The 2013-2014 season in college hockey will be a historic season. The addition of varsity hockey at Penn State led to conference expansion (B1G Hockey, NCHC), realignment (WCHA, Hockey East) and extinction (CCHA). This year, Michigan State will play B1G counterparts Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State 4 times each for a 20 game league schedule. In the final season of the CCHA last year, the Spartans, one of the youngest rosters in all of college hockey, got off to a slow start and never really recovered finishing last in the conference and losing in the second round of the playoffs to the league champion Miami Redhawks in 3 games.
The Spartans graduated a total of 13 goals from 3 forwards last season and return their top six point producers. For improvement this season, the Spartans must create more offense and have a better finishing touch. In 2012-2013 MSu ranked 55th nationally with 2.07 goals per game (Out of 59 D1 teams) and only attempted 25.6 shots per game. Much of this can be attributed to a reliance on freshman and sophomore forwards who looked undersized and wore down by older rosters. Hopefully a season under the tutelage of Mike Vorkapich in the weight room will lead to increased puck possession and more scoring opportunities.
With that introduction done, let's take a look at the position groups for this years' edition of Spartan Hockey.
As stated above, the Spartans return the top 6 point producers from an underwhelming offensive unit. While having that many young players back can be a plus, the whole unit must take vast improvements to compete for a top 3 spot in the conference. Last year's returning scorer Matt Berry scored 15 goals and 31 points, which bested the next best Spartan by a full 10 points. Unfortunately, Berry will miss the first couple months of the season recovering from surgery on a lower body injury. However, he should be back in time for the beginning of conference play in December. Other forwards to keep an eye on are senior captain Greg Wolfe, sophomore Matt Deblouw (Calgary Flames prospect) and junior Tanner Sorenson. The Spartans should have a pretty competitive top 2 forward lines but must get depth scoring from players such as senior Dean Chelios, returning from a year-long injury, and sophomore Michael Ferrantino.
Newcomer to watch: Freshman forward Mackenzie Maceachern is one of the most anticipated recruits in Tom Anastos' 3rd year behind the bench. Maceachern was Mr. Hockey in the state of Michigan in 2011-12 for Birmingham Brother Rice as he led the state in scoring (90 pts in 29 games) and won a division 2 state championship. After being drafted in the 3rd round by the St. Louis Blues Maceachern played last season in the USHL for the Chicago Steel. He appeared in 50 games for the Steel collecting 8 goals and 13 assists before sitting out games with a concussion.
The defensive unit is only losing one player from last year in graduated senior Matt Grassi. This is a unit that was helped last year by an solid goaltending tandem that helped cover up young mistakes. Luckily, as we will get to later the Spartans return that same goaltending duo this season. Leaders on defense include John Draeger (Minnesota Wild prospect) and Jake Chelios. Draeger and Travis Walsh are the best returning defenseman in terms of plus/minus. Draeger, like Berry, will be out until late November or early December with a lower body injury. This unit should take a step forward this year with chemistry from last years pairs carrying over into this season.
Newcomer to watch: Rhett Holland is coming back this season after sitting out last year with an injury that required surgery. The Phoenix Coyotes draft pick Holland should provide an edge and toughness against the physical teams from Minnesota and Wisconsin. In his final season in the Alberta Junior league Holland racked up 232 minutes in penalties.... in 47 games.
It is safe to assume that without stellar play from both Will Yanakeff and Jake Hildebrand, the Spartans would have fared much worse than their 14-25-3 record. Hildebrand was especially strong in the 2nd half of the season as he won 4 of his last 7 starts after winning only 3 starts before the Christmas break. Anastos played both the junior (Yanakeff) and freshman (Hildebrand) in the playoffs last year leading me to believe he will continue a goalie rotation this season and play the hot hand. Hildebrand finished last season with the better statistics as he had a 2.35 GAA to Yanakeff's 3.06. Hildebrand has also gotten preseason hype as a top 10 goaltender in college hockey by the website USCHO.com.
Games To Watch:
-Umass-Lowell comes to Munn Arena on Friday October 25th. The Frozen Four contestant comes into the season a preseason #1 in the polls and Hockey East favorite. Boston University will be at Munn the next night.
-B1G play opens for the Spartans on December 6th at home against Minnesota
-MSU will participate in the Great Lakes Invitational Dec. 27 and 28th at Comerica Park as a part of festivities leading up to the NHL Winter Classic at the Big House
-MSU plays UM Jan 24-25 and March 7-8. They also could meet in the championship game of the GLI.