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Neil's Notebook: Spartans Face Talented U-18 Squad in Saturday Exhibition

Will Yanakeff

Feb. 27, 2014

By Neil Koepke staff writer

EAST LANSING - There's something about playing Michigan State that brings out the best in the U.S. National Team Development Program's Under-18 team.

In eight games between the Spartans and many of the top 17-year-old players in the nation since 2000, the U.S. team has won five, including a 3-0 victory last season. In fact, the U-18s have won three of the last three meetings with MSU.

The teams will meet for the ninth time in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Munn Arena. Former Spartan forward Danton Cole (1985-89), who grew up in Lansing, is head coach of the U-18 team.

"They'll be all geared up to play another college team,'' Spartans coach Tom Anastos said. "This is always a tough game. They're very skilled and have some of the best kids in the country. They skate well, they have good depth and they'll be hard to play against.'

"Last week, they beat Bowling Green (6-1) and they beat Michigan (5-4) earlier in the year.''

The U-18s are 4-7 against U.S. Division I opponents. They've also won against Lake Superior State and Miami and lost to Northern Michigan, Colorado College, North Dakota, Minnesota-Duluth, St. Cloud State and Massachusetts.

The U.S. NTDP features two teams - the Under-17 team, made up of elite-level 16-year-olds, and the Under-18 team, made up of elite 17-year-olds - and is based in Ann Arbor.

The program started in 1996-97, with Jeff Jackson as the first head coach. Jackson, who won two NCAA titles as coach at Lake Superior State, spent four years with the U.S. program and is now at Notre Dame.

Most of the players feed into the U.S. college system, and several on the U-18 team will be selected high in the NHL Entry Draft in June.

Michigan State has had 19 players come through the U.S. NTDP, including current senior goaltender Will Yanakeff.



Yanakeff will start for the Spartans (9-15-7 overall, 3-7-6-4 Big Ten) and he could be matched up against the goaltender who will take his spot next season - Edwin Minney, 17, who has played in 30 games for the U-18s this season. He has a 15-8-1-0 record, a 2.74 goals-against average and a .906 saves percentage.

Minney, a 6-foot-4, 191-pounder from Wind Gap, Pa., signed a national letter of intent last fall and will enroll at MSU this summer. Minney is the No. 2 ranked North American goalie for this summer's NHL Entry Draft by the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau. Thatcher Demko, who played for the U-18s last year and is now a freshman at Boston College, is ranked No. 1.

MSU fans could get to see a Spartan of the future and will see college hockey's stars of the future since all of the regulars on the U-18 roster have committed to 14 schools.

"I don't know if it's all that important to see him play against our team, but if he does play, it's a good opportunity for Michigan State fans to see one of our goalies of the future,'' Anastos said. "We've have an opportunity to see him play and he continues to make progress.

"He's playing really well, and he's coming into a good situation here with a returning guy (Jake Hildebrand) who can carry the bulk of the work and he can kind of come in and earn his time.''

In the 15 years that the National Team Development Program players have been eligible for the NHL Draft, 228 players have been selected. Last season, 60 players were on the rosters of 28 NHL teams, according to USA Hockey.

Nine NTDP alumni played on the 2014 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

"They're still doing a real good job. I remember when all that stuff was coming to fruition,'' Anastos said of the start of the program, which tries to bring together the best 16- and 17-year-old players in the nation in a hockey-academy type setting. The players live with families in Ann Arbor and attend Pioneer High School, and most stay for two years, starting with the U-17 team.

The U-17 team plays in the United States Hockey League (USHL) and in international competition. The U-18s plays some games against USHL teams, Division I and III college teams and in international tournaments.

"It was a pretty controversial thing in the U.S., at that time. I think it's proven to be a successful player development vehicle,"Anastos said.

"It's helped the United States move into being an international player. Now, we go to tournaments and we're part of the conversation among the favorites. It's been a catalyst for U.S. hockey growth.

Some of the well-known U.S. NTDP alumni include goalie Jimmy Howard (Red Wings), forwards Patrick Kane (Blackhawks), Phil Kessel (Maple Leafs) and Ryan Kesler (Canucks), defensemen Jack Johnson (Blue Jackets), Kevin Shattenkirk (Blues) and Ryan Suter (Wild).

MSU players who have played in the U.S. program: Adam Hall, Andrew Hutchinson, Jon Insana, Joe Goodenow, John-Michael Liles, Troy Ferguson, Lee Falardeau, Jeremy Jackson, David Booth, Corey Potter, Evan Shaw, A.J. Thelen, A.J. Sturges, Jim McKenzie, Bryan Lerg, Michael Ratchuk, Brandon Gentile, Zach Golembiewski and Yanakeff.

The U-18's top five scorers this season are forwards Sonny Milano (18 goals, 43 assists, 61 points), Jack Eichel (28-32-60), Alex Tuch (27-22-49), Dylan Larkin (23-20-43) and Ryan Hitchcock (8-31-39).

Milano and Tuch are committed to Boston College, Eichel will play at Boston University in 2015, Larkin is a future Wolverine and Hitchcock has committed to Yale.

Minney's goaltending partner is Blake Weyrick, a 6-3, 203-pounder from Ojai, Calif., who will play at Yale. Weyrick has a 9-4-0-0 record, a 2.78 goals-against average and a .893 saves percentage.

SPARTANS FOCUS: MSU coach Tom Anastos said he'll use Saturday's exhibition game against the U.S. Under-18 Team as an opportunity to play some players who haven't see a lot of action, try some experiments on special teams and rest some players who are a bit banged up.

The Spartans have four Big Ten games remaining - a home-and-home series against Michigan next weekend and a home series against Wisconsin, March 14-15. Then, it's the Big Ten Tournament in St. Paul, Minn., March 20-22.

"We have some injuries that we need to heal up, so this comes at a good time, before we play our final regular season games,'' Anastos said. "We'll also use the opportunity to give some guys who haven't had much opportunity to play a chance to play.

"We've been going really hard over the last several weeks. There's certainly no concern over our players not respecting their team, but the fact that it's an exhibition game, you can get concerned over the mental approach, thinking that it's a week off.

"The Big Ten Tournament is important for us, so we need to get a little better each week so we're playing at our best that particular weekend. That includes this week.''

SUDDEN INJURIES: Before last Friday's series opener at Wisconsin, Anastos said he mentioned to Spartan hockey trainer Dave Carrier that here it was late February and the team was in good health, with everyone available except sophomore forward David Bondra, who's out for the season with a shoulder injury.

"Minutes later, RJ Boyd (comes into the training room). He had just sprained his ankle warming up (before warmups on the ice),'' Anastos said. "So now, he's out for a while.

"Then, Brock Krygier gets hurt with a leg injury (during the game). He was fortunate that he was able to overcome it (and play on Saturday). We have a couple of other guys banged up.''

CHALLENGES: The Spartans have gone 10 straight games in which they've scored two goals or less. The last time MSU scored three goals was in a 3-2 win over Penn State on Jan. 18 at Munn Arena. The Spartans also scored three goals one night earlier in a 3-0 win. And in two of the three games before the PSU series, they also scored three goals - in a 5-3 loss at Ohio State and 3-0 win over Michigan in the GLI at Comerica Park.

But since the sweep of the Nittany Lions, MSU has scored only 15 goals - 1, 2, 2, 0, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 0.

Meanwhile, senior captain Greg Wolfe still leads the Spartans in scoring with 11 goals and 12 assists for 23 points. Linemate and fellow senior Lee Reimer and senior defenseman Jake Chelios are tied for second with 18 points apiece Reimer has seven goals and 11 assists, while Chelios has two goals and a team-leading 16 assists.

Freshman Mackenzie MacEachern scored against Wisconsin last Friday to end a 16-game goal drought, dating back to Dec. 6 against Minnesota.

IN THE BIG TEN: The Spartans and Wisconsin take a break from conference play this weekend but the two series going will have a big impact on the standings.

First-place Minnesota has 32 points, one more than second-place Wisconsin, but the Gophers have six games remaining, two more than the Badgers. Minnesota plays host to last-place Penn State on Friday and Saturday with its last home series of the season. The Gophers play at Ohio State next weekend and close out the season at Michigan, March 14-15.

The third-place Wolverines (23 points) and fourth-place Ohio State (30 points) collide in a home-and-home series - Friday in Ann Arbor and Sunday afternoon in Columbus.

After this weekend, Michigan plays three of its last four games at home - a home-and-home series with Michigan State next week and two with Minnesota to end the season. Ohio State hosts Minnesota next week and finishes the regular season at Penn State.

Michigan State is in fifth place, one point behind Ohio State and four in back of Michigan.

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