No one expected the No. 17 Michigan State hockey team (13-12-1) to be in the position they’re currently in this late into the season. Sure, they had some talented players returning and three freshmen with a lot of potential coming in, but they were losing their go-to guy in Taro Hirose. How they would replace Hirose was a burning question coming into the season, and it wasn’t left unanswered for long.
Hirose, who is now with the Detroit Red Wings organization, is one of the more accomplished Spartans in recent memory. In his final year with the team, he was a Hobey Baker Award finalist, first-team All-American and the Big Ten Player of the year. Over the course of his three years at MSU, he collected 116 total points (33 goals, 83 assists), winning the Big Ten scoring title his junior year.
Losing that kind of production was a factor in the green and white being projected to finish last in the Big Ten standings heading into this season. Now, as the calendar shifts to February, the Spartans have 28 points and are tied for first in the conference with Penn State. One player was never going to single handedly replace Hirose, but the team as a whole has stepped up to collectively make up for the loss, and then some.
Top line clicking
Junior Mitchell Lewandowski and senior Patrick Khodorenko have done a majority of the scoring so far this season, combining for 21 goals and 45 points. Coach Danton Cole has been shuffling guys in and out of the right wing spot on that line, and just recently might have found the perfect match.
Senior Sam Saliba, who is second on the team with nine goals, has been playing with Lewandowski and Khodorenko over the past several games. Going into the Penn State series, he had scored in five of the past six games, giving the green and white a top line with three legitimate scoring threats.
“He’s an older guy and can make some mature plays,” Cole said about Saliba. “The chemistry that (Lewandowski and Khodorenko) had last year with Taro, those things don’t happen often where you get three guys that are on the same wavelength and it clicks … We’ve tried a few guys there at different times. We’ve had (Nicolas Muller) there, (Brody Stevens) has jumped in there, (Saliba) has done a real good job lately.”
Freshmen finding roles
The three freshman forwards on the team, Josh Nodler, Jagger Joshua and Nicolas Muller, have all contributed in different ways. Nodler has anchored the second line at center, while also getting quality minutes on the power play. He only has six points on the year, but is still counted on to help the team in other ways.
Joshua brings a physical presence when he’s on the ice and seems to always be setting up quality scoring chances. Muller has been in a bit of an offensive slump as of late after a hot start, but looks to be the type of player that will keep progressing as he gets more and more experience. Cole speaks very highly on all three of his first-year players.
“Not a ton on the offensive side,” Cole said. “But their hockey abilities, their IQ, what they’ve done in terms of giving us a lot more depth and depth of scoring I don’t think can be overlooked.”
It isn’t often that you find a team that can roll out three solid pairs of defenseman at any point in the game. That’s exactly what the Spartans have, an experienced and youthful group of players on the backend that all bring something different to the table.
Senior Jerad Rosburg and sophomore Dennis Cesana lead the group, with Cesana playing more offensive-minded and Rosburg more defensive. The two play off each other seamlessly, knowing when to hop in on an offensive rush or stay back for insurance.
Cole and Christian Krygier have taken big leaps in their second year, playing together again after being split up last season. While they struggle with taking penalties at certain points, their presence can be felt by opponents’ top lines, making it difficult for teams to get anything going against them. Senior Butrus Ghafari and junior Tommy Miller are more stay-at-home defensemen, but have been consistent and rarely make mistakes.
“I think defensively we’ve done a real nice job,” Cole said. “We just haven’t given up a lot of goals over the whole season, but in the last several weeks we’ve done a really nice job. I think our defense-corps is probably a little underrated. I think the guys that were freshmen last year and are sophomores this year are just giving us lots of really good minutes.”
At this point, there’s no question that senior John Lethemon is the starting goaltender. He’s played too well for too long to say otherwise. He’s not the only talented goaltender on the roster, however, Drew DeRidder is only a sophomore and has a decent amount of experience on his resume.
DeRidder appeared in 17 games for the Spartans last season and led the team with a 3.23 GAA and a .906 save percentage. DeRidder was pulled in favor of Lethemon earlier this season in a tough loss to Cornell, and Lethemon has been near perfect ever since, causing Cole to stick with the senior.
Lethemon won’t be here next year, however, and it will be DeRidder’s net once again, making for a smooth transition in an important position. The goaltending situation seems to be locked up and not a concern for the foreseeable future.
“If you spend any time with Drew (DeRidder), he’s a hard worker and he’s focused,” Cole said. “He wants to play as much as anybody else, but he’s been great through it. I think he understands, you can kind of look at what (Lethemon) is doing, and that’s kind of how it is with college hockey ... he understands his time is coming.”
Every piece has contributed to the puzzle that is Michigan State hockey this season, as the team is generating a buzz on campus that hasn’t been felt in a long time. The team is off this weekend, but will resume action Feb. 7 against Minnesota.