Injuries decimated Northern Michigan last season.
At various times throughout the year, the Wildcats were without their No. 1 goaltender (Mathias Dahlström) as well as two of their top forwards (Dominik Shine and Gerard Hanson) and a number of defensemen.
NMU coach Walt Kyle hopes his team can prove itself this year — both the players who are coming back from injury and the ones that struggled last year when called upon to step in.
“We had 156 man games missed to injury,” Kyle said. “We got going early in the season, then all at the same time we got hit and we didn’t have the depth that was ready to contribute and take us to a place we wanted to be. And that’s our fault as coaches.”
It starts with Dahlström, who was one of the best goalies in the WCHA last year before suffering a concussion in December. He played a few more games before suffering a season-ending knee injury Jan. 30 against Alaska-Anchorage. He finished the season with a 2.18 GAA and a .924 save percentage.
“He’s an exceptional goaltender,” Kyle said of his junior netminder. “One thing with the league this year, there are a number of very good goaltenders and I would not put anyone, in my opinion, ahead of Mathias.”
Northern Michigan’s offense largely will depend on how healthy it can stay. Senior Darren Nowick and junior Shane Sooth played every game of last season and return as the team’s leading scorers. But Shine, a junior, led the team with 18 points before going down in late January. He returned at the end of the season but couldn’t generate much after missing 10 games.
Junior John Siemer had a breakout freshman season but managed just 13 points as a sophomore.
“I’m excited about where we are and where our growth is out front,” Kyle said. “It needs to be one of the greater areas of growth for us to have success and I really believe it’s going to be that. We feel real comfortable with our top 11 or 12 guys.”
The Wildcats finished seventh in the WCHA last season, so to improve on that they’ll need to stay healthy. They open this weekend at Wisconsin — a team they swept last season.
“We want to get this season up and running because we want to show everyone we’re a much better team than where we finished a year ago,” Kyle said.
14-18-6, 11-13-4 (seventh) in the WCHA. Lost to Bowling Green in the WCHA first round.
Names to know
When he’s healthy, Dahlström is one of the better goalies in the WCHA. In front of him, defenseman Brock Maschmeyer was a great two-way player for NMU, scoring 19 points and earning all-WCHA third-team honors. Freshman forward Troy Loggins was last season’s USHL playoff MVP and led the league in playoff scoring as his Sioux Falls team won the Clark Cup title.
1. Every team has injuries, so NMU’s woes weren’t unique. Do the Wildcats have the depth to overcome those injuries if that happens again?
2. Will the Wildcats be able to deliver on Kyle’s promise that their biggest area of growth is up front?
3. Northern’s special teams were some of the best in the nation last year — the Wildcats were No. 3 in the country in combined special teams. Their power play was at 18 percent, good enough for third in the WCHA. Can they continue that this season?
A healthy Wildcats team could do some damage in the WCHA. I don’t know if they’re going to be good enough to get home ice but they could put together a playoff run behind Dahlström, provided those forwards step up.