MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle knows there are plenty of question marks surrounding his team's ability to score this season, the last before moving from the CCHA to the WCHA for 2013-14.
The Wildcats are confident in their ability to stop keep opposing pucks out of the net, however, with junior goaltender Jared Coreau back in the crease and seven returning defensemen on the blue line, including the six that ate up the most ice time last season.
Fans might appreciate it the other way around with a team that can outscore the opposition, but Kyle is more confident with a team that can shut down those high power offenses.
Northern Michigan University defenseman C.J. Ludwig looks to pass early in the second period against Bowling Green State in Game 3 of a best-of-three CCHA playoff series at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on March 4. Out of NMU’s seven returning defensemen, in which six appeared in 30 or more games last season, Ludwig is considered to be the best all-around blue liner, according to head coach Walt Kyle (Journal file photo by Matt Keiser)
"While we have some questions up front, I'd rather go into a season saying I like my goaltending and defense, and I have some questions on my scoring," Kyle said.
"We need to become a very stingy defensive team. We have that ability."
The senior pairing of Scott Macaulay and Kyle Follmer, junior combo of Wade Epp and C.J. Ludwig plus the sophomore duo of Mitch Jones and Jake Baker will be relied upon this season to not only keep games tight, but provided a boost for a group of forwards that lack any proven goal scorers.
NMU fans got a peak of what could be common in 2012-13 on Sunday in a 2-0 exhibition victory for the Wildcats at the Berry Events Center over Brock University of Ontario.
The 'Cats held Brock to 20 shots on goal as Coreau and freshman goalie Michael Doan combined for the shutout.
Jones also scored the first goal - and up until the 14:04 mark of the third period, only goal - on a first-period power play. He finished with six goals and eight assists as a freshman last year for 14 points and began quarterbacking the Wildcat power play late in the season.
Kyle said he expects Jones to emerge as a force offensively in the CCHA and the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder out of Delta, British Columbia hopes to continue his progression as an offensive defenseman as well, he said.
"I think Walt has confidence in me to keep building on that," Jones said. "Hopefully I'll play a bigger role and help the team in as many ways as I can defensively and offensively."
NMU's two senior defensemen, the Wildcats offensive duo among the group, will be heavily relied upon to boost the offense according to 'Cats captain Macaulay.
Follmer, a second-team All-CCHA preseason team selection, was fourth in scoring among defensemen in the league last year with four goals and 22 assists. He's second in scoring among returning CCHA defensemen behind Michigan senior Luke Moffie, who had seven goals and 22 assists a year ago.
"It's going to be important for us to move the puck up quick," said Macaulay, who had three goals and 14 assists last year.
"That's going to be our go-to. We need to be successful moving the puck up to the forwards and letting them move up the ice and jumping up when we have the chance. We've been successful in the past and that will be key going forward."
While Coreau's job is to stop shots, both Jones and Macaulay expect the junior netminder to help boost the offensive output of the blue liners.
Coreau won't be leaving the crease and jumping in on the rush, but the confidence the Wildcats have in him will allow the defensemen to do so.
"You don't want to be making mistakes, but he's going to be making the saves he needs to make and some big saves too," Jones said. "It's is a good thing for a guy like me trying to jump up in the play if I have the freedom to do that."
Kyle hopes Epp, Ludwig and Baker can all take a step offensively as well, but their specialty is being the shutdown defensemen necessary in the CCHA to keep high-octane offenses like Michigan in check.
Baker, Epp and Ludwig all finished at even or above in the plus/minus category last year with Epp and Ludwig often being thrown out onto the ice against the opposition's top line.
Kyle called Ludwig the Wildcats' best all-around defenseman last season and expects that again out of the 5-9, 179-pound Texan.
"Ludwig isn't huge, but he's a great defender," Kyle said.
"(Ludwig and Epp) are really good physically and they are exceptional as a shutdown pair. They are really good."
Kyle said he make mix and match the blue liners this season in order to get more balance with an offensive and defensive defenseman on each pair.
The Wildcats do have junior Austin Handley, sophomore transfer Nathan Taurence, sophomore Ryan Kesti and freshman Ryan Trenz also available on defense or as fourth-liners at forward.
Macaulay and Follmer played together in 31 of the 36 games they played in last year, while Epp and Ludwig, as well as Jones and Baker, were paired together 23 times during the 37-game 2011-12 campaign.
Macaulay said he and Follmer compliment each other well because of their offensive mindset.
At the same time, a defensive player like Baker, Epp or Ludwig can create more chances for the captain to score.
"Coming from my standpoint, any chance you get to play with a solid defensive guy, it really lets me explore more offensively," Macaulay said.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.