Neil's Notebook: Season Review and Look Forward
April 3, 2014
By Neil Koepke
EAST LANSING - In each of the last two seasons, Michigan State's freshmen class was high in numbers and high in minutes played.
The Spartans' rookies got immediate playing time and the chance to make an impact. Eight saw regular playing time in 2012-13 and six of the eight rookies on the roster this season played in more than 30 games.
Next season, however, things will be a little different.
MSU will add three or four freshmen and while most will play and contribute, they'll be playing with experienced players and won't have to be go-to players.
With a class low in numbers, it also means that if the Spartans hope to show significant improvement in 2014-15 - more goals, better special teams and better puck movement on defense - it'll have to come from returning players.
Four seniors, eight juniors and eight sophomores will be counted on to upgrade the Spartans' skill level and make major contributions in upgrading MSU's record in the Big Ten and the program's standing nationally.
"We're going to have to improve organically - within the group of players that we have,'' MSU coach Tom Anastos said, while reflecting on this season and the future during his recent postseason press conference.
"We have to get better and that will be a major point this summer. I think it's really important that we have a good offseason - as important as we've had in a while.
"We need to make a big step in our offseason training. When we come back in the fall, the guys are armed with the experienced they've gained and they've taken a step with strength and speed.''
The Spartans, who lost to Ohio State, 2-1, in overtime in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago, finished the 2013-14 season with an overall record of 11-18-7. They were 5-9-6-4 and in fifth-place in the first season of the Big Ten as a six-team hockey conference.
By the numbers, Michigan State improved in almost every area from the 2012-13 season, but not by much. The Spartans, who played 36 games this year and 42 in 2012-13, had a better winning percentage (.403 this year to .369 last year), scored more goals per game (2.17 to 2.07), had a better goals against average (2.53 to 2.74) and a better power play (15.9 percent to 13.6).
MSU's penalty killing took a step back - 79.7 percent efficiency this year to 84.2 percent in 2012-13.
"In our business, wins mean the most. But while we didn't win as many games as much as we'd like, I can sit here and say unequivocally that our team this year was way better than it was a year ago,'' Anastos said. "I think we'll take a big step next year.
"I believe in what we're doing, I know where we're going and I know what it's going to take to get there. We'll run into some bumps along the way but there's no question that we'll get to where we want to be.''
Where Anastos wants to be next season is higher in the Big Ten standings and in the NCAA Tournament - like the Spartans were in his first season as coach in 2011-12, when a veteran group, led by defenseman Torey Krug, scratched and clawed its way into the 16-team tourney field.
For the Spartans to become a consistently winning team next season, they'll have to have several returning forwards boost their offensive production and get more efficient puck movement and output from their defense.
"We have to improve on our ability to score. That will be a challenge because we're not going to have a huge turnover in players from a recruitment standpoint,'' Anastos said. "We're losing a couple of our better offensive players in (seniors) Greg Wolfe and Lee Reimer so we have to make up for what they produced.
"We averaged just over two goals a game this year. If we could have scored with more regularity and got that number closer to three goals, we probably would have won six to eight or 10 more games.''
MSU loses it top three scorers in Wolfe (13 goals, 18 assists, 31 points), Reimer (9-13-22) and defenseman Jake Chelios (2-19-21).
So who's going to help the Spartans make a splash offensively?
Senior-to-be Matt Berry, who had 15 goals and 31 points as a sophomore, hopes to bounce back from an injury-plagued season in which he played in only 23 games and had 10 goals and 17 points.
Michael Ferrantino, as a sophomore, was the Spartans' most consistent offensive player with nine goals and 20 points.
MSU got solid contributions from four freshmen last season, and they expect to make more of an impact in 2014-15. The group includes Mackenzie MacEachern (8-4-12), Villiam Haag (8-5-13), Joe Cox (6-6-12) and Thomas Ebbing (2-7-9).
The trio combined for 33 goals in 2012-13. This season, the three players managed only four goals.
Sorenson had 13 goals and 21 points as a sophomore but only two goals and four points in 17 games last year. Sorenson, who started the season serving a five-game suspension for a violation of team rules, had trouble earning his way into the lineup for most of the season.
Darnell had 10 goals and 10 assists for 20 points in 40 games as a sophomore but only two goals and eight points in 31 games this year.
As a freshman, DeBlouw had a solid season with 10 goals and 21 points in 42 games, but he struggled most of this season and did not score a goal and had four assists in 23 games. He sat out several games in mid-season as a healthy scratch.
"We'll look at our team knowing that some of the guys are more inclined to be better offensive players next year than they were this season by virtue of gaining experience and opportunity,'' Anastos said. "You recruit (high-end) skills and given the way recruiting is, it takes time and plays out over a period of time.
"You're not going to turn someone who's never scored in his life into a scorer. I don't think you can do that in any sport.
"We'll continue to study our systems and what we do, and given our skill set, do what we can to enhance our ability to score goals. We're not going to radically change the skill set that we have. We'll recruit those special skill sets over the next few years. I think there's a system adjustment that can help us create more chances.''
The biggest positive coming out of the past season is MSU's improvement on defense, despite one of its best defenders not being healthy for most of the season. After an excellent freshman season, John Draeger's second season as a Spartan was frustrating. He suffered a lower body injury last summer, had surgery and missed a whole offseason of conditioning. Draeger missed the Spartans' first eight games and never really felt comfortable physically all season.
The tighter defense and the standout play by sophomore goaltender Jake Hildebrand kept the Spartans in just about every game.
"Our ability to defend improved significantly over season,'' Anastos said. "We still have significant improvement to make but we did take a big step.
"At one time this season, we were in the top 10 in the country in team defense. And only a couple games near the end of the season caused us to fall back to about 20. But it's a big step from where we were before.''
MSU loses Jake Chelios and Nicholas Gatt to graduation and will add one freshman - and possibly two - to the defense.
Josh Jacobs, a 6-foot-2, 193-pound highly regarded defenseman from Shelby Township, signed a letter of intent to play at MSU last fall. He played this season with the Indiana Ice of the U.S. Hockey League and was selected to the second USHL mid-season all-star team. He has five goals and 17 assists for 22 points in 54 regular-season games, and has the second-highest plus-minus number on the team with a plus-35. The Eastern Conference champion Ice begin their playoff run next week.
Jacobs, 18, is eligible for this summer's NHL Entry Draft. Scouts say he could be drafted anywhere from late in the first round to early in the third round. In the NHL Central Scouting Service's 2014 midterm rankings, Jacobs is ranked No. 41 among North American skaters.
"He's very skilled, moves around the ice very well and has the capability of moving the puck, shooting the puck and joining the rush,'' Anastos said. "He's a high-end prospect, very much what we need here.''
The Spartans hope to get more offense from their defense next season. This season, the defense scored only three goals (but none in Big Ten play) and contributed 47 assists for 50 points. Last year, the defense scored nine goals and had 45 points.
"We need to do a better job of being able to move the puck and be involved in our attack,'' Anastos said. "If we can do a better job of breaking out of our zone and not allowing teams to establish a forecheck, that can help start our offense.
"For us to get better offensively, we have to start on defense. It's not just a matter of finishing up front. Two years ago, our offense was started by our defense. Torey Krug had a lot to do with it but so did Matt Crandall, Brock Shelgren and Tim Buttery.
Anastos said just having Draeger healthy will make the defense better. "You have no idea how he toughed it out this year. He wasn't feeling right all season,'' Anastos said. "He competed and did the best he could and never complained. But he wasn't what he could have been or will be.
"Not having Draeger, our leader in minutes played last year, and Matt Berry, our leading scorer, to start the season, really handicapped our team. We were counting on their impact.
"Hopefully, with rest and being fully recovered, and a full offseason of training, those guys will be able to take a big step. We need Draeger to be a solid player. He's proved he's got some good leadership (qualities) and can log significant minutes.''
SUMMER PLANS: Unlike the past two seasons, Spartan players will go home for the entire summer and not return for the second summer session in early July. That's because major renovations at Munn Arena, which have already started, means there will be no ice this summer. A new refrigeration system is being installed, along with new boards and new glass, and the arena won't be finished until sometime in August.
"We're going to send the guys home this summer so they'll be able to skate and they'll have a specific training program to help them individually,'' Coach Tom Anastos said. "They'll work on areas they need to improve on and we'll bring them back to campus in August.''
FRESHMEN CLASS: In addition to defenseman Josh Jacobs, the Spartans will bring in goaltender Edwin Minney, who has played the last two seasons with the U.S. National Team Development Team in Ann Arbor. He played with the Under-17 Team last year and the Under-18 team this season. The U-18s are coached by former Spartan forward Danton Cole.
Minney, who turned 18-years-old on March 29, is 6-foot-4, 191 pounds and is from Wind Gap, Pa. He also signed a letter of intent in early November.
"Ed Minney has had a good season and has tons of experience playing Division I college games,'' Anastos said. "He's coming into an ideal environment that we haven't been able to do with some other positions. He comes in without the pressure to be the go-to guy.
"He'll be provided with the opportunity to earn playing time just like we did with Jake Hildebrand. Our goal is to create a cooperative, competitive environment - where they support each other, along with our other goaltenders, and yet are competing for playing time.''
Minney has already played one game at Munn Arena. He helped the U-18 team to a 4-3 overtime victory over the Spartans in an exhibition game on March 1. Minney made 20 saves.
"He's a different kind of goalie than we see in Hildy,'' Anastos said. "Hildy is a little more acrobatic, very athletic and smaller. With Ed, it's not that he's not athletic but he relies on his big body, his angles and blocking ability, so it's a different style.
"Ed will probably be 6-foot-5 when he gets here. That's a pretty big goalie. He'll be the biggest kid on the team.''
BIG TEN REVIEW: Although he would have liked a better ending for his team, Anastos was impressed with the first Big Ten Tournament two weeks ago at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The Spartans played well against Ohio State in the second quarterfinal on the first day of the three-day tournament, but the Buckeyes pulled out a 2-1 victory in overtime to end MSU's season. OSU went on to upset No. 1 Minnesota, 3-2, and then lost the title game 4-3 in overtime against Wisconsin, after holding a 3-1 lead with seven minutes left in the third period.
A victory would have given Ohio State an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Badgers' victory allowed North Dakota to get into the tournament. Penn State's 2-1 win over Michigan in the quarterfinals helped keep the Wolverines out of the NCAAs for the second straight season.
"The Big Ten did a great job running the tournament. The building was excellent and it was a first-class event,'' Anastos said. "I know from my previous experience (as CCHA commissioner), people always look at the attendance and judge it on that.
"I think it's fair to say we want the attendance to be strong but it's going to take time to grow. In the other league structures, they've had 30 and about (60) years of league experience and history. We're starting from square one. But I thought it was a good start by the league.''
The two first-day sessions drew announced crowds of 7,333 and 7,403, without Wisconsin or Minnesota playing that day. With the Badgers and Gophers involved in the two semifinals, the announced crowds were 7,963 (for Wisconsin and Penn State) and 9,753 for Minnesota and Ohio State). The Wisconsin-Ohio State championship game attracted an announced crowd of 10,153.
Anastos thought the entire Big Ten season was a big success with the Spartans playing home and road series against Minnesota and Wisconsin for the first time since 1980, Penn State coming in as a completive team in only its second season as a varsity program and so many games televised on the Big Ten Network and other national networks.
"It was terrific. The Big Ten did a great job and the competition was excellent,'' he said. "The buildings and the atmospheres were great. The Big Ten is off to a good start and it's only going to get better.
"We've gotten a lot of positive feedback from both fans and in recruiting, which I think is important as well.''
Next season's Big Ten Tournament will be at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
SCHEDULE PLANS: Once again, Big Ten teams will play a 20-game league schedule in 2014-15. That will allow each team to play at least 14 non-conferences games. The Spartans, along with Michigan and Michigan Tech, will continue to play two games in the Great Lakes Invitational in Detroit after Christmas. That leaves 12 non-league contests to schedule.
Coach Tom Anastos said that next year's schedule was still tentative because not all contracts have been signed, but list of possible teams on the schedule looks impressive.
It's likely MSU will play home games against Boston College and New Hampshire, Michigan Tech, Ferris State, Western Michigan and road contests at Princeton (2), Boston University (1), UMass-Lowell (1) and Western Michigan (1).
Michigan State is expected to start home-and-home series against Denver and North Dakota next season and play in a tournament in Portland, Maine (hosted by the University of Maine) in 2015-16.
"We're trying to put together a demanding schedule to help our team learn how to compete against the best teams - both to compete in the Big Ten and in the NCAA Tournament. We're not trying to pad our schedule (with weak teams) just to build a record.
"We want to play prominent programs east and west, and if the opportunity presents itself, I want our players to have an Ivy League experience at least once during their four years here. We sat down and put a methodical plan together and so far it's gone pretty well.''
Anastos said he scheduled the tournament in Maine in 2015-16 to give Spartan defenseman Travis Walsh a chance to play in Maine, where his father, Shawn Walsh, built the Black Bears into a national power and won NCAA titles in 1993 and 1999. Shawn Walsh, who died of cancer in 2001 at age 46, was a Spartan assistant coach under Ron Mason for five seasons before taking over at Maine in 1984. He coached Anastos for three seasons.
"I was a big fan of Shawn Walsh for what he did for me as a coach, and this is an opportunity for his son to play in Maine, where Shawn made such an impact,'' Anastos said. "So when the opportunity presented itself, I thought it was a no-brainer.''
EX-SPARTAN LORD PASSES AWAY: Richard (Dick) Lord, one of the first black players to play U.S. college hockey, died early last month in his native Montreal after a long illness at the age of 84. Lord played three seasons at Michigan State from 1950-53 and graduated with a degree in chemical engineering.
Lord was honored with the Distinguished Spartan Award in 1989. He was considered the first black player to play college hockey, but some reports suggest claim that Lloyd Robinson was the first at Boston University starting in 1947.
Lord was recruited by MSU coach Harold Paulsen in 1949 and played on the freshman team in 1949-50, because freshman weren't eligible to play on the varsity. He played one season for Paulsen as a forward and had eight goals and 17 points.
In his final two seasons at MSU, Lord was coached by Amo Bessone, who began his 28-year stay at MSU in 1951. Lord had three goals and five points as a junior and seven goals and 13 points in his senior year.
After graduation, Lord moved back to Montreal and became an iconic figure in community in business and politics and with charitable organizations. He worked for Dominion Tar and Chemical Co, the City of Montreal and the Immigration Appeal Board of Canada.
His political life included a stint as the vice president of the Quebec Liberal Party. In 1965, he ran to represent the Liberal Party in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grace riding but lost the race, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail.
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