Michigan State's men hockey is back on the ice and gearing up for the upcoming season after a disappointing 2020-21 outing.
While there are many new faces at Munn Ice Arena this year, Michigan State Head Coach Danton Cole is back for his fourth season with the Spartans and is looking to take the next leap. After a unique past year, due to Covid-19, players have had time to work on their skills and improve their overall game.
"Last year we had eight freshmen, and, in the Big Ten, that always makes things a little more difficult, when guys that young are playing a lot of minutes, as well as our sophomores," Cole said. "Those guys are all a year older (now) and I do think between (Josh) Nodler, (Nicolas) Müller and Jagger Joshua, I think those three guys are gonna have really good years."
MSU will be starting either senior Drew Deridder or Pierce Charleson in net to lead the team, two goalies who have seen extended playing time.
"In net with Drew Deridder and Pierce Charelson, that's a pretty potent combo back there," Cole said. "I think they both showed themselves to be at an elite level last year."
While Deridder is a senior and nearing the end of his time, Charleson has a few more years to practice and improve.
"(The goalies) will battle it out for ice time just like everyone," Cole said. "Coach (Joe) Exter works a ton with them and has a good feel. Last year was a unique year. And in other years, if we'd had eight games, non-conference, to get rolling, Pierce might've got a little quicker start and gotten some games. It's just the way it was and the way Drew was playing he kind of really grabbed the ball."
The Spartans return with several key players, headlined by fifth-year forward Mitchell Lewandowski, who is looking forward to returning to the game for one last ride.
"I think Mitch is gonna have a big year," Cole said. "He put a ton of time in, he stayed here ... for the duration (of the summer), spent a lot of time in the weight room ... His jump is great, he's making plays and shooting the puck. He's at his best when he's aggressive ... and we've seen an awful lot of that out of him so far."
"I had a shoulder surgery a couple years back, and with Covid last year, I really didn't have a summer to focus straight on myself and my body. So this summer I stayed up here, for most of the summer was training with coach (Mike) Vorkapich," Lewandowski said. "I just tried to put on weight, strength weight, not necessarily put on pounds ... and work on my skating and just fundamentals of the game."
Lewandowski is not only a leader but the longest-tenured player currently on the team. He is looking to build a successful culture for his squad.
"We want to build a culture around here where our freshmen feel comfortable saying something, or our juniors or sophomores," Lewandowski said. "I feel, definitely, I should lead and be a (focal) point for the team, but at the same time, we got a lot of leaders in the group and the senior class is awesome."
Senior defenseman Dennis Cesana will be returning for his final season at Munn to lead what should be a solid defensive unit this season.
"It's definitely nice to have seven guys back there that kind of know our systems and ... only have to bring in one freshman and show him the ropes, so it is easy to have everybody give him pointers," Cesana said. "It's nice to have a veteran squad coming back ... It's definitely good to have that chemistry and have a more veteran group of guys this year."
In addition to the youngsters and experienced members of the team, junior forward Griffin Loughran will be starting his first season with the Spartans as a transfer student from Northern Michigan University.
"Griffin (is) not a big guy, but he's a pretty tenacious player," Cole said. "I think sometimes, nowadays, we get a lot of guys that are six-foot-two, and 195 lbs and can skate and shoot, (but) they don't think the game very well. I think the NFL calls those guys runway players, they look great getting off the plane. But, at some point, you've got to play the game. What I like about him is, man, he attacks it. ... He's been extremely coachable and receptive to things we want him to adjust a little in his game. It is fun having guys like that."
On the bench, Michigan State will be introducing new Volunteer Assistant Dylan Strom and Senior Advisor to the Coaching Staff Peter Ward. Strom in particular will be working directly with the athletes on and off the ice.
"It's a role that a lot of the colleges take advantage of," Cole said. "Having a guy come in that can bring certain talents, and ideas, and experience to the table. The unique thing to the volunteer position is those guys can get on the ice, those guys can work with the players, as opposed to some of the other positions that you can fill."
Ward, according to the players, is already making an instant impact on the squad.
"Peter Ward is always at our practices," Lewandowski said. "I know he's helping out the coaching staff. He's a great hockey mind, he's been around the game for a long time. Just to have him at the rink and watching us practice ... I know it's positive for the team. Our volunteer coaches, they do it voluntarily, so it's amazing that they come out every day and put the effort in ... so just to have another body around for the guys to use, is awesome."
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The season is just over two weeks away as the Spartans await to host Air Force on Oct. 8.
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