After finishing at the bottom of the Big Ten standings for the third year in a row last season, Michigan State ice hockey will look to turn things around this upcoming season, which starts on Oct. 12 against Northern Michigan at Munn Ice Arena.
Here's a season outlook at the 2018-19 men's ice hockey team.
Young, but promising
The Spartans have some solid pieces returning, including the trio of Taro Hirose, Mitchell Lewandowski and Patrick Khodorenko, who were all named to the Big Ten’s 2018-19 Preseason Watch List. The three forwards will likely make up MSU’s first line this season and look to pace the offense.
On defense the Spartans are returning some experienced players in senior Zach Osburn, who played in 33 games last season, as well as junior Butrus Ghafari, who saw action in 29 games.
The team doesn't have much turnover from last season, as they graduated just three players — defender Carson Gatt, forward Dylan Pavelek and goalkeeper Ed Minney.
“You know, we didn’t lose a lot last year,” Head Coach Danton Cole said. “Obviously losing Carson Gatt was a big thing, he played a lot of minutes, he was a good leader in all situations, so you know, that’s a lot of ice time to fill.”
And for a second consecutive season, the Spartans will field a team that consists of just three seniors; this year’s are Osburn and forwards Brennan Sanford and Cody Milan. Despite the lack of upperclassman, Cole believes his team can compete with the rest of the Big Ten.
“We’re excited about this,” Cole said. “We’ll be a better team this year and we’ll just keep moving that way. We just keep getting better every practice, every game and every week, and we’ll continue to do that.”
Cole has quite the freshman class coming in, along with a number of other emerging talents on his team that should be seeing more time this season. And he said he has been impressed with some of the newcomers in practice thus far.
“Just from being around and practicing enough, I think the three defense men coming in, the two Krygiers (Cole and Christian) and Dennis Cesana have done a really nice job. I think their hockey pedigree and the amount of ice they have in high level competition, they’ve done a really nice job.”
Christian and Cole Krygier were both selected in the seventh round of the NHL Draft in June, Cole by the Florida Panthers and Christian by the New York Islanders. However, the two opted for collegiate hockey and chose Michigan State after decommitting from Wisconsin.
According to Cole, there is also a promising freshman who's already making a case for ice time.
“Drew (DeRidder) in net has been outstanding,” Cole said. “His compete level is off the charts, he keeps getting better and better everyday. I think one thing that he brings that really helps is that compete level in practice and never giving up on pucks.”
Though this team may not bring an immense amount of experience to the table, Cole is quite fond of his squad’s athleticism on the ice, and that may be because of the amount of uncertainty in the starting line up.
“I think we’re a little bit bigger, a little faster, definitely deeper,” Cole said. “Competition in practice has been much better and that’s a really positive thing.”
Depth will be key to the Spartans’ success
The amount of young guys competing for ice time is causing this team to become deeper. And an area where they need to increase their depth is with their line.
“I think it will be a deeper situation,” Cole said. “If we can find a true number two line, that would be really good for us and hopefully that’s emerging.”
MSU owned the worst scoring offense in the Big Ten last season with 91 goals. Offensive production will need to increase going forward if the Spartans want to garner any type of success.
According to the Spartans’ captain, junior forward Sam Saliba, because of the amount of young players competing, the team will be deeper throughout, not just on the line.
“That’s the depth right there that I think may have been missing in past years,” Saliba said. "Knowing that you can get production from all different lines, whether it’s your first or your fourth line … I think that’s what makes you successful in college hockey.”
The players are optimistic this year will be different from previous seasons, and seem to have all the confidence in the world.
“I want to put up some banners this year,” Sanford said. “We want to win the Big Ten Championship and we want to give ourselves a good shot of at least making it to the NCAA tournament.”
The Spartans haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2012. But, with a young team that will have little turnover in coming seasons, an NCAA tournament appearance and more may be in the near future for Michigan State.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Saliba said. “We just know that everyday we’ve got to come to the rink and work hard and look to get better. We’re in a tough league in the Big Ten and there’s no easy nights. There’s no easy nights period in college hockey, so we’ve just got to focus on one day at a time.”
The team has just over a week left to prepare for the start of the season. Prior to their first regular season game, they will face off against the University of Windsor in an exhibition match at Munn Ice Arena on Oct. 7.