Western Michigan out to build on breakout season despite coaching change

Past predictors

In one year, Jeff Blashill — the kid who grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, played in Big Rapids and coached in Oxford — pulled Western Michigan from last place to fourth, and none of it seemed like smoke and mirrors. Somehow, Blashill managed to transform the program’s culture in just one little season.

And then he left.

His replacement is veteran NHL coach Andy Murray. Can the Broncos start the 2011-12 season where they ended in 2010-11, as the CCHA coaches and media seem to think they can?

“That’s a great question,” said Murray, “and there are probably people that are better informed to answer that than I would be.”

A brilliant answer.

Many first-year head coaches keep assistants on at least to see transitions through. Murray knows, though, what he has in assistants Rob Facca and Pat Ferschweiler, whom he’s praised as moving the program in a “positive direction.” Murray’s smart enough to recognize other things, too.

“The one thing I will applaud is the work ethic and the off-ice performance in terms of our testing,” said Murray. “I know all of the coaches have attested to the fact that their players have come back in great shape in the fall, and all the programs. We’re all pretty optimistic at this time. I think it’s been more the collective work here.

“Certainly our captain, Ian Slater, is as good of a captain as I have ever seen in terms of what he expects of the players and the level of commitment that he wants from them. You’re only allowed two full-time assistant coaches, and Ian Slater is like another coach on our staff and we have already developed a tremendous respect for him.”

Good omens

For a team that finished fourth in the CCHA last season, Western Michigan did not put up the most impressive offensive or special teams numbers; WMU was 32nd nationally in scoring (2.76 goals per game) with the 33rd-best power play (17.3 percent) and 48th-best penalty kill (78.7 percent) in the country. What was their secret?

The Broncos kept it simple and kept it close, outscoring CCHA opponents 77-71 on the season. WMU returns one of its two double-digit goal scorers from a season ago, sophomore Chase Balisy.

Murray is also optimistic that someone will be able to step into the net that Jerry Kuhn defended last season.

“We’ve got three large goaltenders, which you have to like,” said Murray, who said that junior Nick Pisellini is “very strong positionally.” Freshmen Kris Moore and Frank Slubowski will challenge Pisellini for the starting role. “I think Nick has appreciated the competition,” said Murray, “because it has raised his level as well.”

What spells doom?

The second new head coach in as many years. A noticeable lack of offense. Relying too much last season on a goaltender who was clearly on a mission. The new pressure of having to meet expectations and maintain success.

Lots of variables in Kalamazoo.

About the Broncos

2010-11 overall record: 19-13-10

2010-11 CCHA record: 10-9-9-5 (fourth)

2011-12 predicted finish (coaches poll): Fourth

Key losses: Forwards Max Campbell and Ryan Watson; defenseman Mike Levendusky; goaltender Jerry Kuhn

Players to watch: Forwards Chase Balisy, Shane Berschbach, Ian Slater, Greg Squires; defenseman Matt Tennyson; goaltender Nick Pisellini

Impact rookie: Forward Will Kessel

Why the Broncos will finish higher than the coaches poll: This is a team that bought into an entirely new culture last season, allowing its most talented players to shine. They lose little and have great leadership.

Why the Broncos will finish lower than the coaches poll: The second head coach in as many years could have an impact, as well as the loss of goaltender Jerry Kuhn, who kept the Broncos in many games that perhaps should have gone differently.