Finally, we have made it. The college hockey season is upon us.
After a 3-0 exhibition loss to the U.S. National Team Developmental Program’s U-18 team on Saturday night, the Spartans drop the puck on the 2021-22 season Friday night at Munn Ice Arena against Air Force in a two-game series.
Last season was wonky for Michigan State. They started decectly, holding a 3-3-2 record as January started. Things fell off in the second half of the season, particularly with a seven-game losing streak to close the season, including a 2-1 overtime loss in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
The offense was horrid in the second half of the season, highlighted by a comical 238-minute scoreless drought that spanned 11 periods across five games. You can’t win if you don’t score, and that ultimately was the story for Michigan State. The 7-18-2 record sunk MSU into last place in the Big Ten for the fourth time in five years.
But with a new season comes new hope. Last year, Wisconsin went from finishing last to winning the Big Ten Regular Season Championship. They had loads of NHL talent, including Hobey Baker Award winner Cole Caufield, but it is possible, as demonstrated.
Here are three reasons I am feeling optimistic and three reasons I am feeling pessimistic about the 2021-22 Michigan State hockey season:
Why I am optimistic
The Goalie Situation: There were not many consistent strengths of the 2020-21 Spartans, though was the goaltending. Whether it was now senior Drew DeRidder or now sophomore Pierce Charleson, Michigan State had one of the top goalie units in the Big Ten. DeRidder, who returns for his senior season, was an All-Big Ten honorable mention with a 2.76 goals-against average, or GAA, and .923 save percentage. He started in 24 of 26 regular-season games, but the wheels fell off at the end of the season, and he lost playing time to Charleson, who got the start in the lone Big Ten Tournament game.
Charleson played extremely well in his limited playing time, leading to a position battle between them for the season. They say competition brings out the best, perhaps as it has for MSU's 5-0 football team, so maybe this will be the case for the hockey team.
The return and addition of two key forwards: When fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski exercised his choice to return for his fifth season, it was a huge sigh of relief for the green and white. Last year's points leader, three-time All-Big Ten honorable mention and fan favorite was unhappy with the lack of championship banners during his time at MSU and wanted to give it one last shot. Despite the down year that was 2020-21, Lewandowski is a high-scoring threat and offers leadership that could be needed this year.
On the other hand, the new face everyone is excited to see is junior forward Griffin Loughran. Playing 88 games in three seasons at Northern Michigan, Loughran was absolute dynamite. He was one of the best players in the country his sophomore season, scoring the second-most goals in the nation. That is the type of player Michigan State needs. He profiles as a Charlie Combs 2.0 but could be even better.
Getting back to normal times: Last year was quite the year. There were limited to no fans in the crowd, COVID-19 protocols and cancellations and a 24-game Big Ten plus Arizona State schedule. As we are beginning to see with other college sports, COVID affected each and every program in different ways. With a return back to somewhat normalcy and a jam-packed Munn Ice Arena, it should only be a boost for a team looking for one wherever it can get it. However, only time will tell if this is true.
Why I am pessimistic
Uncertainty at center: Tommy Apap was Michigan State’s best center last year. Not showing up on the score sheet often, Apap did his work in the face-off circle and made his presence felt. He was one of the best in the entire country at winning face-offs but graduated and now skates for the Indy Fuel in the ECHL, leaving a massive hole in the Spartan offense.
Junior Josh Nodler is the top candidate to be the dominant face-off guy for the Spartans, winning 55.1 percent of his draws last season. In Saturday’s scrimmage, Nodler was slotted at center on MSU’s top line. Sophomore Kristof Papp was also a good face-off drawer for Michigan State last year but in a limited sample size. Puck possession is one of the first steps to scoring goals, and an MSU may regress after being in the top 10 of face-off win percentages in 2020-21.
Where will the offense come from? While it is easy to point to Lewandowski and Loughran as easy answers to solve the Spartan’s offensive woes, it's not always that simple. Yes, it is great to bring back your top offensive weapon in Lewandowski, but he was also part of last year’s problem. 13 points as your leader in points is not a good number. Now, he may have been a victim of his teammates' mishaps, but you need your points leader to have more than 13 points in 25 games.
As for Loughran, it is not guaranteed that his transition into the Big Ten will be a smooth one. Charlie Combs, who joined the team for a one-and-done last year from Bemidji State, was supposed to bring an offense with him, similar to what is expected of Loughran. He started well but disappeared in the second half of the season along with the rest of the team. As for the rest of the team, it would be nice for Michigan State to get a player to breakout, but at this moment, it is hard to pinpoint exactly who that could be.
A poor exhibition performance and loaded Big Ten: Saturday’s loss was not the start the Spartans wanted. Michigan State Head coach Danton Cole did say there were some positive takeaways, but a 3-0 loss is almost never encouraging. Competition-wise, the U-18 team is a good one, 5-1-0 to be exact, but MSU had won its last two meetings against them before Saturday.
The Big Ten, as it is more often than not, is loaded with talent this season. Three University of Michigan players were selected in the top-five of the 2021 NHL Draft; Defensemen Owen Power was the No. 1 overall selection, followed by forward Matty Beniers at No. 2 and forward Kent Johnson at No. 5. Minnesota is also expected to be a threat to the Spartans again, with four players selected to the Preseason All-Big Ten First Team, while Wisconsin brings back a young star goaltender in Cameron Rowe.
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