Neil’s Notebook: Cole, Spartans Eager to Get Going
Notes, quotes and analysis from MSU’s media day from Neil Koepke.
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com staff writer
EAST LANSING – When Michigan State plays its first game of the regular season on Oct. 13 at Bowling Green, senior Ed Minney wants to lead his teammates out of the dressing room and on to the ice as the Spartans’ starting goaltender.
One night later, his goal is to be back between the pipes as the starter in MSU’s home opener, also against the Falcons.
The thing is, sophomore John Lethemon wants the same thing – to be the Spartans’ starter, the team’s No. 1 goalie.
Minney and Lethemon worked hard on and off the ice all summer and since school has started to be ready to compete for playing time.
Both are ready and eager for the competition and to prove to the new coaching staff that they’re capable of making clutch save and delivering solid, efficient and consistent goaltending that puts MSU in position to win.
“For me, it’s about getting my confidence back, working on a lot of little details and gaining the trust of my teammates,’’ Minney said Wednesday at MSU’s Media Day at Munn Arena. “Coach (Joe) Exter has been really good with the goalies and knows what he’s talking about.
“Right now, I’m focusing on staying big in the net and making sure when there are rebounds or broken plays that I’m playing big, and not playing small and getting myself out of the play. A big thing for Coach (Danton) Cole is making that first save.’’
Exter, one of MSU’s new assistant coaches under Cole, along with ex-Spartan defenseman Chris Luongo, is a former goaltender who played at Merrimack College and later served as the first full-time goaltending coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
Minney, 21, a 6-foot-5, 208-pounder from Wind Gap, Pa., spent his first two seasons at MSU as the backup to Jake Hildebrand, not playing in any games as a freshman and only four as a sophomore.
Last season, he shared the goaltending duties with Lethemon, then a freshman, and both had up-and-down seasons – bright stretches and struggles. Minney also battled through some injuries.
Minney played in 25 games, had a 5-14-1 record, a 3.62 goals-against average and an .883 saves percentage. Lethemon saw action in 14 games, had a 2-10-1 record, a 3.58 GAA and a .873 saves percentage.
“I feel great and comfortable coming into the season and I’m working to push even harder to raise my game to a higher level,’’ said Lethemon, 21, a 6-foot-1, 173-pounder from Northville. “I want to add consistency to my position. I want to be at peak performance. That’s what we need to be successful.’’
What about the competition with Minney?
“I’m not really competing against Ed. I’m competing against the guys coming down and shooting on me,” Lethemon said. “I can’t score a goal on Ed or make a save. It’s about how we play against our opponents.’’
Minney credits Jason Muzzatti, MSU’s volunteer goaltending coach, for helping him get through some tough times last season.
“We had a couple of weekends where we really struggled on the road, and to be able to come back and go over video with Coach Muzzatti really helped,’’ Minney said. “It was finding the positives and not just looking at the negatives. It was about learning, working to do better and not lose confidence. “I’m really excited about this season. I’ve been working hard to get better. I think everyone has. Everyone talks about this rebuilding phase. I’m hoping that it’s not necessarily rebuilding but we show improvement, start well and turn it into a good season.’’
Danton Cole, the Spartans’ new coach who took over the program on April 11, hopes Minney is right. But in order to be successful, MSU must get better goaltending, along with improvement in several other areas.
“When you’re in the .800s (in saves percentage), you’re probably not winning many games. So, it starts there,’’ Cole said. “There’s five guys (out there) that can help them but (the goalies) are going to have to stop some pucks.’’
In the limited time he’s worked with his team on the ice and watched Minney and Lethemon, Cole said he’s liked what he’s seen and is eager to see his goaltenders pushing each other.
“I think they’ll have pretty good years. We’ve seen some good stuff,’’ he said. “Ed had some injury problems the second half last year and played through them, and hopefully he’s over that. He’s looked really good. He said it’s the best he’s felt in a couple of years. So that bodes well.
“John has worked hard from the get-go. Hopefully, they’ll push each other.’’
Cole said Exter and Muzzatti have worked hard with the Spartan goaltenders over the last month and have outlined the competition for playing time.
“We set it up in a meeting early on and we said it has to be a healthy competition. One interesting thing with goalie competition, you want it to be friendly in the sense that John can’t score goal on Ed and win the job, and Ed can’t screen John and win the job,’’ Cole said. “They can only win the job or ice time by stopping shots, whether it’s in practice or in games against the other team.
“So Joe (Exter) has done a good job over the years and I know him really well in terms of building that up and having that camaraderie. The guy that’s going (to play) is the guy that’s going. And as long as it’s a fair competition, as long as we’re truthful with them and they have our trust, I think they’ll have pretty good years.’’
Lethemon said he’s ready to embrace the changes in the program, welcome in the eight-player freshman class and work to earn playing time.
“It’s refreshing coming in this year with all the changes, and as a sophomore, I have an opportunity to be part of the change in the culture of the program and help get it back to where it was in the glory days,’’ he said. “That’s all of our goals.
“We have to trust the process, trust our coaching staff and trust each other as a unit. Every weekend, we have to come prepared to execute at a high level. It comes down to our mindset and believe in ourselves.’’
Minney is renewing his relationship with his coach after playing for Cole as a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program’s Under-17 and Under-18 teams in 2012-13 and 2013-14.
“I’m pretty excited about playing for him again. I know what he brings to the table,’’ Minney said. “I know he’s going to bring a lot of intensity. He’ll expect the best out of everybody every single day. He won’t accept mediocrity or (a lack of) work ethic.’’
EARLY IMPRESSIONS: Coach Danton Cole will get a better idea about what type of team he has once official practices begin on Saturday. But after being on the ice for eight hours over the last four weeks, his early impressions have been favorable.
“This is a pretty good group of young men. And they’re going to work hard. They’re going to get better,’’ said Cole, 50, who played at MSU from 1985-89 and was a freshman when the Spartans won the NCAA title in 1986.
“We’ve made a lot of improvement in the eight hours we’ve been able to have them on the ice and the time we’ve been able to spend doing video work and working out. I think we’re a team that’s just going to get better and better this year and leading into next year.’’
The Spartans will have two weeks to get ready for the regular-season series opener, Oct. 13 at Bowling Green and Oct. 14 at Munn Arena.
MSU will play its Green and White Intrasquad game at 7 p.m. on Oct. 4, and then face the University of Toronto in an exhibition game at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7.
What’s it like for Cole to be back in the Lansing area and at MSU after a long career as a player and a coach?
“It’s been outstanding. Probably the most interesting thing for me at least coming back – and I’ve obviously been back on and off over the years – are the people that are here and the quality of relationships and how everyone is treated,’’ he said. “There is a culture here that I think is quite special, and I’m not talking just about the athletic department but the campus as a whole.
“And everybody that’s been extremely helpful to myself, my family and the program in just getting things rolling. So that is special. That’s the one thing that hasn’t changed.’’
UPPERCLASSMEN SCARCE: The Spartans’ roster includes just three seniors – goalie Ed Minney, defenseman Carson Gatt and forward Dylan Pavelek - and three juniors – defenseman Zach Osburn and forwards Brennan Sanford and Cody Milan.
The 25-man roster is made up of 11 sophomores and eight freshmen.
Over the last three seasons, MSU has lost two players who would be upperclassmen this season. Defenseman Josh Jacobs left school after his freshman season (2014-15) to play Major Junior hockey in Sarnia, Ontario, before signing with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils. He would be a senior.
After last season, Mason Appleton, MSU’s leading scorer, left school in July to sign an entry-level contract with the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL. He’d be a junior.
FRESHMEN BEING COUNTED ON: The Spartans’ eight freshmen will have the opportunity to play key roles this season.
Here’s a list of MSU’s rookies for 2017-18:
Defenseman Tommy Miller, 18, 6-foot-2, 183 pounds, West Bloomfield, Mich.
Forward Mitchell Lewandowski, 19, 5-9, 176, Clarkston, Mich.
Forward David Keefer, 19, 5-10, 189, Brighton, Mich.
Forward Jake Smith, 20, 5-9, 176, East Amherst, N.Y.
Forward Brody Stevens, 20, 5-11, 202, Ann Arbor
Forward Gianluca (Gino) Esteves, 20, 5-9, 167, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Forward Austin Kamer, 21, 5-10, 183, Grand Rapids, Mich.
Forward Tommy Apap, 21, 6-2, 202, Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Lewandowski played the last two seasons with the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League. Last year, he had 15 goals and 19 assists for 34 points in 55 regular-season games and helped lead the Steel to the Clark Cup championship with three goals and nine assists in 13 playoff games.
What kind of player can MSU fans expect to see in Lewandowski?
“I think I’m a skilled-forward kind of guy who can make plays, put up points and score goals,’’ he said. “I like to score but that’s not everything. I have to work on my game defensively. I don’t have any set number (of goals and points). I just want to go out there and make an impact every night.’’
Lewandowski committed to MSU four years ago at age 15, and after a standout bantam season with Detroit Honeybaked.
“I’m excited to finally be here and ready to get going,’’ he said. “When I committed, the scoreboard (at Munn Arena) wasn’t even here.’’
DEFENSIVE CHALLENGE: A major focus for the Spartans is to be much better defensively. That means the goaltending, the defense and penalty killing has to be vastly improved for this team to be in position to win games.
“We have to give up less goals. That’s just an absolute imperative,’’ Coach Danton Cole said. “You can’t give up three-and-half or four goals a game.’’
Michigan State last season averaged of 3.83 goals against, which ranked 57th out of 60 teams. The Spartans’ penalty killing ranked fourth-worst in the nation – 72.5 percent (57th nationally).
“I don’t think you need a lot of talent to play defense. I think you need a lot of attitude and cohesiveness,’’ Cole said.
MSU’s eight-man defensive corps includes seven returnees – senior Carson Gatt, junior Zach Osburn, sophomores Jerad Rosburg, Mitch Eliot, Damian Chrcek, Butrus Ghafari and Anthony Scarsella – and one newcomer – highly regarded freshman Tommy Miller.
Miller, 6-foot-2, 183 pounds and the youngest player on the team at age 18, played for the U.S U-18 team last season, but didn’t play for Cole, who coached the U-17 group.
“Coming back, you notice that everyone was working hard over the summer and they’ve gotten better,’’ Rosburg said. “Miller brings a lot to the table too. From where we were last year, I think we’re in a better spot.’’
OFFENSIVE CHALLENGE: The Spartans were one of the lowest-scoring teams in college hockey last season, averaging 2.40 goals per game. That ranked 47th among 62 teams nationally.
Saliba believes with returning players raising their games to a higher level and with contributions from the freshmen, the team can improve its goal output.
“I think we can have a very good offense. We have a lot of potential,’’ he said. “I’m excited for the role that we have (as sophomores). Taro and Patty are, as well. The three of us are looking forward to improving from last year.
“We have a lot of guys coming in who are good players, they read the game well and have the ability to make hockey plays that can add to our scoring.
“They’re all hard-working and older players. Jake Smith was a 60-point guy in the BCHL (British Columbia Junior Hockey League), David Keefer was a 45-plus point guy in the USHL (U.S. Hockey League) and Mitchell Lewandowski had a good year in Chicago (of the USHL). Those guys have chance to get on the scoresheet and produce for us.’’
Saliba said two areas that are critical for MSU to improve on this year are the power play and penalty kill.
“Special teams are a big part of winning. We have to be better,’’ he said. “Our penalty killing and our power play have to be better for us to win more games.
“It’s all about consistency within our whole team. We have to prevent goals and score more.’’
Coach Danton Cole said his team will be aggressive and try to play a fast-paced game but that MSU’s overall style this season will be determined by the capabilities of his team – forwards and defensemen.
“I always like to score more goals than the other team,’’ Cole said with a laugh, when asked about this offensive philosophy. “You know the pat answer – ‘Hey, we want to play fast, we’re going to be physical and we’re going to fight hard and we’re going to do this and that and outshoot teams.’
“The practicality of that is you have to figure out what kind of team you have, and that might not be the way they’re going to play. My offensive philosophy is what fits for this group right now, not so much what I’d like to see.
“We’re going to be aggressive, we’ll take time and space away offensively and defensively, and we’ll try to be good transitionally. We’re going to have to put pucks on net and bang some rebounds in.’’
RADIO TUESDAY: The Danton Cole Radio Show debuts at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3 at Reno’s East Sports Bar and Grill in East Lansing. The hour-long show will be carried live by WJIM radio (AM-1040).
The Cole Radio Show will be on Tuesday’s except when there is a conflict with a MSU men’s basketball game. There’s five conflicts, including one in November, one in December and three in February. The radio show will then be moved to Monday or Wednesday.
SPARTANS ON TV: Michigan State will appear on television 10 times this season on various stations, including the Big Ten Network and Fox Sports Detroit.
Here’s the schedule:
MSU at Minnesota, Nov. 3, Fox Detroit Plus, Fox Sports North; MSU at Minnesota, Nov. 4, Fox Sports North;
MSU vs. Michigan Tech, MSU vs. Michigan or Bowling Green, Great Lakes Invitational, dates TBA, Fox Sports Detroit;
MSU at Wisconsin, Jan. 13, Fox Sports Wisconsin;
Minnesota at MSU, Jan. 18, Big Ten Network; Minnesota vs. MSU, at Madison Square Garden, New York, Jan. 20, Big Ten Network;
MSU vs. Michigan, in Detroit, Feb. 10, Fox Sports Detroit;
Penn State at MSU, Jan. 16, Jan. 17, Big Ten Network.
Unless games are added, three Michigan State-Michigan games are not slated for TV – Dec. 7 at U-M, Dec. 8 at MSU and Jan. 9 at MSU.