In the past decade, the Western Michigan Broncos have finished higher than sixth place exactly once, in 2000-01, when they tied with Northern Michigan for fifth — and NMU won the tiebreaker that year for the higher playoff slot.
So, it’s a bit strange to think of last year’s seventh-place finish as an accomplishment, but it is in many intangible ways. The Broncos, chosen last in the 2008-09 CCHA coaches and media polls, had improved from 12th place the season before, and head coach Jim Culhane — whose teams have finished anywhere from last to fifth place in his 11 years at the Bronco helm — could appreciate the step his team had taken.
“From looking back and reflecting over the summer months,” said Culhane, “I was pretty pleased with the way the team progressed and where we finished last year. From January on last season, our record was 11-9-3, and we knew earlier on that we’d have some growing pains with our young team.”
Perhaps “young” isn’t the right word, given that the Broncos return a team this season with an average age of 21 years and seven months. But “new” or “inexperienced” would fit; WMU had eight rookies who played last year and 10 sophomores on the roster.
One would-be sophomore, defenseman Kevin Connauton, departed early with his seven goals, 11 assists, and healthy presence in the Bronco power play, but WMU fields a youthful and fairly talented team again this year. Two of Western’s three top goal-scorers return from a year ago, junior Max Campbell and sophomore Kyle O’Kane.
The Broncos will have seven newcomers this season, two of whom — forwards Trevor Elias (BCHL) and Benn Miller (USHL) — put up some impressive offensive numbers in junior hockey.
As always, though, it’s the defense that worries WMU fans. We’re really young on the blue line with four freshmen,” said Culhane. “A key for us right away is to get those guys comfortable … with the level of play in the CCHA.”
It’s a good thing, then, that the Broncos have senior goaltender Riley Gill, who is the all-time shutout leader at Western. “I’m really excited about our goaltending,” said Culhane, adding that Gill “just had a real solid year” in 2008-09.
As young — well, youngish — as are the Broncos, Culhane said that they have solid leadership from Gill’s fellow seniors. “We’ll be led by a couple key guys, one being on the back end, Tyler Ludwig. Tyler I think is at times an underrated player in the CCHA, but one that logs a lot of minutes for us on the blue line, is a great ambassador for our hockey program, on and off the ice.
“Right now, we need to get our young guys … on board here. We’re looking forward to another competitive season in the CCHA.”
And goodbye, Frank the Tank.