Grant Potulny knew it was a touchy subject. He didn't want to dampen the flames - just redirect them a little. He still wanted Griffin Loughran to play on the edge; just not skate over it. He wanted one of his prized recruits to appear on the scoresheet with more regularity … just under a different column. Those were just some of the topics Potulny spoke to Loughran about at their end of the year meeting last spring. It's fair to say the message was well received.
Last season Potulny watched the West Seneca, N.Y. product buzz around the ice like a heat-seeking missile. The problem that popped up from time to time however was that the eventual explosion often happened after the whistle leaving the Wildcats with a gaping hole in their line-up. To put it mildly, Loughran was described as an agitator and there wasn't a team out there that didn't take the bait. Even today; and when asked to look back at his freshman year, Potulny discusses Loughran's recent transition and can't help but smile while doing it.
"Griff is a player who is going to play right on the edge; that's what makes him effective and that's how he gets his engine running," commented Potulny, now in his third season as Northern Michigan head coach. "This year we talked about just playing whistle to whistle. A lot of the times last year he ended up going into the box with someone else. It might have been a coincidental (minor) so it didn't put the team down but that's two minutes we couldn't use him. I think that was our big message to him, that there is a responsibility on him this year as an offensive player and playing offensive minutes. We need him on the rink. It's obviously resonated with him and he's played very well for us."
A powerful understatement from the bench boss currently in charge of a dangerous hockey team. Loughran's play is just one of the many headlines being written by the Wildcats early on this season. Currently 6-1-1 and in the midst of a five-game winning streak and a stretch of seven games without a loss, NMU leads the WCHA in goals scored and are tied for second in the nation. As for Loughran, he tops on the Wildcat roster in scoring with eight goals and four assists with six of the eight tallies coming in conference play.
Going into the 'Cats upcoming series with St. Cloud State this weekend, Loughran is tied for first in the nation in goals, tied for fifth in points, tied for first in game winning goals (three) and ranks tied for fourth among all skaters in power play scores (three). In those same categories Loughran is first in the WCHA in overall goals (eight), points (12), game winning goals (three) and has climbed the charts to third in plus/minus rating (+7). Not too shabby for a player who one season ago, while very good offensively; led his squad in penalty minutes by a wide margin after being whistled for 24 penalties equaling 72 minutes in the sin bin.
"I think throughout my whole career, coming in and being a rookie whether it was juniors or at the college level, I just tried to work as hard as possible, but I didn't focus on hockey that much," commented Loughran. "I kind of just focused on whatever it was for me to stay in the line-up. Things like causing penalties. I would run my mouth a little bit just trying to be an agitator out there. As soon as I settled in and kind of matured and learned how to play the right way it has paid big dividends for me and my team so that's what I am trying to do now. I think I like the role I am doing right now a little better to be honest with you compared to what I was doing. It is way easier on my body. I'm not going out of my way to hit a guy or taking that extra body blow. It all adds up and builds up at the end of the year and the end of the year is the most important of the season so it's really been beneficial to me right now."
"I think if you look at his history, when he played midget hockey, he was a 100-point scorer so before he went to junior hockey, he had a history of scoring big numbers and when he got into junior hockey, that's a transition for every player to a different level," explained Potulny. "When he was in Fargo he had a very good year but he also spent a lot of time in the penalty box. Then you look at his transition to the Clark Cup playoffs that year (2017-18), he focused more on staying on the rink and playing the game and he ended up being the MVP of the Clark Cup playoffs. I think again with the transition to college hockey, to start, I do think he played a little over the edge.
"I think obviously anytime a player has a start like this it's an indication of what kind of year they are going to have," continued Potulny. "He is off to a phenomenal start. He is getting his points the right way. He's not cheating for offense; he's scoring in areas where you are going to continue to score if you keep getting to the net, taking pucks to the net- good things are going to happen. He does play on the inside of the rink and those things usually don't go away. Continuing to get him to those areas will help him continue to generate offense."
Despite being on campus for less than two years, Loughran's internal motor has already reached legendary status. So too has his passion to compete no matter the circumstances or the size of the opponent on the other side of the face-off circle. All 5-7, 145 pounds of him. It's that same passion that can also be used to describe Potulny's sophomore class as a whole; the Wildcat head coach's first true recruiting class since taking over the program in the spring of 2017. That type of honor does not go unnoticed for Loughran and his classmates who have already accounted for 35 points in eight games, including 18 goals.
Six of the seven Wildcat sophomores are currently on pace to dwarf the numbers they put up as freshmen. Some of them have already registered career highs. Players like Vincent de May who has struck for seven goals through eight games and was just recently named WCHA Player of the Month for October. De May is currently tied for sixth in the conference in overall points (nine), is second in goals (seven) and leads the league in power play markers (four). Last season as a WCHA rookie de May scored five goals and added one assist in 29 games. Furthermore, Ty Readman has registered six points this season through eight games (4g-9a/13pts last season), Grant Loven has six as well (5g-4a-9pts last year) and goalie Nolan Kent has started four games racking up a record of 3-1 with a GAA of 3.26. In 2018-19 Kent appeared in just two games totaling a shade under 14 minutes of total playing time.
"They are all different," replied Potulny, when asked about his sophomores. "Griff is a guy who plays hard and plays on the edge; plays on passion. Vinny is probably more of a pure goal scorer. Ty Readman is a guy who has great vision; is probably a pass-first player and Grant Logan is probably the definition of a power forward. Then you talk about Garrett Klee and Garrett is a big, strong bull of a kid who plays down the middle of the rink for us and is a really important penalty killer. All of those guys have had a really good transition into this season."
"It's all about consistency," added de May, referring to his fellow sophomores and their early-season success. "You see guys work on a day-to-day basis, how they are thinking in practice or how they finish out a drill; it's just the simple things. Once you see it and see how hard they are working you become motivated. Think about it, guys on the ice that you are playing with can motivate you. They are all moving the puck, making great plays at practice and it all translates over to the weekend."
And what a time for it to happen. Potulny and his staff knew with the loss of players like Troy Loggins (2018-19 WCHA Player of the Year), Adam Rockwood, Denver Pierce and Atte Tolvanen to graduation, his 2019-2020 senior class consisting of Philip Beaulieu, Darien Craighead and Luke Voltin, while good, would need some help maintaining the level of excellence Northern Michigan fans have grown to expect of late. The fact that the surge has come from his first full recruiting class is just icing on the cake.
"We are very pleased with how recruiting has gone," stated Potulny. "It probably took us a year to find our footing and figure out areas where we can have some success and figure out how to go after the players that fit the way we want to play. Those guys have transitioned very well into their sophomore year and that's usually a pretty good indicator on how they are going to be as players and you always hope they get there as a freshman. College hockey is pretty hard on freshmen and now they have had very good sophomore years and hopefully that continues."
Currently 4-0 in the WCHA and on top of the conference standings, the Wildcats take a break from league play this weekend with two home games against St. Cloud State. After that NMU finishes off 2019 with eight straight conference games including a home series against Minnesota State in December.