Now that the college hockey season is over, and we know who the national victors are (Yale), it is now time to look ahead to the future and next season rather than dwell on the disappointing 2012-13 season for Western Michigan.
This past season, Western Michigan struggled to score goals on a consistent basis. WMU lost five games by one-goal margins and scored two goals or less in 20 games.
In the final Pairwise rankings, WMU finished No. 16, but failed to make the NCAA playoffs as the eventual winners, Yale, locked up the final spot in the tournament. Had WMU won one of their final games against the University of Michigan in the CCHA play-offs, or won the controversial 1-0 game against Michigan State to close out the regular season, the Broncos may have been the last team in.
The WMU roster faces many changes for the 2013-14 season with the departures of key players. All three tri-captains: seniors Luke Witkowski and Dane Walters and junior Danny DeKeyser have moved on to the professional ranks. Fellow seniors Brett Beebe, Trevor Elias, Ben Miller, Nick Pisellini, Mike Leone, and Ben Warda contributed, at one point or another this season, for the Broncos and their presence will surely be missed by fans and coaches alike.
Despite the losses, I believe WMU will not only make a strong push in their new conference, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, but could stand alone atop of the standings when the season ends. There are five reasons why I believe this.
1) Senior leadership.
Even though I just stated which seniors are leaving the WMU program, there are still plenty of guys left over who can fill the void. Chase Balisy, Shane Berschbach, Dennis Brown, and Mike Cichy continued to improve as the season went along. Balisy, a Nashville Predators draft choice, led the team, along with Walters, with 25 points. While this is down from his 37 points from his sophomore season, I believe with a strong off-season, Balisy will improve and be one of the leading scorers in the nation. Balisy possesses too much talent and skill to not have an improved season.
2) Strong goal-tending.
For the past two years, Frank Slubowski anchored the back end for the Broncos. While some may believe Slubowski had a ‘sophomore slump’ of a season, statistically it was his best. Slubowski started in all 38 games for the Broncos in route to being named to the Second Team All-CCHA team. He posted a 2.00 goals against average, a .03 improvement from his freshmen season. He also improved his save percentage finishing the season with a .918 percentage, up .07 percent from a year ago. Slubowski finished tied for third in goals against in the CCHA, and should improve even more next season.
3) Head coaching.
It is no secret the Broncos have one of the best head coaches in the nation. Head Coach Andy Murray brings with him a strong background including 10 seasons in the NHL. In his first two years at the helm of Bronco hockey, Murray has a 40-25-14 record. He likes his team to focus on defense and possession more than offense. His philosophy is your defense is your best offense. In the past two years, the Broncos have ranked in the top three in the CCHA in team defense. While this year it did not attribute to many goals on the offensive end, it kept them alive in the tight battles. Nobody was more disappointed with the way the season ended than Murray and he vows to make it up to his team in 2013-14.
4) New beginnings.
After 39 seasons in the CCHA, the Broncos are joining the newly founded NCHC. The only CCHA team to follow the Broncos will be rival Miami (OH). A new conference brings new hype for the program and along with it, a new attitude. I believe WMU would love nothing more than to show the top-guns, North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College that they belong in the conference too. On November 1, 2013 the Broncos host Colorado College in their first ever NCHC game. I expect coach Murray and the Broncos will bring out a fierce edge and show they’re not a program to mess with.
5) Fresh faces.
As I stated in a previous podcast, WMU has a slew of talent coming in for the 2013-14 season. Forward Mike McCarron leads the impressive class. McCarron signed his letter of intent in November. Since then, he joined the 23-player roster for the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 team that will compete at the 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation Men’s World Under-18 Championship. McCarron is a 6 foot 5 inch forward from Macomb, Mich. and has racked up 30 points in 51 games for the USNDTP U-18 team this season. Even if McCarron is drafted in the first or second round of the NHL draft, and decides college hockey is not the best choice for him, there are other players that will make an immediate impact for the team. Sheldon Dries and Kyle Novak have been on a tear this year for Green Bay in the United States Hockey League. Both are undersized forwards that possess a great skill set, which should lead to a lot of goals for the incoming freshmen. Another player to keep an eye out for is defenseman Mike McKee. McKee is listed at 6 foot 5 inches, 245 pounds and is a draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings. McKee leads the USHL with 292 penalty minutes, almost 100 more than second place. He uses his big body to generate energy and momentum and is not afraid to throw his weight around.
At first I was skeptical about the 2013-14 season for the Broncos, but after doing my own research and taking the time to watch game clips of incoming freshmen, I am very convinced WMU will not only be in the top half of the NCHC, but could very well take home the leagues inaugural title. The team has too much talent and leadership to not pose a huge threat next season.
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