When Adam Nightingale took over as Michigan State’s head coach in early May, he didn’t do too much analysis of senior forward Jagger Joshua. After all, he was a holdover from the previous regime, one that scored just eight goals in three seasons and far too often made more of an impact in the penalty box than he did on the scoresheet.
“I saw a big powerful guy that wants to play a power game that's got maybe better hands than people give him credit for and maybe than he thought,” Nightingale said of his first impressions of Joshua.
But this 2022-23 version of Joshua is a completely different animal. He scored his ninth, tenth and eleventh goals Saturday night, his second hat trick of the season, in an exhilarating 4-4 tie versus No. 5 Penn State. The breakout senior leads the team in scoring and has been one of the main beneficiaries of the new coaching staff.
For example, Nightingale pulled Joshua aside before Christmas break. He had a piece of advice for him, even though he had already notched a career-high seven goals. Nightingale wanted Joshua to be the “most dominant player in practice.”
“When I leave the ice, it should be no question,” Nightingale said. “And that doesn't mean you're toe dragging guys and dishing to whatever, like dominant in your identity. So far, he's done that and I'm confident he will keep doing it.”
The message was well-received, with Joshua picking up an assist in the first game of the Great Lakes Invitational. Then, with the team in a lull, Joshua was held off the scoresheet for three straight games before scoring the third period equalizer Friday night. And now, after Saturday night, he’s one of just two Division I players with multiple hat tricks on the season.
It’s another peak of a rollercoaster career that’s had its fair share of dips, even in this season. On Thanksgiving week, Joshua was put in the national spotlight when he took to social media to announce his displeasure with the Big Ten’s handling of Ohio State’s Kamil Sadlocha directing racial slurs at him during a game. Then later that weekend, Nightingale sent a message, benching Joshua for one game due to his abundance of undisciplined penalties.
A familiar demon arrived Saturday night at the worst moment possible. Joshua, who played eight straight games without committing a penalty since his benching, blatantly slashed a Penn State skater at the 3:37 mark of overtime, gifting the Nittany Lions a 4-on-3 power play for the remainder of overtime. It came just two weeks after Michigan State committed a similar penalty in overtime and lost to Michigan Tech in the GLI on an inexplicable wholesale line change.
The MSU penalty kill, which surrendered a goal in the second period and has now allowed 10 power-play goals in the last seven games, stood tall to force a shootout with a particularly gutsy effort from graduate student defenseman Christian Krygier.
“That was a long minute-20 for me,” Joshua said after the game. “I for sure slashed him. I will be honest, I should have been in the box. That was my bad. Credit to Nico Müller and Christian Krygier for coming up big, and Dylan (St. Cyr) obviously, coming up big for that kill and kind of letting me off the hook there because it was an undisciplined play and something that I'm thankful the boys got my back for.”
Had Penn State’s power play scored, it would’ve soured an otherwise glorious night from Joshua. Even though he finished the night -1 because he was either on the ice or in the penalty box for all four of PSU’s goals, he and his top line were buzzing offensively like they have all season long.
Joshua’s first two goals of the night came in nearly identical fashions.
The Spartans trailed 3-1 late in the second period and were on the power play. Freshman center Karsen Dorwart received the puck on the edge of the left circle and fed a pass to the weak side post. Joshua was patiently waiting, and easily tapped in the goal.
Then, as the second period came to a close, freshman forward and third member of MSU’s top line Daniel Russell won a puck battle in the corner and threw a backhand pass out front. Dorwart retrieved the puck at the left dot and slid a mirror image pass to Joshua on the backdoor.
“Ironically that was something that was an emphasis this week in practice and our coaching staff did a great job of pre-scouting and putting (me) in (the) right spot and I was just lucky to have an open net there,” Joshua said.
Michigan State found itself down 4-3 early in the third, but 11 seconds later, the match was tied again.
Dorwart won an offensive faceoff and played it back to graduate transfer defenseman Michael Underwood, who swung it to fifth-year defenseman Cole Krygier. Krygier, Friday night's hero, slapped a one-timer, and Joshua positioned himself in front of the net to redirect the puck with his stick.
The Michigan State top line has by far been the most consistent trio of goalscorers, oftentimes providing sparks when MSU falters. Dorwart and Russell joined MSU together after playing junior hockey together for the Sioux Falls Stampede, and have immediately rekindled their chemistry in East Lansing. Joshua was the odd one out, but has fit like a glove as part of a line that seems like it's played together for years.
“Those two guys are both incredible players,” Dorwart said of Joshua and Russell. “They both have a lot of speed so when they're flying down the wall, it opens up a lot of space. Jags can protect the puck from anyone, just work it down low, so I think he creates a lot of time and space for Russ and I. And then Russ is so shifty, like, no one can hit him.”
Added Nightingale, “Jags really brings a lot to that line. His ability to extend plays in the offensive zone and his strength on the puck and obviously he's great around that net. He understands his role. I think it's really important. Player development is like understanding who you are and what makes you great.”
As for where his offensive outburst is coming from, Joshua attributes it to his work ethic and his linemates he’s been paired with for the majority of the season.
“I wouldn't necessarily say it's something different,” Joshua said. “I think I've always came to the rink trying to get better and become the best hockey player I have. Obviously, playing with two great players like Russell and Dorwart has helped me out tremendously. Just like you saw the first two goals, that wouldn't have happened without my linemates. So I think obviously the biggest part is just playing with two players that understand my game and I understand theirs and we seem to gel together really well.”
Most importantly for MSU, Joshua’s ascendance is translating to wins. The Spartans are 13-11-2 and have positioned themselves with a legitimate shot at hosting a Big Ten Tournament game. It’s made hockey fun in East Lansing again, a remarkable feat given the program’s status one year ago.
“Winning really cures everything and makes it fun to come to the rink every day,” Joshua said.