Tuesday afternoon, Michigan State announced that Head Coach Danton Cole had been relieved of his duties. Now, the search for his successor begins.
In five years with the team, Cole failed to notch a single NCAA Tournament berth and did not win a game in the Big Ten Tournament. As the rest of the Big Ten adapts to the changing college hockey landscape, Michigan State has been left in the dust. Whoever assumes the helm of the program will have a hell of a job on their hands.
The good news for Michigan State athletic director Alan Haller and Co.? There are plenty of solid candidates throughout junior hockey and the NCAA.
Nightingale sits atop the list of candidates as perhaps the most obvious choice for Michigan State.
Currently, Nightingale is the head coach of Team USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, where Cole was coaching before Michigan State hired him in 2017-18. With the USNTDP, Nightingale coached a bevy of top-end NHL prospects, including Michigan's Luke Hughes and Minnesota's Chaz Lucius. Those are the sort of players that have chosen superior Big Ten programs over Michigan State for years now.
Before his stint with Team USA, Nightingale spent multiple years in the NHL as a video coach for the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings. Eventually, he was promoted to assistant coach with Detroit.
Nightingale has a history with Michigan State. He played for the team from 2003-05 and he was the Director of Hockey Operations from 2010-14. There are other MSU alumni that could step up behind the bench, but Nightingale is the best of the bunch. Damon Whitten could be an option, but he has not been especially noteworthy in five seasons with Lake Superior State.
Nightingale has experience in the NHL, experience in the USHL and, most importantly, head coaching experience. In the USHL and with the USNTDP, he regularly interacted with some of the best young talent in the sport. And, of course, he has a history with Michigan State. Nightingale is a safe and smart choice for the program. If there were betting odds on college hockey head coaching vacancies, Nightingale would be the favorite for Michigan State.
The winningest head coach in Chicago Steel history could be an excellent, albeit very risky choice for Michigan State.
Assuming the role of one of the best programs in the USHL, Brock Sheahan has done more than just keep the program on track. Since his promotion to head coach in the middle of the 2019-20 season, the Steel have two regular season titles and a USHL championship.
While Sheahan doesn't have any head coaching experience in the NCAA, he did begin his coaching career in college hockey. He served as an assistant coach for a year with Notre Dame before moving to Holy Cross for the same role. He was promoted to associate head coach of Holy Cross after two years with the team. Eventually, Sheahan made his way to the Chicago Steel as an associate head coach. He was promoted to head coach midway through his second year with the team.
If Michigan State is looking for an outside-of-the-box candidate, Sheahan is the man. To win in college hockey in this day and age, a program needs high end NHL prospects. Sheahan has dealt with more than his fare share at his time with the Chicago Steel, such as Michigan standout and number one overall pick Owen Powers. If Michigan State wants to start competing in one of the best conference in college hockey, they can't keep recruiting older players aging out of juniors. Although those sort of players certainly have their place in NCAA hockey — they need young talent with a ton of upside. Sheahan has proven he has a keen eye for such talent.
Being head coach of a USHL team is completely different from running an NCAA hockey team. In college, you have to deal with recruiting, pressure from the university and a handful of other quirks. That's where the risk comes in. In hiring Sheahan, there's a chance things completely fall apart again for Michigan State — but there's also a chance that he pushes the program ahead of the curve and to the heights of old.
Eric Lang is going to be an extremely coveted coaching prospect this offseason. As Head Coach of American International College, he has a 82-73-14 record. Lang has led the program to four AHA regular season titles and three AHA Tournament titles in just six years with the team. AIC has made the NCAA Tournament three times under his watch - in 2021-22 (made it to the regional semi-finals), in 2018-19 (made it to the regional finals) and in 2020-21 (made it to the regional semi-finals).
The most impressive part? Before his arrival, AIC was a terrible program with no history of winning. The team did not win a single regular season title or tournament game before Lang. AIC's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 2019 — Lang's third year with the program.
Under the tutelage of Lang, AIC has become a truly competitive program in AHA year in and year out.
Lang may be the best choice for the job. He's built a program from the ground up, he's consistently made the NCAA Tournament and his team is almost always competitive in its conference. It may sound cliché, but Lang truly can instill a winning mentality into a program. Michigan State hasn't had that in more than a decade.
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However, it would be tough to pry Lang away from his current position. AIC is his alma mater and he's done a fantastic job with the program. Michigan State won't be the only team sending a call his way. Hiring a coach like Lang might cost a little more than Michigan State is willing to spend.
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