The Michigan State Spartans ice hockey team will begin play this weekend in Portland, Maine to start the 5th season under head coach Tom Anastos. Last season saw the Spartans with a chance to win the B1G Regular Season title on the last weekend of the year, but for the third season in a row the Spartans were watching the NCAA National Tournament on television rather than participating. This season the pressure will be on Anastos and company to make the return to the national tournament and capitalize on having one of the premier goaltenders in all of college hockey. The Spartans have been selected to finish 3rd in the conference in the preseason polls, both by the coaches and the SBNation media preview, and with how poorly the B1G conference has performed the last two seasons, a strong performance in the out of conference slate will be needed from the Spartans.
In this preview I will take a look at each position group, highlighting the main players to watch, players to expect growth from, and areas for improvement. I will also take a look at key match-ups from the Spartans out of conference schedule, highlighting the chances for the Spartans to make some noise on a national level. First, let's take a look at the group that needs to improve the most for the Spartans to have a special season, the forwards.
Anemic. Boring. Frustrating. These are all words I and many Spartans' fans have used to describe the offensive output of the Michigan State Spartans over the past three seasons. 46th in goals scored last season (out of 59 teams) the Spartans once again failed to average over 2.5 goals per game, let alone score over the desired 3 goals per game that the nation's best teams average. There is no super freshman joining the Spartans this season, a la Jack Eichel at Boston University or Dylan Larkin at Michigan, so the Spartans will have to rely on development from their forwards to see better results.
Mackenzie MacEachern is the leading returning scorer for the Spartans this season and I believe he is poised for a breakout junior season. The St. Louis Blues draft pick more than doubled his points from his freshman season, jumping from 12 to 26 points, and MacEachern showed that he was catching up to the college game after just one season in juniors. MacEachern will be leaned on heavily this season to climb towards 40 points if the Spartans are to push for a league title and he will be key in power play situations. Other juniors looking to increase their output this season will be Thomas Ebbing and Joe Cox. Ebbing, a teammate of MacEachern's since their days in high school, was expected to produce more than the six goals in two seasons he has produced in East Lansing. Ebbing has been a strong center, especially in the defensive zone, but will need to contribute more on offense to become a reliable second line center. Cox, a future captain in waiting, developed from an energy, 3rd line winger to a top line winger playing with Michael Ferrantino and Ryan Keller. All three players from that line are back this season and they are poised to be a strong unit again for Anastos. Ryan Keller had a breakout season, with 11 goals but it was buoyed by a hard to replicate 15.5% shooting percentage.
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If the Spartans are to push for the league title the top six forwards will need to contribute more than they have in the past three seasons, but also depth scoring will be vital. Senior Matt DeBlouw may have the best shot on the entire team but has been plagued by practice and consistency issues, causing him to be removed from the lineup from time to time. True freshman Cody Milan, who scored the first goal in the Spartans 2-1 exhibition win over Western Ontario Sunday, finished his final season in the USHL on a strong offensive pace after being traded to Tri-City. Mason Appleton, the only incoming freshman to be drafted by an NHL team, adjusted from Wisconsin high school hockey to the USHL quickly, registering 40 points in 54 games and 8 points in 7 playoff games. Appleton has the talent to push for top 6 forward playing time and will make the upper class forwards earn their playing time, something that can hopefully lead to better results for the Spartans.
Now that we know the names of the forwards to watch this season, how do the Spartans produce more offense? The Spartans ranked 46th in the country in shooting percentage, while also ranking in the bottom third of the country in shots produced. The Spartans simply do not possess the puck enough to control the flow of the game, and consistently outshoot their opponents. To improve this the Spartans can build off of a strong performance in the face-off circle that they had last season, while also looking to maintain possession while entering the offensive zone rather than playing a dump-and-chase style. The Spartans power play was squarely in the middle of the rankings, with an average of 17% and a bump to just over 20% could have a large impact on the Spartans' fortunes.
We here at The Only Colors all know about the existence of Angry MSU Offensive Lineman Hating God (AMSUOLHG), and how it has wrecked the fortunes of our football team over the season. Well, this season rub your lucky rabbit's foot, knock on your favorite piece of Sher-Wood, or do whatever other sacrifice you feel necessary to make sure there is no AMSUDHG. After the departure of Joshua Jacobs to Sarnia of the OHL and Brock Krygier to upstart program Arizona State, the Spartans entered September with a perilous defensive roster. Now add into that situation the news that broke at B1G media days, freshman Jerad Rosburg would be missing the season with knee surgery, and the Spartans were down to just six scholarship defenseman. You see that is less than optimal because hockey teams, typically dress six defenseman for each game, meaning just one injury to a Spartans' Dman means a forward must move back to play defense or the Spartans will be inserting Joel Arseneault into the lineup. Arseneault, a sophomore from Ontario, spent last season playing in my favorite under-appreciated league, the ACHA, for the Michigan State Club Hockey team. You can see how playing a former club player in the B1G can be less than ideal to be sure.
The Spartans defense will lean on Travis Walsh, who was voted 2nd team All-Conference last season, and was sorely missed the last month of the season with a broken jaw. Walsh is close to a shut-down defenseman, and has the talent to join the rush helping the Spartans create offense from the back end, In fact, Walsh scored the Spartans 2nd goal in their exhibition game Sunday by joining a 3-on-2 and after the game said, "All our defense wants to be able to jump up into the play when they get a good opportunity, I'm going to do it every chance I get". Fellow senior John Draeger, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, will also be leaned upon heavily by the Spartans. Draeger has battled the injury bug with the Spartans, with off-season surgeries the past two seasons. This summer brought no surgery for Draeger and his continued focus on shot blocking and strong defensive presence will go a long way in Draeger earning a pro contract.
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The top four defenseman will get plenty of ice time as one would expect Chris Knudson, who dressed in just four games as a Sophomore last season to be on the third pair with either Carson Gatt or freshman Zach Osburn. Competition will be fierce for guys looking to get into a top two pair but all six defenseman will have to be counted on to not make costly mistakes. Luckily for the defenseman they have the safety valve that will be mentioned in the next category.
Conference MVP, Conference Goalie of the Year, Mike Richter Award Finalist, All-Conference First Team. It was a banner year for Jake Hildebrand, who played every minute between the pipes for the Spartans last season. Hildebrand is an All-Time Program talent, who unfortunately has been saddled with little help in his time at Michigan State. it is incredibly sad to think that if the Spartans don't make the NCAA Tournament this season, Hildebrand will have never played in the National Tournament.
Hildebrand, while a bit undersized in current college hockey, makes up for his size with near perfect positioning. Hildebrand is rarely making highlight reel saves because he doesn't need to scramble or dive to make saves. He positions himself perfectly and gobbles up rebounds to stop second chance opportunities. Hildebrand will be relied upon heavily once again this season with the defensive corps that may regress from last seasons' performance. Hildebrand is an NHL free agent who will have the chance to earn himself the best opportunity he can in pro hockey this season, and it is hard to preview him as he will just be good, the way he has always been.
Look for Edwin Minney, a very talented sophomore goaltender, to be given opportunities this season to help with the enormous transition that will take place next season.
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Early Season Schedule
The Spartans season begins this weekend at the Ice Breaker Tournament, with a Friday contest against the Maine Black Bears and a game Saturday against former Spartan Damon Whitten's Lake Superior State Lakers. Playing in the Ice Breaker Tournament is great exposure but a series sweep will not impact strength of schedule much, as Maine is picked 10th in Hockey East Preseason Polls, while LSSU is picked to finish last in the WCHA. On October 16-17 the Spartans will travel to #5 Denver for a series that could greatly help the Spartans' Pairwise numbers come March. The November schedule is packed with marquee opportunities for the Spartans as they will play at Boston College, and back-to-back home series against Michigan Tech and North Dakota. Overall if the Spartans can end their out of conference schedule with a record of 9-5 or 8-4 they will have a good chance to be in the tournament picture before conference season begins.
In the comments leave any ideas for how you would like me to cover the hockey team this season. This is my 3rd season doing this and I am always looking for our readers want to learn more about the greatest game on earth, College Hockey. Also, thanks to Matt Mitchell and the MSU Athletics Communications department for sharing some photos for me to use in this season's post. I hope this adds something to all of our TOC readers!