State Of The Program: No. 20 Northern Michigan Wildcats Ready To Pounce

Coach Grant Potulny turned Northern Michigan around during his first season at the helm of the Wildcats, leading them to their first winning record since 2011-12 and a clear path into the future, entering the season ranked at No. 20.

Potulny’s team finished second in the WCHA with a 25-15-3 record, nearly matching the team’s combined 28 wins from the previous two seasons. It was the program’s first 20-win campaign since 2009-10 and highest conference finish since 1990-91, when the Wildcats claimed the WCHA and a national championship.

The impressive season landed Potulny an extension through 2026 backed by the support and commitment from NMU athletic director Forrest Karr.

“We are constantly striving to be among the nation’s elite programs,” Karr told Ryan Stieg of The Mining Journal. “I believe in our coaching staff and this agreement is another reflection of Northern’s commitment to continued success.”

Potulny’s team built on an electric offense with five players hitting the 30-point mark, including three 40-point men. Adam Rockwood led the NCAA with 40 assists and finished eighth in collegiate scoring with 48 points, which also led all Wildcats players. He’ll look to take another step when he returns this season.

That next step will help offset the loss of graduates Zach Diamantoni, Jordan Klimek, Filip Starzynski, and captain Robbie Payne.

Payne finished fourth in team scoring while his 24 goals ranked sixth in the NCAA. Needless to say, the Wildcats will be missing a lot of scoring power and leadership entering the 2018-19 season. Three of the four departing players come from the offense.

But Potulny isn’t expecting any fallback from the loss of key players.

“I think this year everybody knows what to expect, players and coaches,” Potulny added to Stieg. “The hope is we can start out the year in the same fashion that the second half of the year brought for us and we don’t need two or three months to really start separating ourselves from the field.”

A quick start would be widely beneficial for the Wildcats, who went 11-9-2 before the calendar year ended. They took charge during the winter semester, going 14-6-1. Potulny now has a better understanding of his players and the playing level of college hockey.

Conversely, with eight underclassmen suiting up for at least 29 of the Wildcats’ 43 games last season, Potulny was coaching a rather young, untested team. The players themselves should be quicker to buy into Potulny’s system, increased expectations, and more room in the top six up for grabs.

Troy Loggins is set to take over for Rockwood as he enters his senior season. Loggins finished last season with 47 points (23 G, 24 A) during a huge breakout year. Darien Craighead and Joseph Nardi will take up two of the remaining five spots in the top six.

Craighead recorded 17 goals and 33 points, taking a nice step forward in his sophomore campaign. Nardi went through fits and starts as a freshman but still managed nine goals and 20 points in 43 games and should be able to build on those numbers this year.

Ty Readman leads the incoming freshmen after two impressive seasons in the AJHL.

“Ty has an elite offensive mind and skill set and can create instant offense off the rush,” Potulny told the NMU Athletics website. “Ty has been in the top 10 in scoring each of the last two seasons and is averaging 1.4 points a game this season. Ty's speed and puck skills will be a big addition to our power play.”

Even with a potent offense, the Wildcats have been just as strong in the defensive zone. 

Philip Beaulieu has proven to be one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the NCAA and led all blueliners with 11 goals and 42 points last season.

Goaltender Atte Tolvanen went 23-10-1 with a .908 SV% and 2.22 GAA. Tolvanen posted .929 SV% and .918 SV% in his first two years, respectively, albeit in smaller capacities and with a losing record. Should he manage to reach similar heights balanced with a stronger team and consecutive winning record, the Wildcats could be poised for an NCAA Tournament berth in 2019.

The Wildcats open the season with a trip to East Lansing to take on the Michigan State Spartans for an October 12-13 series.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.

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