2013-2014 Michigan State Hockey Preview
The 2012-2013 hockey season consisted of many ups and downs for the Michigan State Spartans. After losing several core players, including current Boston Bruins defensemen Torey Krug, the Spartans limped out of the gate to on their way to a woeful 14-25-3 overall record.
However, the Spartans used a late season rush to earn the team’s first playoff series victory since the Spartan’s 2007 National Championship season. With many whole, head coach Tom Anastos was forced to play as many as eight freshmen at a time. Four true freshmen (Travis Walsh, Jon Draeger, Matt DeBlouw and Michael Ferrantino) played in all 42 games for the Spartan, marking the first time that has happened since the 2001-2002 season.
The 2013-2014 MSU hockey team appears to have a much different look returning this year, including a defense that returns a good amount of experience, an offense working hard to figure out how to put the puck in the net and five freshman forwards looking to do so. In the augural season of Big Ten hockey, the Spartans the coaches were predicted to finish in a tie for fourth, along with Ohio State. Let’s take a look at how each component of Michigan State hockey appears heading into the new season.
The biggest stressing point for Coach Tom Anastos and the Spartan offense going into this season is getting the puck on net. After being outshot 1373-1076 throughout the entire season in ’12-’13, Anastos took to the recruiting trail in an effort to add scorers.
“We have to find ways to become a better offensive team. One way is through recruitment and recruiting players that have proven track records of scoring goals. That’s going to take time. I think the other area is to develop a bit of a more offensive mentality where guys are thinking about taking more shots, getting more pucks on net. To score goals, you have to shoot the puck more and we have to develop that mentality,” said Anastos.
That mentality of getting off more shots has been a focal point for the Spartans this offseason and Captain Greg Wolfe recognizes its significance.
“One of our main goals this year is to create more offense. We need to get more shots on goal. We went over some stats and we were one of the least, our team had one of the least amount of shots in the country and that’s just, if you look back at it, we’re also one of the least amount of goal scored. So, there’s a correlation there and that’s what we are trying to get engrained in our heads, that we need to shoot the puck more, we need to get more people in front of the net and create havoc on a nightly basis, “ said Wolfe.
Fellow forward David Bondra, who played in 35 games last year as a true freshman, tallying three assists, says getting better on the offensive end starts in practice.
“We got to score in practice. You know, our goalies are great goalies. They give us great, you know Jake Hildebrand, Yanakeff and Phillips, they are great in net in practice and that helps us because you know we are trying 100% trying to score on them. We know the goalies are going to be just as good during the games,” said Bondra.”
While the Spartans return 84% of last year’s scoring, they will need several players to step up early on as junior forward and returning leading scorer Matt Berry (15G, 16A) is expected to miss anywhere from 6-10 weeks with an undisclosed lower body injury, which required surgery earlier this month. In fact, Berry is one of three Spartans (defenseman Jon Draeger and goalie Nate Phillips) who will also miss considerable time early on after having similar surgeries on the same day.
In Berry’s stead, Coach Anastos says his other upperclassman need to step up in order to allow the freshman to ease into the college game. “We need our upperclassmen. We need guys like a Dean Chelios, whose probably in the best shape of his life and he’s shown a real mentality here that he is real hungry to establish himself on our team,” said Anastos.
Anastos continued, “It has to be led by the upper class. I just think that for us to have a good level of success, we need our senior class to take the responsibility of really stepping up and having their career season.”
After missing the entire 2012-2013 campaign, redshirt senior forward Dean Chelios used his off time to build strength and get into considerably better shape.
“I knew I had so much time so I actually developed my leg strength way more and I got a chance to because I didn’t have to worry about playing games and being sore. So three to four days a week I was working on my legs, skating and feet. So, I think that was a part of my game that I could use work in and I think I did. So, I think that is the biggest reason that I am playing better,” said Chelios.
For the Spartans to grow on the offensive end, guys like Wolfe, Chelios and Bondra will need to step up in the absence of Matt Berry. And, if Michigan State can develop a couple forwards from the freshman class, fans should expect to see a much-improved offensive attack from a year ago.
Michigan State went into the 2012-2013 season with what appeared to be a no-win situation. After losing several key players to graduation and the NHL, Coach Tom Anastos was forced to throw a plethora of freshman into the fire early. Without much experience, the defense struggled for much of last year.
“We introduced these guys almost to an unfair situation. The perfect world is you bring in some freshmen and they get an opportunity to play with some upperclassmen and they are able to evolve over a period of time. We didn’t have the luxury to do that. We had to throw guys right into the fire. And to their credit, they fought and they competed and they battled and they came out of it with a confidence by the end of the season that there was progress,” said Anastos.
Now, with a season to grow behind them, Michigan State will rely on a more experienced sophomore class, along with senior Jake Chelios and redshirt freshman Rhett Holland to establish a greater presence in the defensive zone.
“The defense has gained experience; yet I think it’s still an area that we’re going to have to really work on to get better. Jake Chelios is now in his first full season of playing defense, so it’s important for our team if we’re going to have success, that he has a big year back there as a senior defenseman, said Anastos.
“Rhett Holland looks in terrific shape. His shoulder is 100 percent. He was brought to the program here to add some size, strength and toughness, particularly back on the blue line and we expect him to do that.”
Chelios has already seen significant improvement in to defense from just a season ago saying, “I’m way more confident than I was going into the season last year. Last year, it’s weird. You don’t know who you are going to play with. You don’t know how they are as partners. This year, we are definitely a closer-knit group. You can tell the younger guys that are freshmen or transfers going into this year are way more confident than they were last year.”
However, just like the offense, the defense will need several players to step up in the absence of sophomore Jon Draeger. A loss Chelios recognizes the significance of.
“Losing Draeger, that’s a lot of minutes you are losing in a game so, I think we will be fine still. This year you got Walsh, Boyd, Gatt that can return and play big minutes for us…this definitely a challenge to overcome, but we got to do it,” said Jake Chelios.
And, while Draeger stands to miss significant time, he sees his absence as another opportunity for the defense to gain experience.
“We had a very young team last year. So, I’m just going to be very honest with that, I was probably getting too much ice time last year. This year, we have the luxury. We don’t have to have that. Obviously, I like being on the ice and I would never want to say like, ‘you know, take me off the ice, Coach’, but at the same time, I think this year, we will have a solid defensive core…I’m really excited. I think guys are going to have really good years, the year coming up here, “said Draeger.
If the defense can continue to develop and gain experience, the Spartans have a very good opportunity to establish a deep, reliable rotation on the back end.
In the midst of a disappointing ’12-’13 season, the Michigan State Spartans were able to find great success between the pipes. Led by goalies Jake Hildebrand and Will Yanakeff, the Spartans were solid in net and are looking to the goaltenders to create a strong and stabilized force on the back end. While sophomore net-minder Jake Hildebrand was heavily relied on as a freshman (9-17-2, .929 S%, 2.35 GAA), expect senior Will Yanakeff (5-8-0, .904 S%, 3.06 GAA) to have a major impact this season.
“I think we should expect our team to be strong in goal. I think Will Yanakeff has come back here very eager and very hungry to prove what he is capable of and we think he is capable of playing at a very high level. Jake Hildebrand wants to build on what he established as a freshman last year and it will be different. There will be higher expectations for him and so he will have to manage those expectations and see if he can continue to take his game and compete for time with Will and raise his game to a very high level,” said Anastos.
Yanakeff, a Jerome, Michigan native says being able to rely on two goaltenders can be a huge advantage for the Spartans.
“I think it means a lot for a team knowing that you can have full confidence in two guys. Jake played really well last year and I think he really sat on his head and we relied on him a lot, especially at the beginning of the year when we were trying to find our game and figure things out. That’s everything for a team when you can fall back on goaltenders,” said Yannakeff.
Hildebrand added that a two-goalie system allows for the competitive nature that gives both goaltenders the opportunity to flourish. Said Hildebrand, “It’s always competitive in practice every day. We have to compete, compete for all our ice time and work as hard as we possibly can. So, I think it definitely helps us, just making us better and develop as goaltenders. We have a great relationship off the ice so that also helps.”
Who will get the majority of the minutes in net? That remains to be seen. But, Coach Anastos recognized the strength he has in net.
“Both of them are very competitive guys. They are very capable from a talent and skill level and I can see a benefit of being able to play two goaltenders.
I see it as a benefit if you can play both and if guys play hard in front of both and if guys can win. So, we’re going into it very open-minded, knowing that we have two guys who have proven that they can win,” said Anastos.
Along with the formation of the Big Ten conference, comes a tantalizing schedule that is as tough as any in the country. In Big Ten play, the Spartans will have home and home series with each of the other five Big Ten teams, including Preseason Top 10 teams: Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Despite the difficult conference slate, Coach Tom Anastos believes the new conference will bring an unfamiliar balance to the schedule.
“The schedule is going to be very demanding. You know, we have a balanced schedule so, that’s kind of a nice thing. We haven’t seen that in the CCHA in years and years and years. We had a very imbalanced schedule. This is a balanced schedule, which the good thing is you are playing everybody the same number of times. The challenging thing is, they are all really competitive programs and it will be a very demanding schedule,” said Anastos.
Even though the Big Ten slate is sure to test every bit of this Spartan team, the opportunity to play in front of large crowds and in state-of-art facilities is bringing excitement to the Michigan State locker room.
“The schedule is unbelievable. I’m really excited to go to Minnesota, go to Wisconsin, and the new facility at Penn State I hear is unbelievable, so it will be really cool going there. Then, obviously Ohio State and Michigan, it’s always fun going down there. So, I think it’s really cool that we get to play home and homes with all those teams and then our non-conference is packed of good teams too,” said Captain Greg Wolfe.
Along with the Big Ten schedule, the non-conference slate is filled with quality opponents, including an October 25th matchup with Preseason No. 1 UMass-Lowell in the first ever Big Ten/Hockey East Challenge and games against Michigan Tech and Michigan/Western Michigan at Comerica Park in Detroit at the end of December. The Spartan will also head to Joe Louis Arena on January 25th to take on Michigan.
“College hockey is a big thing here and I think that game outdoors is going to be a blast. Hopefully, the weather is going to be good and all that. Playing at the Joe is obviously another dream come true, being from Michigan. You know, just playing in front of all the fans is going to be a great thing. The Big Ten is bringing a lot of fans with it and I think the Big Ten is actually going to change a lot of the look on college hockey. I think it’s going to bring in a lot more fans than what it was and I’m looking forward to it,” said Ebbing.
A Flurry of Freshmen Forwards
In an effort to add scoring in 2013-2014, head coach Tom Anastos has brought in five freshman forwards to help pick up the stack. Here is what both Coach Anastos and themselves believe they bring to the table:
5-11, 167 lbs, Chelsea, Michigan
In Anastos’s words: “Joe Cox comes from a military type family. He is a very disciplined, hard working, terrific potential leader on our team and he has a nice dynamic that he has good skill where he can make plays, he can score goals, even though I wouldn’t call him goal scorer and yet he takes great pride in doing the grunt work, killing penalties, blocking shots, being a great teammate that you need on a hockey team to become a good team.”
In their own words: “I feel like I will bring a little bit of a two-way kind of a forward play. So, not only just offensively, but also like back checking and coming back and doing kind of the little things to help the team get the extra edge.”
5-11, 172 lbs, Troy, Michigan
In Anastos’s words: “He’s a playmaker. I joke all the time because we were recruiting Mackenzie MacEachern and he was a darn good player. And, every time I’d go to watch him, Thomas Ebbing would play better.”
In their own words: “You know, hard work. That’s the first thing you got to do. You know, I consider myself a hard worker. You know, great in front of the net whenever I need to be. I used to be more of a passer than a shooter, but Anastos always says shoot first mentality, so that’s going to be a little bit different, but I’m looking forward to the change a little bit.”
6-1, 200 lbs, Gothenburg, Sweden
In Anastos’s words: “Real strong kid. He’s got a great release on his shot. Smart player. Protects the puck real well. Strong, powerful skater. Has a proven track record to score.”
In their own words: “I bring toughness and some speed. I’m a player that plays with a lot of speed. I use my body size every time I have a chance. I like to drive to the net that will create energy and lanes for us and I think that is some of the parts I can bring to this team.”
6-2, 192 lbs, Troy, Michigan
In Anastos’s words: “Big strong guy for his age. I think he is 6’2” or 6’3”. He’s got a nice scoring touch. He’s got good hands. He can see the ice well. He can get up and down the ice. That’s a skill set we need on our team.”
In their own words: “I’m a big body so I like to go down low and use my big body to protect the puck and go to the net and use that to my advantage.”
6-0, 209 lbs, Greece, NY
In Anastos’s words: “JT Stenglein is a goal scorer. He’s proven it in the USHL, which is the junior league in America and he’s done that with consistency. I don’t see any reason why he won’t continue to do that at the college level. He also plays a power forward type game.”
In their own words: “Just a physical forward. I shoot the puck a lot. I just try to go to the net and I’d say I have a pretty offensive minded game but I do try to take care of the defensive zone a little bit, but I’d say I mostly try to play in the offensive zone as much as I can and get as many shots as I can.”
Despite a difficult run of late, Michigan State sees the creation of the Big Ten Conference as an opportunity to rebrand one of the most storied programs in college hockey. Even though injuries and inexperience may prove to be some major obstacles on the road to glory, Coach Anastos says the team’s goals have not changed.
“Our goals haven’t changed. We want to be competing for a league championship. We want to get into the NCAA tournament. We want to give ourselves a chance to compete for the NCAA Championship. How close are we? I can’t tell you right now. On paper, we are inexperienced, we’re unproven in many ways so that would tell you we have a long way to go, but it hasn’t changed out focus. That is our focus,” said Anastos.
The Spartans will kick off the 2013-2014 season on Saturday, October 5th with the annual Green & White Game. They will then hit the road October 18th for the season opener against UMASS.