At the end of last season, one that produced a 12-19-5 finish, the future for Michigan State Men's ice hockey looked unclear. What the team would do without four-year veterans Brennan Sanford, who continued onto the Kalamazoo Wings, Cody Milan and Zach Osburn was unknown. And the team’s recovery after losing MVP and standout forward Taro Hirose, who signed with the Detroit Red Wings, seemed unlikely.
However, after a dominant 6-1 win over the Western Ontario Mustangs in a game that tested all aspects of the Spartans’ roster, the green and white proved moving on is possible and they can look forward to a promising season this year.
Despite losing Hirose, who earned 50 points on 35 assists, the Spartans return 23 letter winners from the 2018-19 season. The Spartans need not fret offensively since they retain 65% of their point production and 71% of their goal scoring. During Monday’s game, the Spartans put an impressive 55 shots on goal, proving that their offensive pace and strength is still there.
Top goal scorers senior Patrick Khodorenko, who had 18, and junior Mitchell Lewandowski, 16, return to retain two-thirds of the vaunted KHL line, as each of them tied with senior forward Logan Lambdin for the most shots on goal with five in the season’s exhibition opener Monday. The Khodorenko-Lewandowski pairing will have to create more for themselves this year without the facilitation of Hirose, but there are few duos better suited to adjust to the loss of production.
The team is rather experienced, too. The Spartans’ nine member senior class marks the largest since the 2011-12 season when the Spartans went 20-16-4. Leading scorer Khodorenko headlines the class alongside second-year team captain Sam Saliba and goaltender John Lethemon, who had a 0.905 save percentage last season, amongst others.
The three sole freshmen, Josh Nodler, Jagger Joshua and Nicolas Muller, all forwards, each have promising professional futures. All three started their college hockey careers on a high note, with each contributing either a goal or an assist to Monday’s game.
Nodler, a 5-foot-11-inch forward from Oak Park, Michigan, was selected in the fifth round by the Calgary Flames in the 2019 NHL draft this past June. He assisted Monday night’s fifth Spartan goal by sophomore defenseman Christian Krygier.
Joshua comes from two seasons in the United States Hockey League, where he played for the Muskegon Lumberjacks. The 6-foot-2-inch freshman also assisted Krygier’s third period goal alongside fellow freshman Nodler.
And then there’s Muller, who comes to the Spartans after representing his home country Switzerland at both the 2018 and 2019 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships.
Muller started and scored a goal in his first college career game on Monday, starting his season off strong.
That night, MSU had six goals scored by six different skaters. Collectively, the team accumulated 67 points while goaltenders Lethemon and sophomore Drew DeRidder made 21 total saves.
The Spartans got everything they wanted out of their first showing Monday. The team proved their offense was still dominant while also being challenged on the defensive end by several of the Mustangs’ well-executed opportunities.
MSU hockey can’t expect another Hirose to rise from the ashes, but pairing veterans with experienced underclassmen should make for an intriguing future for the program after a season in which they competed for Big Ten Tournament home ice through the final weekend.