams know who they want in their camps by a certain point in the season and scouts probably weren’t looking that closely at Northern’s roster, but Potulny said that NMU’s strong second half helped more players get noticed by the NHL.

“I think part of that was we kind of had a slow start to the year and guys, personally, and as a group, we were right around average,” the NMU coach said. “The second half of the year when some guys started to take off and our team started to take off, by that point, it’s hard for NHL guys to adjust their schedules. They kind of already know who they’ve got to see.

“Then by the end of the year, they looked back over the season and saw some of the production guys have had and were like ‘Oh my gosh.’

“The guys that actually went to camp, I actually ended up getting calls from multiple other teams that were saying ‘Is this guy going to camp?’ and I said that they’re already going to these camps.

“So I think it just takes time, too, to kind of get back on the map again. Now there’s no doubt that there will be lots of eyes on our team next year.”

One invitee is the now-departed Robbie Payne. The other five Wildcats who went to camps will all be back on the roster this year.

The first is defenseman Phil Beaulieu, who was an ACHA Second Team All-American last year after leading the nation with the most points and assists by a defenseman. He was invited to the Boston Bruins’ camp. Beaulieu’s ability to create offense efficiently sets him apart among defenseman.

“Phil’s ability to create offense in the ‘half-court’ from the blue line in, and I’m biased, but I think he’s as good as anyone in college hockey,” Potulny said. “As the year went, he got more confident, coming through the transition. When he scored against Bowling Green joining the rush, a lot of the guys, it’s all about offense and that’s what teams are looking for. They’re looking for skills and offensive ability. That’s where Phil excels.

“In the game now, you watch the NHL and especially in the playoffs, everybody brings their defensive players so low in their own end and the only release point is out to the D(efense). Now it’s on that defenseman to get the puck to the net or find a stick or create offense because if he’s just throwing it back around the yellow (along the boards) again, his forwards have to go dig it out again and do the same thing. “

Another breakout star last season was forward Adam Rockwood, who transferred to NMU from Wisconsin. Rockwood led the nation in assists and his skill at setting up goals made him a vital part of Northern’s second-half surge. He got an invite from his hometown team, the Vancouver Canucks.

“Adam was one of the guys lots of teams called about,” Potulny said. “For Adam, it’s almost a resurgence. There was an article in the Vancouver paper about Adam being out there. It kind of talked about his journey to get to where he is.

“Probably because he’s an elite player, it was probably pretty easy sailing all the way to Wisconsin. The first time he really had adversity was probably after sophomore year of college. That’s a tough time to feel that pain and anguish to know now what you do.

“(Former NMU coach) Walt (Kyle) obviously did an amazing job recruiting Adam to get him here and I’ve said it lots of times, but you don’t usually get guys like Adam as transfers.

“Obviously, the previous staff did an incredible job convincing Adam that this a great place for him and keeping him engaged for a year. That’s just as hard as getting them to come here is keeping them engaged when they can’t play. Adam obviously worked throughout that year to prepare himself for his first year of eligibility at Northern.

“It took him some time last year. The game speed was a little bit quicker and he had been off for a whole year. It took him some time to get going, but I think once he got going, he and Troy were playing at a clip that was as good as anybody in all of college hockey for the last 20 games of the year.

“It was incredible. Every night, it seemed like Adam had two points and Troy (Loggins) had a goal. Those guys just fit so well together. I’m happy to see Adam get a little bit of recognition in the way he plays the game.”

Speaking of Loggins, he became the Wildcats’ go-to offensive player down the stretch. Payne had a huge start to his season, but as opposing teams focusing on him more in the defensive zone, Northern needed another forward to step up.

Loggins did that, finishing tied for ninth in the nation in goals and earning a spot on the All-WCHA First Team. He’s now seen as a potential Hobey Baker finalist and got a close look from the Arizona Coyotes.

“Troy was probably as consistent a performer as you could have throughout the year,” Potulny said. “He just wasn’t scoring. We would have conversations with him and say ‘Hey, you had 13 scoring chances last weekend’ and none of them went in. A guy who can score and shoot it, that isn’t going to … hold true all year and I always say the hockey gods will even it out.

“You knew it was going to come when it finally started going in for him. When it kind of started for him, it was like the faucet opened. He was playing at such a (high) level of confidence.”

Loggins is not only dangerous 5-on-5, but also on the penalty kill as he finished with five shorthanded goals, helping the Wildcats lead the country with nine.

“He can find holes and can get himself in position,” Potulny said. “I think a lot of that has to do with Adam because he’s such a good distributer and Troy is such a good finisher.

“You’ve got to have responsibilities and the guys on the power play, if one of those guys falls asleep for a second when they’re on the ice against two elite offensive players, there’s going to be scoring chances the other way and those guys pounce on all those opportunities.”

Darien Craighead was another forward who gathered more attention as the season went on. Craighead was sometimes overshadowed at times by fellow forwards Payne and Loggins, but still finished third on the team in goals and earned a spot on the All-WCHA Third Team. He spent his time at a camp with the Islanders.

“When the year started and we had Adam with Zach and Robbie, those guys were doing the bulk of the scoring,” Potulny said. “At the beginning of the year, Robbie was scoring a lot of goals, but Darien was … getting the first assists. Those guys were having success, but I don’t think the team was collectively having the success that we hoped.”

Changing personnel made a difference on the man advantage.

“By moving a couple things around, maybe having Darien on the second power play so that the puck ran through him,” the coach said for the reason for a more effective power play. “He could make some plays there, but he was pulled away from some of those guys that he had success with.

“It obviously helped our team and the one thing about Darien is that he never said boo about it. He never said a word about where he was playing or who he was playing with.

“This year he’s going to have a starring role. He’s going to be in the position where he’s going to be a huge centerpiece to our offensive team. So, I expect him to have an even better year because his hockey brain is really elite.”

The final camp invitee for the Wildcats was defenseman Adam Roeder. He only played in 22 games as a freshman, tallying three points. That may not seem like much, but his work ethic was enough to catch the eye of his hometown squad, the St. Louis Blues.

“I think being a local player, Adam went home in the summer and started training with some of the people who were close to the Blues,” Potulny said. “Adam was playing with skills coaches and they’re probably sitting there and watching him and they’re going ‘This kid is as good as all of these other guys we’re bringing in and he’s a local player.’ I think he earned that opportunity more so in the summertime than anything he did in throughout the year with us.

“It’s like a light went off and he realized that if I’m going to play, I need to get better. He decided that every day that he was going to try to give everything he had. I think his body started to change and got into a little better shape and started doing extra on the bike.”

All in all, Potulny feels confident that he has a quality team to put on the ice this fall and thinks that now that the new fast-paced style of play is in place, the Wildcats can get off to a better start.

“This year we really feel good about a lot of our guys,” he said. “There’s a lot of guys that we haven’t even talked about. There’s going to be a lot of hard work put in the fall, but hopefully the attitude and the execution are where they were after Christmas and we’re ready to start the year and we won’t need that two months with new coaches and learning new terminology and new players.

“There’s a level of familiarity now and hopefully we can hit the ground running.”

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

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