Sept. 26, 2013
By Neil Koepke, MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. - It didn't take Michigan State coach Tom Anastos long on Wednesday to identify his team's biggest strength this season at the Spartans 2013-14 hockey media day at Munn Arena.
"We expect to be very strong in goal,'' he said. "We have two guys who have proven they can win.''
Those two guys are sophomore Jake Hildebrand and senior Will Yanakeff. Hildebrand had an excellent rookie season with a 2.35 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage. Yanakeff finished strong, posting a 3.06 average and .904 save percentage.
"They're competitive and capable, and from a talent and skill level, I can see a benefit in being able to play two goaltenders,'' said Anastos, entering his third season as MSU coach.
"Will Yanakeff is eager and hungry to prove what he's capable of. We think he's capable of playing at a high level. Jake wants to build on what he established last year. There will be higher expectations from him.''
Anastos was also quick to point out his team's most pressing needs:
Goals. A lot more goals. And a lot more shots on goal.
Last season, the Spartans averaged 2.07 goals per game, which ranked 55th in the nation out of 59 Division I teams. In addition, MSU ranked near bottom of teams' shots on goal, averaging 25.6 per game.
"We have to find ways to become a better offensive team,'' Anastos said. "We have to develop a more offensive mentality in which guys are taking more shots, getting more pucks on net.''
The Spartans won't take to the ice for the start of full-time practices until Oct. 5. But already the team has a new mantra.
"The coaches are stressing `shoot, shoot, shoot,''' said freshman Mackenzie MacEachern, one of top forwards from a Spartans' recruiting class that is arguably the program's best in several years.
"That will take some pressure off of us in not holding on to the puck as long and to just get it to the net.''
The Spartans lost only 13 goals from three senior forwards from last year's team, which finished with a disappointing 14-25-3 record but played its best the last month of the season and in the playoffs.
There are forwards in all four classes this season who have the potential to make solid offensive contributions. It's just a matter of playing at a much higher level.
The candidates include seniors Greg Wolfe (9 goals 12 assists, 30 points, in 2012-13), Lee Reimer (4-13-7) and Dean Chelios, who sat out last year with an upper-body injury, juniors Matt Berry (15-16-31), Tanner Sorenson (13-8-21), and Brent Darnell (10-10-20) and sophomore Matt DeBlouw (10-11-21).
In addition to MacEachern (Troy), other freshmen forwards - all proven scorers at the junior level - striving to make an impact include JT Stenglein (Greece, N.Y.), Villiam Haag (Gothenburg, Sweden) and Thomas Ebbing (Troy). Freshman Joe Cox (Chelsea) is considered a strong two-way forward.
"I think for us to have a good level of success we need our senior class to take the responsibility for stepping up and having the best seasons of their careers,'' Anastos said. "They're our most experienced players. They can help facilitate the transition of our younger guys.
"We have to starting putting that in place if we're going to have success down road.
"We need an upperclassman like Dean Chelios to come through. He's in the best shape of his life and really hungry to establish himself. Same as Greg Wolfe and other guys in the senior and junior classes.
"Most of our leading scorers last year were sophomores and a freshman in Matt DeBlouw. We have to have them continue their development.''
Wolfe said his team has to be more forceful in creating offense and finishing around the net.
"Our team had one of the least amount of shots in the country and we also had one of the lowest amount of goals scored,'' he said. "We need to shoot the puck more, get people in front of the net and create some havoc.
"In today's game, more goals are scored on second and third opportunities. Smart shots are the key. Getting pucks through from the point and being committed to having guys in front of the net screening the goalie are important.
''Our younger guys have a history of scoring and that's never a bad thing. As much as they can contribute will be a good thing. Overall, our offense should be much better.''
Anastos admitted that he's eager to see his highly skilled freshmen forwards in practice and figure out where they fit in. But he said he doesn't want to put pressure on them to perform at a high level immediately because of the adjustments they'll have to make to the college game.
"You always get excited about young guys but we've only had them on the ice for 3-4 hours,'' Anastos said. "I'm not trying to downplay this class but I'd rather undersell them to start.
"But I do think they have the skill sets and intangibles that we were targeting in our recruiting. I'm anxious for them to bring it. But I think they can make the transition easier and faster if the upperclassmen help facilitate that.''
The rookies should help the Spartans with size, strength and skill and the ability to finish around the net.
MacEachern, 19, and Ebbing, 19, teammates in high school at Birmingham Brother Rice High School, two years ago, played last season with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League. MacEachern (6-foot-2, 192 pounds), had eight goals and 21 points in 50 games but missed part of the season with a concussion. Ebbing (5-11, 172) had 16 goals and 26 points in 60 games.
Stenglein (6-0, 209), 20, has played the last three seasons in the USHL. The first two were with the Youngstown Phantoms, and after starting last season with the Phantoms, he was traded to Sioux City and then to Waterloo. He had 24 goals and 55 points in 53 games overall.
In 2011-12 for Youngstown, Stenglein had 31 goals in 56 games.
Haag (6-1, 200), 19, last year completed his second season with Vastra Froulund Hockey Club in the Swedish junior league, and also played 11 games with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL.
Cox (5-11, 167), 19, played the last two seasons for Muskegon. As captain last year, Cox had 20 goals and 40 points in 62 games.
"When you look at MacEachern, he's a big, strong kid for his age,'' Anastos said. "He's 6-2, has good hands, a nice scoring touch, gets up and down the ice well and sees the ice very well. That's a skill set we need.
"Villiam Haag is really a strong kid. He has a great release on is shot, he's smart, protects the puck well, he's a strong skater and has a proven track record as a scorer.''
Said Haag: "Every time I get the puck, I try to take the opportunity to do something creative. It doesn't have to be the hardest thing. But when I have the puck in the offensive zone or close to the net, I try to release it as fast as I can.
"At the same time, I think I've developed my game where I can maybe keep the puck one more second and then release it. I think our class has really good skill with different things that we're good at. If we play together as a team, we can create something good.''
Anastos said Ebbing, who originally committed to Bowling Green, is an excellent playmaker.
"When we were recruiting MacEachern and go to watch him play, Thomas Ebbing almost always played better,'' Anastos said. "When we got MacEachern committed, that's when it evolved with Ebbing.
"Stenglein is a proven goal scorer, and we don't see any reason he won't continue to do that. He's a power forward and he'll add a physical presence to our team.
"Joe Cox is a very disciplined, hard-working player who has potential to be a terrific leader. He can make plays, score goals and takes pride in doing the grunt work - killing penalties, blocking shots and being a great teammate, the type you need to become a good team.''
INJURY BUGABOO: The Spartans have excellent depth this season with a 28-player roster, including 17 forwards, eight defensemen and three goalies. That means when everyone is healthy, five forwards, two defensemen and one goalie will be scratched each game, while 12 forwards will dress along with six defensemen and two goaltenders.
Injuries, however, have already plagued MSU with three players - junior forward Matt Berry (last year's top scorer) sophomore defenseman John Draeger and sophomore goalie Nate Phillips - all undergoing surgery on the same day recently for a similar lower body injury. The trio is expected to be out from six to 10 weeks.
That means the Spartans could be without one of their top forwards and best defensemen until late November or early December. Meanwhile, freshman Joe Cox is close to starting to skate after recovering from a knee injury suffered late last season while playing for Muskegon of the USHL.
EXPERIENCE ON DEFENSE: MSU had four first-year players on the blue line last season and Coach Tom Anastos is hoping their experience pays off this year.
Senior Jake Chelios is the veteran of the defense and he's looking for a breakout season. He'll be counted on heavily to make a positive impact.
"Our defense gained experience but it's an area that has to get better,'' Anastos said. "It's important for our team that Jake Chelios has a big year.''
The defense includes red-shirt freshmen Rhett Holland and Brock Krygier and freshman walk-on Chris Knudson. Holland underwent upper body surgery early last season, while Krygier was brought in to sit out last year and just practice with the team, as was the case with forward Connor Wood.
"Rhett Holland looks like he's in terrific shape. We brought him in to add size, strength and toughness on the blue line and we expect him to do that,'' Anastos said. "Travis Walsh got tons of ice time last year and RJ Boyd earned more and more time as the season went along.
"We expect them to continue their development. Brock Krygier has made gains in strength and confidence and now has a chance to compete for playing time.''
UPCOMING SCHEDULE: The Spartans will make their debut in front of the home fans in the Green and White Scrimmage at 5 p.m. on Oct. 5. Four days later, MSU plays Western Ontario in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9.
The Spartans will then have a week to prepare for their regular season opener against the University of Massachusetts at 7 p.m. on Oct. 18-19.
"We're going into the season knowing we have a couple of things - playing experience and preparation time before we play real games,'' Anastos said.
MSU's first home game is against UMass.-Lowell, USA Today's preseason No. 1 team, at 7 p.m. on Oct. 25. The next night, the Spartans host Boston University at 7 p.m.
The season opener on Oct. 18 is the latest start by a Spartan team since the 1993-94 season when MSU played its first game on Oct. 22, 1993, at Illinois-Chicago - a 6-3 MSU victory.