When the MSU hockey team takes the ice this fall, it will be looking to erase memories of the program's most disappointing season in a decade.
The Spartans weren't bad - finishing 23-14-2 overall and placing fourth in the CCHA. But an early-season free fall caused them to miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1993.
With the bitter taste of defeat still in the Spartans' mouths, one would assume this year would be different. But it won't be easy.
MSU will be without standout defensemen Brad Fast and John-Michael Liles, both of whom graduated in May. Their void leaves the Spartans extremely inexperienced on defense.
It's worrisome enough that MSU head coach Rick Comley would rather deflect the focus away from the blue line.
"Obviously, the question is on defense, but I think we're going to be stronger up front and in goal next year," he said. "Fast and Liles will be monumental losses, but we'll be a lot faster up front."
Fast and Liles played almost every important shift for MSU last season. Without them, the team's defensive onus will fall on senior Joe Markusen, and sophomores Corey Potter and Jared Nightingale - the only three returning defensemen.
None of them have proved to be a fail-safe player in crunch time, but Markusen and Potter started to earn Comley's trust late last season.
"I'd like to have the responsibility of being out there in those tough situations," Markusen said. "My first three years, there were always guys who played a lot and I looked up to. But now I'll be the older defenseman, and I'm looking forward to it.
"There's going to be more responsibility on the three of us coming back, but I think we can handle it."
Providing much-needed depth, at least four freshman defensemen will join the team this year. The quartet is comprised of a wide mix of players and styles - ranging from 6-foot-3, 17-year-old A.J. Thelen to 5-foot-9, 20-year-old Chris Snavely. At least three of them will have to play immediately because of lack of depth at the position.
Overall, the Spartans will welcome at least nine rookies this year. Tommy Goebel, Tyler Howells, Chris Lawrence and Drew Miller join a deep unit of Spartan forwards, which lost three contributors from last year.
Adam Nightingale, a 23-year-old transfer from Lake Superior State, will also be eligible to play this fall, and the junior is expected to add maturity to the young MSU lineup.
But the Spartans' go-to guy will probably be junior center Jim Slater, who scored 18 goals and 26 assists and made the All-CCHA First Team last season. Slater's speed and play-making ability are perfectly suited for Comley's fast-breaking style.
"There's going to be a lot of competition for spots in the lineup - and that's exactly what we need right now," Slater said. "We're going to have a great freshman class and, I think, be very dangerous."
In goal, Comley called incoming freshman netminder Dominic Vicari "the man to beat" for the starting job. He apparently has the inside track to unseat junior Matt Migliaccio, who started 33 of 39 games last year and led the CCHA with five shutouts.
But Migliaccio, who was inconsistent at times, said he won't mind competing with Vicari to keep his starting job.
"They're always bringing in goalies to make the team better," Migliaccio said. "You have earn your job against competition all the time, but it gives me confidence that I've done it before.
"It's going to be a young team, so we'll see what we can do. We want to come back, take some strides and get Michigan State back to where it's supposed to be."