Wildcats continue to build
NMU has young team going into this season
MARQUETTE — For the past two seasons, the Northern Michigan University hockey team has enjoyed newfound success.
A lot of that was due to a strong group of upperclassmen.
Last year, eventual back-to-back WCHA Goaltender of the Year Atte Tolvanen anchored the defense, while WCHA Player of the Year and All-American Troy Loggins led the offense with the help of assist machine Adam Rockwood and captain Denver Pierce.
The Wildcats earned home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs for the second year in a row and faced Bowling Green State in the semifinals for the second straight year at home.
This time around, NMU was swept in two games by the Falcons, ending a promising season.
Looking back, NMU head coach Grant Potulny felt it was “a tale of two seasons” and he was proud of his team for fighting back after a slow start to make a good postseason run.
“At the beginning of the year, I don’t think that we handled success as well as we could have, coming off a good year,” Potulny said. “And that’s human nature. I do feel like we got ourselves in a little bit of a hole, but I’m really proud about the way the guys fought through it.
“I think the Ferris State series on, we were 14-6-2 or something. We just kind of came out of that. There’s a lot of teams that were in the same situation we were, where they had a good year before and maybe historically, the previous seasons didn’t go as well as the program would’ve hoped.
“And then they had a good year. Then there’s expectations with that team. There’s many teams that did not come out of it the way we did. That’s something when I look back, where we turned our season around. Even though things didn’t finish the way we had hoped, I’m proud of the way we fought and competed.
“Even on that Saturday night when we ended up playing Bowling Green in the last game of the year, I thought we outplayed them and we played fantastic. I thought there were moments in one of the overtimes that we could’ve won the game multiple times and I do believe that going into Sunday at home with how well we’d played at home, that I thought we would’ve had a good chance to move on.
“Then it’s a one-game shot. So you have some good memories and you protect home ice and you finish second.
“But at the end of the day, it’s about winning championships. We still have to strive to put ourselves in positions where we strive to have that opportunity.”
This year, the Wildcats will be almost an entirely different team as they’ll go through a youth movement with lots of new faces, both on offense and defense. Tolvanen, Loggins, Rockwood and Pierce are all gone as well as some other key seniors, so most people think Northern won’t have as much success this year compared to the previous two.
But Potulny said his team is embracing that and likes flying under the radar.
“It’s a new team, it’s a new year,” he said. “I think we have a lot of guys now who’ve gone through progression as young athletes from understanding what it feels like to be expected to win internally and externally.
“Initially, I think the internal expectations to win were probably easier for guys to grasp and embrace. But the external expectations, those can be challenging for athletes, especially when the season doesn’t go as well as you hoped.
“I think we’ve lived all that and we talk about it this every year, but the polls are the polls. There’s a reason they’re in the preseason. I think some years it holds true and some years it doesn’t even come close to what people would’ve expected.
“There’s always going to be somebody that is picked, it was us two years ago and it was Lake (Superior) State last year, in a position where people feel they’ll be on the road in the playoffs and they end up being at home.
“I think our league is continuing to get stronger every year. I think Mankato is a real high-end program and being a No. 1 seed in the WCHA Tournament, I think three out of the last four years. So they’ve shown consistency to be able to win at a high level and then you see other programs like Bowling Green, who has established themselves as somebody that’s a 20-win team six years in a row.
“We’re hoping to win 20 games again this year for the third season. The league is challenging, no doubt, but I feel like we have good depth and I feel that we have a (defensive) corps that has the ability to generate some offense.
“We have two goalies in their history, nothing will ever tell you they can’t do it, based on their history of what they’ve done in junior hockey. Doing it in college hockey is a completely different animal, but you go off the information that you have and the information we have is that the guys in the net are able to do it.”
Speaking of the guys in net, it’s going to be a battle between Nolan Kent, who played less than 14 minutes last season after Tolvanen started every game, and incoming freshman John Hawthorne.
Potulny said Kent probably has the edge right now since he played with the Wildcats last year, but it’s no guarantee and that if both play well, he’s “not in any rush” to determine a No. 1 goalie.
In front of Kent and Hawthorne are the defensemen, who will be led by WCHA Defenseman of the Year and 2017 All-American Phil Beaulieu. However, it won’t just be Beaulieu back there helping out the goalies. Potulny thinks veterans like Rylan Yaremko will play a big role, as well as incoming transfer Ben Newhouse.
“Rylan is back and he’s a player where his freshman year, at that point, people were talking about him playing one or two more years and then maybe being ready for the next step in his career,” Potulny said. “And then he went through a little bit of the injury bug. So he’s back and he’s a big body and has the ability to kill penalties and be counted on.
“Adam (Roeder) played a lot of good hockey for us last year and he’s going to be a guy who needs to continue to elevate his game and take that next step and become an everyday player for us now.
“Then you have a lot of young guys that have come in here and really looked like they could pop right in and play big minutes for us immediately. Whether it’s (Hank) Sorenson or (Mason) Palmer or (Michael) Van Unen or (Tanner) Vescio.
“There’s a lot of pieces back there and then Ben. He has the ability to impact a game in a similar fashion that Rockwood impacted the forward group in his first year as a transfer.
“We’re really excited about the ‘D’ corps and going forward that’s going to be a strength of our team. We can probably generate a few more goals, whether it’s deflections or tips or rebounds, because I do think those guys will get pucks to the net and if we can do that and get pucks through, it creates a little chaos by the net.
“And now we’ve got to have guys in the right spots to finish it off.”
Some forwards who could finish off those plays are Darien Craighead, who led the nation in game-winning goals two years ago, and Joe Nardi, who was fourth on the team in goals last year behind Loggins, Craighead and Pierce.
Potulny also thinks Griffin Loughran, who had 18 points last year, and was arguably the biggest pest in the conference for opposing players, could take a big step.
“I think Darien has dedicated himself to be a hockey player at a level that he’s never done previous to this year,” he said. “Junior hockey or college hockey. You can see the difference in him already on the rink.
“I think Darien has the ability to be an all-league player and he has the ability to score at high level. Now he’s rounded his game out where we’re hoping we can use him in any situation, not just the offensive ones. Those are important minutes we’re going to need out of Darien.
“Joe has continued to grow every year and he’s now in a position where he’s going to get extra ice. I think that’s something, too.
“With opportunity, guys can do things that maybe they hadn’t done before. Like being on the first team on the power play, like being the first guy over the boards in every situation. Last year, playing behind Adam, Joe maybe didn’t get the opportunities that he’s going to get this year. There’s a big difference what you get with those minutes and what you do with them. I think Joe’s going to have a good year.
“Griff looks like he’s just continued to grow and those three players coming off the years they had, they have the ability to generate offense for us and play against who are going to be the best players and be challenging for other teams to handle.”
When it comes to incoming players to become scorers, Jett Jungels is generating the most hype, and rightly so as he was a Minnesota Mr. Hockey finalist and led Edina to a state title. Potulny thinks Jungels has some potential, but will probably have “growing pains” like most freshmen.
All in all, Potulny likes what he sees from his team’s effort and although he’s not sure what its potential is, he’ll be doing his best trying to get the Wildcats there.
“This group is a group that works,” he said. “Every year is different. Every team’s got a different personality. This team’s personality is one of work and compete.
“Leaving the rink, there haven’t been any days where I’ve left feeling like they didn’t give me everything they had. As a coach, that’s all you can ask for.
“Every year, you never know what the ceiling is for any team, but your job as a coach is to make sure that team reaches its full potential, whatever that may be.”
Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.