Spartans Looking To Build On Successful Tradition
Michigan State hockey attained its consistent level of excellence in 1995-96, winning more than 20 games for the fifth straight season, placing third in the CCHA for the third year in a row and reaching the NCAA tournament for the 13th time in the past 15 years. As Head Coach Ron Mason and the Spartans look to the 1996-97 campaign, they hope a strong group of returning players along with a talented recruiting class can continue Michigan State's tradition of success.
MSU finished 28-13-1 a year ago, its highest win total since the 1989-90 season. It was the 14th time in 17 seasons that the Spartans won at least 20 games, and the team finished in the top four of the CCHA for the 14th time in 15 years in the league. Michigan State was in first place in the CCHA for much of the season and hosted a first-round playoff series for the fifth season in a row. Mason's team was able to accomplish these feats despite featuring a very young roster which had suffered severe losses to graduation. This year those losses, while costly, do not appear to be as deep as a year ago. Michigan State returns six of its top seven scorers, its two top scoring defensemen and its top two goaltenders. Overall, 75 percent of the Spartans' offense returns along with 99 percent of their goaltending minutes.
"I'd like to be able to maintain the level of play which we achieved last year, when we were in the thick of it right up to the end," says Mason, who enters his 18th year with Michigan State and 31st as a college head coach. "Our No. 1 goal is to finish in the top four in the league and get home-ice for the first round of the playoffs."
The graduation loss which will concern Michigan State followers the most in 1996-97 is the departure of Anson Carter, the leading scorer from last year's team and a 1995 Hobey Baker Award finalist. Carter was a spectacular all-around player and closed his career as the sixth-best goal scorer in Spartan history with 106 tallies, leaving him just one goal out of fifth place. He ranks 19th in career points at Michigan State with 178. In addition to Carter, the Spartans lose forwards Taylor Clarke (14-10=24) and Brian Clifford (1-1=2).
Defensively, Michigan State loses three blueliners who played over 30 games last season and a fourth who dressed for seven contests. Former captain Bart Vanstaalduinen will be especially missed, as will Chris Smith and Chris Slater, all dependable, defensively sound defensemen.
Even with these losses, however, Michigan State returns a strong group of 17 lettermen and a talented group of newcomers that will look to make an immediate impact. This team expects to be able to keep Michigan State among the nation's elite in college hockey as it shoots for its first CCHA championship since 1990.
While the loss of Carter will hurt, he leaves a large group of experienced offensive players behind. Carter was the team's leading scorer last season, but the next six Spartans on the point-scoring list return to Munn Ice Arena. As MSU looks to fill Carter's vacancy, it could be either one player stepping up or a group of scorers taking on the additional offensive burden.
"Whether we have a go-to player like Anson Carter remains to be seen," Mason says. "He was a special player that attracted a lot of attention. You have to develop into that role and gain respect in order to be that kind of player. We'll probably have to rely on a number of different players for our scoring this year."
Leading the offensive charge will be a pair of Mikes that were the wings on Carter's line last season. Junior Mike Watt and sophomore Mike York tied for second on the team in scoring last season with 39 points apiece. Watt (17-22=39) is a powerful left wing with the skills, physical traits and experience that suggest he may be ready to become a dominating offensive force. York (12-27=39), a gifted playmaker, was named to the CCHA All-Rookie Team in 1995-96 and led the Spartans in assists. Having a year of college experience may help increase his production.
Mason will be looking for his next four returning scorers to increase their point production this season. Junior Sean Berens has the best offensive skills of the group, can play either left wing or center and finished last season with 12-25=37 totals. Senior right wing Tony Tuzzolino (12-17=29) has a potent combination of a physical style of play and offensive talent. Junior center Richard Keyes (14-14=28) tied for third on the team in goals last year and had three two-goal games. Senior center Steve Ferranti (12-15=27) proved to be Michigan State's clutch performer last season, leading the team in game-winning goals with seven, the fourth-best total in the nation.
Michigan State also brings in junior Kevin O'Keefe, a transfer from Illinois-Chicago, who tallied 30 points in two years with the Flames. Dependable but underrated senior Brian Crane (9-6=15) and sophomores Bryan Adams (3-8=11), Mark Loeding (5-2=7) and Mike Ford (4-3=7) were regulars in the Spartan lineup last season and can be counted on again in 1996-97. Sophomores Curtis Gemmel (3-0=3) and Kevin Allen (0-0=0) will look to become regular fixtures in Mason's lineup this year.
Mason also expects to receive some offensive production from his freshman forwards, center Shawn Horcoff and right wing Mike Jalaba. At the top of this year's recruiting class entering the season is Horcoff, one of the most coveted recruits in the nation. He is a gifted offensive talent and should take over Carter's center position, if not Carter's role as the team's go-to player.
"If you lose someone like Anson Carter you don't necessarily replace him with a freshman," Ron Mason says, "but you replace him with someone has that kind of potential. Shawn Horcoff has that potential, no question about it."
Michigan State received tremendous contributions from a pair of freshman defensemen a year ago, and both are back to lead the Spartan blueliners in 1996-97. Chris Bogas was a unanimous CCHA All-Rookie Team selection while leading Spartan defensemen in points and assists (1-20=21). One of the best hitters Mason has ever coached, Bogas finished first on the team with a +18 plus-minus rating.
The other freshman standout, Jeff Kozakowski, joined the team as a walk-on, but appeared in all 42 games and tied for the team lead with 33 starts. He was an honorable mention All-Rookie Team choice and was second behind Bogas in scoring among defensemen (6-14=20).
Junior Tyler Harlton also returns to the Michigan State blueline after a sophomore season in which he was an assistant captain. Paired with Kozakowski most of the season, he also started 33 games and notched a career-best seven points (1-6=7). He can be counted on to provide dependable defensive-zone work as well as solid team leadership.
Harlton's classmate, Jon Gaskins, was forced to sit out almost half of the season when he was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs. After he made a successful return to the ice, CCHA coaches honored him with the Terry Flanagan Memorial Award for overcoming that hardship, as well as recovering from a knee injury from the season before. He finished 1995-96 with one assist in 17 games, and will be a valuable asset in a complete season.
With those four returning players and four freshmen entering the program, Mason feels confident about his defense. He sees the returning defensemen providing size, strength and stability, while the freshmen appear able to jump into the offense in a way that few Michigan State blueliners have in recent years.
"We've got a good nucleus on defense," he says, "and we've added some people who can move the puck a little better than we did last year."
That young group of four freshman defensemen includes Brody Brandstatter, Brad Hodgins, Mike Weaver and Dan Zaluski, at least two of whom will play right away.
One of the biggest question marks entering last season, following the graduation of Mike Buzak, was the goaltending position, and Michigan State found that it had a resounding answer: Chad Alban.
Alban, now a junior, took over the starting duties and produced an impressive 3.07 goals-against average along with a record of 26-13-1. Those numbers placed him among the nation's top 20 goaltenders in both goals-against average and winning percentage, and his 3.00 career goals-against average ranks fourth all-time at Michigan State. He also posted three shutouts in 1995-96, recorded a save percentage of .876 and was named the team's Most Valuable Player. A quick, aggressive goaltender who challenges shooters, Alban finished third in the All-CCHA goaltender balloting.
"Chad Alban learned a lot last year and should be better this year -- and he was very good," Mason says. "He knows what to do to succeed."
Behind Alban are two talented goaltenders, sophomore Mike Brusseau and freshman Mike Gresl, who Mason can turn to when needed. Brusseau had a 2.79 goals-against average and an .897 save percentage his rookie season, while Gresl joins the team from the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League. Gresl, at 6-1, offers a different look than the shorter Alban and Brusseau, both to the Spartans in practice and opponents in games.
"I'd like to think that Mike Brusseau and Mike Gresl will push for playing time," Mason says. "Brusseau proved he could play for us last year and Gresl comes in with some impressive statistics. That's always a healthy situation, because you don't want one goalie playing every game. But we are going in with the idea that Chad is No. 1."
When discussing his recruiting class last spring, Mason explained that the Spartans try to recruit student-athletes that not only have the talent to play in the CCHA but will fill certain needs on the team. The group of newcomers for 1996-97 seems to fit in both regards. Michigan State lost eight letterwinners to graduation from last season -- three forwards, four defensemen and one goaltender. In their place eight new players venture to Munn Ice Arena -- a perfect match which features three forwards, four defensemen and one goaltender.
In addition to filling empty spots on the lineup, Mason hopes the group of seven freshmen and one transfer (Kevin O'Keefe) will make the team quicker, especially on defense. Mason expects the four new defensemen to move the puck out of their own zone more effectively than Michigan State has been able to recently.
Overall, it appears to be a very talented class, one which will contribute immediately and could help move the Spartans closer to the CCHA title which has eluded them since 1990.
"I think it's comparable to some of the best recruiting classes we've ever had," Mason says.
As always, Michigan State features a dynamic schedule which has the team facing some of the toughest competition in college hockey. In addition to the always-difficult CCHA contests, there are a number of wrinkles that stand out in a quick glance at the schedule.
First is the team's opening road trip, which takes place Oct. 25-27, the weekend after its first two CCHA games. After facing Boston College in the Great Western Freeze-Out in California last year, the Spartans and Eagles tangle again in the opening contest of a two-game Eastern swing. In a rare Sunday afternoon matinee, Michigan State faces Northeastern. It marks the first time since the 1991 season, when Michigan State tied Boston College, 2-2, that the Spartans have visited Boston.
"Going to Boston College and Northeastern will be good for us," Mason says. "Hockey teams find out what they are like on those kind of early road trips. Plus we are able to play a different style of hockey, which I think we will see in Boston."
Michigan State has not played a game on New Year's Eve in 42 years, and on both previous occasions the opponents were the ones throwing confetti (a 5-4 loss at Denver in 1952 and a 5-1 loss vs. Michigan Tech in 1954). The champagne has never been popped in Munn Arena, but this year's Spartans hope to ring in the New Year with a win against last year's NCAA runner-up Colorado College.
As always, the Great Lakes Invitational, featuring Lake Superior, Michigan and Michigan Tech, highlights MSU's schedule, while the Spartans will play another tournament at Joe Louis Arena as well, the College Hockey Showcase in November.
The CCHA schedule, featuring three games against each league opponent, is also a staple, although having eight of its last 10 CCHA games away from Munn offers Michigan State a little something different -- something which Mason says could work for or against the Spartans.
"With our league being as strong as it is, every game is contested," Mason says. "Down the stretch we have a lot of road games, although that could be good because a team feels a lot less pressure on the road."
After the regular season closes the CCHA playoffs begin, with a best-of-three first round followed by semifinals and finals at Joe Louis -- a place MSU should be accustomed to by then, should they make it that far. The NCAA tournament follows, beginning March 21.
Perhaps the only certainty about the league at this point is that it will remain home to some of the nation's best teams. The CCHA has established itself as home to some of the best college hockey in the nation and following Michigan's national championship last season, it has been home to six of the last 13 NCAA champions. In 1996 four CCHA teams earned NCAA tournament berths, the most of the four Division I conferences.
The 1996-97 season should still see some of the best teams residing in the CCHA. How those teams will stack up is anybody's guess at this point, although defending CCHA and NCAA tournament champion Michigan is the favorite.
"Right now, I think Michigan is not only the best team in our league but also the best team in the nation," Mason says, "but it may be a bit too early to say."