This is an exciting time for Wildcat head coach Walt Kyle. Don’t take my word for it.
“As all these guys are, we’re very excited about the start of our year,” said the man himself at Media Day.
These are certainly interesting times for Kyle and his staff, entering their fifth season at the helm at Northern Michigan. Now, it can be said, Kyle has all of “his” players — not that his predecessor’s players weren’t competitive and coachable.
The Wildcats said goodbye to an excellent senior class last year, a group that included such recognizable players as Andrew Contois, Nathan Oystrick, and Dirk Southern. That doesn’t leave NMU bereft, but it does leave the team looking and feeling much different.
“I think that we’re very much a team in transition,” said Kyle. “We lost eight seniors a year ago. We’re going to have a difficult time replacing those guys.”
According to Northern Michigan, there are nine freshmen and four sophomores on the Wildcat roster. Kyle said that the freshmen ” … are all going to see significant ice time,” but that NMU won’t “be led by a bunch of freshmen.”
That’s because the Wildcats have a significant senior class again this season, with nine of those as well, officially.
“We still have eight seniors that we’re banking [on for] a lot of what we hope will be a successful season and their ability to rise and fill the roles of the people who left prior to them,” said Kyle.
Kyle will have his team ready. He was unprepared at Media Day to give the standard look-for-this-guy-to-step-up speech, but you know someone will.
“I don’t think the right thing for me to do is to name off a bunch of guys,” said Kyle, preferring instead to focus on what he called a “collective approach.”
“We start our year with a weekend series that we’re hosting in Green Bay against Wisconsin,” said Kyle. “We come right back and play Michigan Tech in a non-league series, which is always a difficult rivalry for us. After that, we go to the tournament in Omaha, and after those three weekends, I’ll have a much better idea about our hockey team.”
The Wildcats don’t really have anything to “bounce back” from regarding the 2005-06 season. Last year, they finished tied for fourth with Nebraska-Omaha. At the end of 2004-05, they ended the season in third place. In 2003-04, they finished seventh, and fifth the year before that.
Detecting a pattern yet? It’s not a recovery that Northern Michigan needs to make; it’s a step.
I’m waiting for this Northern Michigan team to get over the hump. What hump, you ask? It’s hard to define. The Detroit hump, for one. This is a team that hasn’t won a postseason game in Joe Louis Arena since March 18, 2004, when the Wildcats beat the Spartans 2-1 in CCHA quarterfinal action, in the days of the old Super Six.
That’s five straight JLA postseason losses, spanning the ends of three seasons.
And while Kyle has been optimistic about his team’s NCAA invitation chances towards the ends of those seasons, NMU has remained a bubble team for a good many seasons, having made their its NCAA tourney appearance in 1998-99, a 2-1 loss to Boston College.
Yes, this is just Kyle’s fifth season, the year a coach really begins to come into his own in a program. But the Wildcats — previously under Rick Comley, now under Kyle — are always almost there. They feel like a top-tier team, but they don’t quite end up in the top tier. They feel gritty and possess talent, but they’re ultimately on the short end of postseason play.
Yeah, they make it interesting during the season, but the NMU regular season is beginning to feel like one long tease.
Thanks to Sean Caruthers for his Media Day contributions.