Neil's Notebook: Inexperienced Spartans Face Big Opening Challenges
Oct. 11, 2012
By Neil Koepke
MSUSpartans.com Staff Writer
Year Two of the Tom Anastos Era of Michigan State hockey is set to begin this weekend. And so is one of the biggest challenges the Spartans will face all season.
With four first-year defensemen in the lineup, MSU opens the 2012-13 season against one of most talented and offensively gifted teams in the country - the Minnesota Golden Gophers -- in Minneapolis.
The Gophers are ranked No. 1 in one major college hockey poll and No. 2, behind defending NCAA champion Boston College, in another. Minnesota has 15 NHL draft picks on its roster and returns five of its top six forwards, who combined for 86 goals and 199 points last season.
The Spartans play the Gophers at 7 p.m. on Friday and at 9 p.m. on Saturday in a nonconference series at Mariucci Arena, an Olympic-size rink which is 15 feet wider than Munn Arena.
It's an awesome task for a team with 12 new players, but the only way to improve and find out about MSU's strengths and weaknesses is to play games. Lots of games.
It may take a month or even two for the Spartan defense to develop into an effective, cohesive group, click with what looks like an improved set of forwards and take advantage of the team's strength in goal with junior Will Yanakeff officially becoming the full-time starter.
Only two defensemen return from a Spartan team which last season surprised the college hockey world by finishing fifth in the CCHA and earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The veterans on defense this year include senior Matt Grassi and junior Jake Chelios, who is coming off an impressive sophomore year.
The rest of the defensive corps is talented but raw - freshmen John Draeger (6-foot-1, 189 pounds), Rhett Holland (6-2, 213) and Travis Walsh (5-10, 180) and transfers RJ Boyd (6-1, 199), a sophomore, and Nickolas Gatt (6-2, 200), a junior.
"Defense is a very difficult position to transition into so it's going to take time for our new players to adapt and adjust,'' Anastos said.
"A lot of new guys will play a lot of minutes, but I think we have a nice makeup of guys who compete well, are bigger - with a number of 6-footers who are physical. That will add a nice dimension to our team.''
Draeger, Holland and Boyd are NHL draft picks.
When Anastos took over as MSU coach in March, 2011, he said one of his first goals was to make the Spartans a tougher team to play against by being more physical at both ends of the rink and bringing a high-compete level every game.
Gradually, the program is turning that way.
Minnesota isn't the only early challenge for the Spartans. After hosting Niagara in a nonconference series in its home hoper Oct. 19-20, MSU then plays eight of its first 12 CCHA games on the road, including two at Lake Superior State, two at Miami, two at Notre Dame and one at Michigan.
"What I like about playing a team like Minnesota, one that's considered a top team nationally, is it gives you a good measuring stick on where you are and where you need to get to,'' Anastos said. "That was the case in playing Boston College last year (a 5-2 loss in the opening game of the Icebreaker Tournament in Grand Forks, N.D.).
"We're going into a hostile environment this year in Minnesota with a very inexperienced group. We're excited about it.''
Spartan players are excited, too.
"We took a small step against Windsor (a 6-1 exhibition win on Monday) by getting everyone involved in game situations, but we know we have to take much bigger steps to compete against Minnesota,'' senior forward and alternate captain Anthony Hayes said. "With all the firepower Minnesota has returning, we have to play sound defense as a team and take away their time and space with the puck.''
Last season at Munn Arena, MSU surprised the Gophers by holding on for a 4-3 victory in the series opener and then playing Minnesota to a 4-4 tie on Thanksgiving weekend.
Anastos expected that would be the last time he'd see Minnesota standout forward Nick Bjugstad, who was expected to give up his final two years of eligibility and sign with the NHL's Florida Panthers. Instead, he turned down an offer to sign and came back for his junior season.
Bjugstad, who's 6-2, and 220 pounds, scored 25 goals and had 42 points, third on his team in scoring as a sophomore
"He's so big and talented. I just think you have to get in his face and limit his time and space,'' MSU sophomore forward Brent Darnell said. "We plan to be physical against them and they'll be expecting that from us.
"But once the game starts, you're not thinking about how talented they are. You're thinking about playing your game and matching up against them.''
The Gophers' other top guns include junior Erik Haula (20 goals, 29 assists, 49 points), sophomore Kyle Rau (18-25-43) and juniors Zach Budish (12-23-35) and Nate Condon (11-19-30). Junior defenseman Kyle Schmidt was Minnesota's fourth-highest scorer with three goals and 38 assists for 41 points.
To make the Gophers even more formidable, they have a wealth of talent on defense and several elite freshmen joining the program. If there's any uncertainty, it's in goal where there's little experience. Freshman Adam Wilcox and junior Michael Shibrowski will compete for playing time.
Last season, the Gophers won the WCHA's regular season title and advanced to the Frozen Four semifinals, losing to Boston College in Tampa.
The Spartans have two players with Minnesota connections.
Freshman defenseman Draeger is from Fairbault, Minn., played at Shattuck St. Mary's prep school and was selected by the Minnesota Wild in the third round of last summer's NHL Entry Draft.
Sophomore right wing Tanner Sorenson, who's from Anchorage, Alaska, also played at Shattuck St. Mary's.
"I've had this date circled on my calendar for a long time. This is going to be fun,'' said Draeger who noted he's watched a lot of games at Mariucci Arena but has never played there. "We want to play the No. 1 team the first weekend of the season. I love high-pressured situations.''
Offensively, the Spartans ( 14-11-3 in CCHA play and 19-16-4 overall in 2011-2012) and Ferris State tied for second in league scoring last year with 80 goals. MSU is hoping to be even better this season.
The offense is led by junior linemates Lee Reimer, a center, and Greg Wolfe, a right wing, senior left wing Kevin Walrod, sophomore forward Matt Berry, senior forwards Hayes and Chris Forfar and sophomore Sorenson.
Reimer (9-21-30), Wolfe (10-16-26), Berry (11-8-19) and Walrod (9-9-18) ranked third through sixth among MSU scorers last season, behind departed defenseman Torey Krug (12-22-34) and graduated senior forward Brett Perlini (9-22-31).
Senior forward Dean Chelios is out indefinitely with a shoulder injury, which could require surgery and force him to miss the entire season.
Freshmen looking to contribute up front include Matt DeBlouw, Ryan Keller, David Bondra and Michael Ferrantino, along with redshirt freshman Justin Hoomaian, who missed most of last season with an injury.
Anastos said the Gophers' offensive skills won't change the way the Spartans will play. They'll still try to pursue the puck and create scoring chances while trying to be responsible defensively by limiting turnovers and odd-man rushes.
"We look at it that this is a marathon and not a sprint,'' he said, "and while we'll devise a scheme to try to win every game, at the same time we want to continue to play the way we want to play and use this experience to get better.''