The 2010-11 season ended in an uncharacteristic way for Northern Michigan — in Marquette, after losing two of three to Bowling Green in the first round of the CCHA playoffs. It was just the second time in nine years under coach Walt Kyle that NMU had failed to advance to the CCHA championship tournament.
It may have been uncharacteristic and certainly being beaten at home by the league’s last-place team wasn’t something expected, but it was hardly surprising given the second half the Wildcats produced — and that was uncharacteristic, too. In recent seasons, NMU has struggled out of the gate and finished up strong. In 2010-11, though, the ‘Cats played competently at first then fizzled; NMU went 5-8-1-1 in CCHA play in the second half of the season.
The main problem? Scoring. The Wildcats had the 52nd-best offense in the nation, averaging 2.33 goals per game.
The good news is that NMU returns most of the scoring it did have a season ago. Andrew Cherniwchan, Justin Florek and Tyler Gron — all seniors this year — led the Wildcats in scoring last season and registered 39 goals between them, or 42.8 percent of the team’s markers. Kyle said the trio proved itself last season.
“Florek has, for his entire career, has been one of the best players we’ve had every day,” said Kyle. “Cherniwchan has been as well. I don’t think their true value comes in offensive output. It comes in a lot of other areas of the game. We expect them to score and continue to have their game grow in other areas.
“Gron has exceptional offensive ability. He’s the one guy we have who’s real dangerous around the net. He finds a way to find loose pucks and put them in. We’d like him to balance his game out a little bit and continue to score and for those numbers to improve this year.”
Kyle also has confidence in defensemen Scott Macaulay and Kyle Follmer, both juniors this season.
“Both of those guys are real good players that had real good years a year ago,” said Kyle. “They were sophomores a year ago and were asked to bite off a bunch of minutes. They got a ton of experience. My opinion, they’re real underrated players. They have tremendous offensive ability and they’re ready as juniors to have breakout years and impact the game offensively.”
What spells doom?
Aside from the question of goal production, the Wildcats are still looking to solidify their goaltending. “We think we have two guys that are still growing and getting better at the position,” said Kyle.
Reid Ellingson, a senior this year, saw the bulk of time in net last season, but Jared Coreau played significant minutes. Neither had stellar goals against averages, but that may have more to do with the defense in front of them; each had solid save percentages.
Kyle said that Ellingson has “more ability, more room to grow” and that Coreau has yet to play consistently well. “At times he was spectacular and at other times he stumbled a little bit,” Kyle said.
“We feel that position has the potential to be a strength for us,” he said. “As far as how I’m going to use them, they’re going to split early and after that I think it’s pretty black and white who’s getting the job done.”
About the Wildcats
2010-11 overall record: 15-19-5
2010-11 CCHA record: 12-13-3-0 (sixth)
2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Sixth
Key losses: Forwards Phil Fox and Greger Hanson
Players to watch: Forwards Andrew Cherniwchan, Justin Florek and Tyler Gron; defenseman Kyle Follmer; goaltender Reid Ellingson
Impact rookie: Forward Dylan Walchuk
Why the Wildcats will finish higher than the coaches poll: The core of this team is tested and tough and undoubtedly wanting to put the second half of 2010-11 behind it.
Why the Wildcats will finish lower than the coaches poll: This is a team that was underachieving in every category last season, and if the Wildcats start slowly, they may not have enough to pull the second-half recovery they were accustomed to prior to last season.