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Still thinking ahead: Northern Michigan University hockey coach Grant Potulny focuses on development, not delays

Grant Potulny

“For the first time, we’re gonna have good players not playing and that’s a luxury for a coach to have, because … ice time is the greatest currency there is.” — Grant Potulny, head coach, NMU hockey

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MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University hockey program received some disappointing news on Monday when the school decided to either postpone or cancel all of its games through next weekend.

In a Zoom interview that afternoon, Wildcats head coach Grant Potulny talked about how the well-being of his players is the most important thing.

“At Northern Michigan, the health and safety of our student-athletes is always of the ut

most importance,” he said. “Following some results of testing, from the recommendation of our medical staff, we have, as you saw in the press conference (news release), have canceled the games.”

Linesman Eric Froberg drops the puck for a faceoff between Northern Michigan University's Garrett Klee, second from left, and Alaska-Anchorage's Luc Brown in the first period of their WCHA game played Jan. 11 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

However, that doesn’t mean Potulny isn’t still thinking about this season and setting up his lines. He also described what he’s seen in practice up until this point and that he likes what he’s seen.

“I really like our team,” he said. “We’ve got depth. We’ve had some surprises with some younger players. And again, you haven’t played the games.

“Until you play games, I think you want to try to watch your expectations for players, but based on what they’ve looked like in practice and based on what they’ve looked like in scrimmages, teams that do well have returning players who have taken a step, number one. And I feel very strongly about the steps some of these guys have taken.

“And then those teams that do well have freshmen that come in and have an impact. And in that freshmen-type class, you’re talking players that weren’t here last year.

“Jett Jungels played three shifts of (last) season and he was out. Jett has really worked hard on his injury and really worked hard on his rehab and his conditioning. And through kind of the course of (training) camp, he’s really taken big steps to kind of get back to where he was before he was hurt. So he looks good.”

Northern Michigan University’s Michael Van Unen, right, checks Alabama-Huntsville’s Liam Izyk into the boards in front of the Wildcat bench during the first period on Nov. 2, 2019, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

When it comes to the freshmen, Potulny mentioned a few players that have stood out so far and thinks could fill some key roles once the Wildcats are allowed to play again.

“In that freshmen-type class, you have David Keefer, who is a transfer from Michigan State,” Potulny said. “David’s gonna be a good player for us. We have him playing center right now and it’s a position that he hasn’t played a whole lot of. But in a season where you would start right away, it’d be challenging to put a guy there, but we’ve had six weeks of practice to get him used to playing center.

“Connor Ryckman, a goaltender, is another player that we didn’t have last year who’s had a very good camp and is gonna be fighting with Nolan (Kent) for starting (in) net.

“Guys in that freshmen class, there’s probably four of them who have made a little bigger stride than the other guys. And again, based off of practice and scrimmages and there’s gonna be games where some of those freshmen that I’m not gonna talk about, or maybe I didn’t mention today, but they may come out and have real big impacts.

“But right to this point, I think the four guys who have stood out as freshmen would (include) Noah Ganske. Noah played in Green Bay (in the USHL) last year and had a little bit of a disjointed year last year with some things going on. But he really looks like the player we recruited.

Legendary former Northern Michigan University hockey coach Rick Comley is honored with a rink bearing his name at NMU's Berry Events Center. At the Oct. 7, 2017, game against Lake Superior State, a video was shown, honoring Comley and his achievements through the years, and participated in a ceremonial puck drop. From left, Comley addresses the crowd as NMU President Fritz Erickson, NMU hockey coach Grant Potulmy and LSSU coach Damon Whitten standing near. (Journal file photo)

“Noah is on one of our power-play units. He’s 6-foot-7 and he can skate and he’s gonna be a real good player for us.

“Mike Colella is a player out of the (British Columbia Hockey League), he’s from New Jersey. Mike had 70 points last year in the BCHL, so he had a really big year. His linemate is playing at Michigan right now and his linemate in the first two games had, I think he had six points. Not saying that’s gonna happen with Mike, but he’s played with good players.

“Mack Byers has really looked well. He’s a kid from Minnesota and Connor Marritt, a kid from the BCHL, those four have probably to this point had bigger strides than maybe you expect out of freshmen.

“So we’re really excited about them.”

When it comes to the veterans, Potulny thinks they all look strong, both forwards and defensemen.

“Returning guys, I think you go back to last year and you think about what we kind of went through at the end, you didn’t have Jett all year,” he said. “You had A.J. Vanderbeck for eight games and he had eight points in eight games and then he was out.

“You lost Tanner Vescio toward the end of the year with a broken jaw. You had Griff (Loughran) playing on a foot he couldn’t even practice on and wearing a practice boot all day, and we had another defenseman wearing a cast to play. So getting those guys healthy has been really important.

“Down the right side, Vinny de Mey looks like he’s gonna have a really big year. He even looks better than he did last year and he scored 15 (goals) last year. You hope Vinny can continue to push.

“Andre Ghantous looks incredible. He’s strong. He’s fast. He’s the guy, if I was on this team and if I was a forward, he’s the guy I’d be in my office saying ‘Can I playing with Andre?’ because he recovers pucks.

“He’s tough and he can drive a line. So he looks really good. I talked about A.J.

“On the left side, obviously, you have Griff (Loughran), who led the conference in scoring last year. Jett is back, I talked about Colella, I talked about Marritt.

“Brandon Schultz is over there. He’s another player that is gonna have an opportunity to show what he can do offensively.

“Then you’ve got some size in (Garrett) Klee and (Grant) Loven up front.”

He went on to talk about his defensemen.

“We got a good mix up front in the ‘D’ corps,” Potulny said. “A lot of those guys are back and Ben Newhouse is kind of the driving force back there and leading the way. Ben’s made a step offensively. He looks more comfortable.

“He’s playing with Noah right now and I have Mike Van Unen and Tanner Vescio together. When we lost Tanner, it was just such a big blow for us, but I think at the end of the year, I think you saw how good Mike was playing and the development he made.

“You have Hank Sorensen. Mike and Hank and Tanner and Mason Palmer, they’re sophomores now. So they have that whole year under their belts that have allowed them to take a step. And then Colby Enns and Timmy Erkkila have looked very good.”

Potulny talks about the delay to open the season.

“I like our team. I’m disappointed that we won’t be able to get out and play the next little bit,” he said. “But the good thing is this pause is not something that is like losing Jett last year or losing A.J. or something like that. It’s a pause.

“So we’ve got to come through the pause and when we come back, our personnel is still the same. So I should feel the same way about them then that I do now.”

Even though Northern won’t play until mid-December, Potulny has a good idea of how his lines look, adding that Kent and Ryckman will get chances to play.

“I think besides the goaltending, we were getting close to what we were gonna do,” he said. “With all the games as jammed up as they were, I was gonna use both goalies. You probably couldn’t play a guy Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, Wednesday. So both guys are gonna get a shot at it. When we come back, we’ll kind of see what the schedule is.

“But for the first time, we’re gonna have good players not playing and that’s a luxury for a coach to have, because instead of me having to motivate them through however the way I was gonna do it, or had to do it in the past, ice time is the greatest currency there is.

“We think guys maybe aren’t playing as well as they’re capable of, you can make a couple of changes. Somebody else goes in, and that player has had to work to get in there, and now, the guy that was in there that’s not has got to work to get back in.

“It just drives your group and you talk about people that are drivers, and Joe Nardi is the biggest driver we have. He’s our hardest worker, he’s our captain.

“I’ve been so fortunate here. The guys who have worn the ‘C’ here have just been incredible people first, and leaders, and he’s just next on that list. I’ve been really fortunate.”

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

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