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Program Imitation: Providence Friars Hockey

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Taking a look at a program the Spartans could possibly emulate

Terrifying
Terrifying
Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Today is the beginning of the Frozen Four in Boston, Massachusetts with just three games left in the college hockey season. As expected the Boston University Terriers and North Dakota Fighting Sioux are present and headline a day of hockey in the 8:30 game. The 5:00 game will feature two surprise teams as University of Nebraska-Omaha will be playing in their first Frozen Four game ever and the final at-large team in the field the Providence Friars square off for a berth in the national championship game.

With today's proceedings going on, I felt it was a good time to keep the writing tools sharp and put a Michigan State spin on the Frozen Four. I will be taking a look at the Providence Friars specifically and looking at how I think Michigan State should draw inspiration for the direction of their hockey program.

Program Info and History

Michigan State Spartans Category Providence Friars
43,189 Enrollment 3,700
Big Ten Conference Hockey East
8 Conference Championships (Reg. season) 1
11 Frozen Four Appearances 4
3 National Championships 0

Ok, so looking at the history the programs don't look all that similar. The Friars have had limited national and conference success, have a much smaller enrollment and recruit differently as they focus primarily on the northeast. However, for Frozen Four teams this is the closest emulation there is to Michigan State. Omaha is in a non-hockey market and is too new. North Dakota and Boston University make hockey the focal point of their athletic departments and possibly due to this focus have had more national success.

Much like Michigan State the Providence hockey team is not the focus of the athletic department. While there is no football in the athletic department, Providence hockey will always rank behind basketball at their school. Providence basketball is a founding member in the Big East Conference and plays in front of 12,000 fans at the Dunkin Donuts Center in downtown Providence (an arena with ice-making capacities and home of the Providence Bruins) while the hockey team plays at 3,030 seat Schneider Arena. Also, like the Spartans Providence plays in a conference that is full of opponents who put more into their hockey program. While there is Boston College and Boston University in Hockey East, please see Minnesota and Michigan in B1G. The B1G also includes a new program which has put a good amount of money into hockey recently (Penn State) while Providence may see pressure from new Hockey East foe Connecticut.

Coaching

Possibly the biggest thing that attracts my eye to wanting a program that emulates Providence is Nate Leaman, the 4th year head coach at Providence. Leaman was an inspired hire in 2011 as Providence plucked him away from Union University, a program that Leaman had basically built from nothing into an NCAA tournament team. Leaman arrived at Union, 31 years old and coming off of four seasons as an assistant coach at Harvard. Leaman built a talented roster at a private school in New York, with no athletic scholarships and tuition/room & board at over $35,000 annually. His fingerprints were all over the 2013-14 Union roster that defeated Minnesota to capture the NCAA National Championship.

Leaman was brought into Providence to turn around a program coming off an eight win season. Providence athletic director Bob Driscoll had this to say at the time announcing the hiring of Leaman, "The best indicator of what somebody’s going to be like in the future is what he’s been like in the past, what he’s been like in the past is unbelievable" (h/t to USCHO). There possibly lies the biggest difference in the programs at this point. Leaman came to Providence as a 42 year old who had run his own program for eight years. He had current recruiting ties established in the northeast and had shown an ability to build a program his own way.

Tom Anastos also just finished his 4th year at Michigan State and has a single NCAA berth under his belt. Unlike Leaman, Anastos was hired by Mark Hollis after serving as a league commissioner and came with no head coaching experience in division one hockey. Anastos had some relationships built with youth hockey but was not currently involved in recruiting and would take a while to catch up, unlike Leaman. Now I am not advocating that Anastos is not the answer at Michigan State but it is still correct to be skeptical of the hire of an athletic commissioner by Hollis, while someone like Leaman was out there. We love Mark Hollis around here for what he has done in marketing, hiring Mark Dantonio and running a cohesive athletic department but his hire for the hockey program still has not been vindicated.

On Ice

Michigan State Spartans Category (National rank) Providence Friars
48.8% (39) Corsi For 54.5% (11)
49.4% (36) Fenwick For 54.4% (8)
2.37 (42) Goals Scored/Game 2.95 (21)
2.29 (15) Goals Against/Game 2.05 (5)
17.74% (29) Power Play Percentage 15.22% (40)
85.7% (19) Penalty Kill Percentage 85.9% (16)

The first similarity when looking at the stats table is that both Providence and Michigan State are good at keeping opponents from scoring. That isn't hard to believe when both teams have two of the nation's top goaltenders in Jon Gillies and Jake Hildebrand. The difference for Providence is that they control play much better than the Spartans, meaning they don't have to rely on Gillies alone to get them wins. Providence ranks near the tops of the country in possession (Fenwick and Corsi) allowing for them to control the pace of play and generate more offensive chances than the Spartans were able to do last year.

This is the biggest change, and characteristic that the Spartans could copy from Providence. Leaman employs an aggressive forecheck that looks to create havoc in the opposition's D-zone, and can rely on Gillies to make up for any lapses in defense. Michigan State on the other hand, despite having Hildebrand, plays a collapsing d-zone coverage looking to block shots, rather than look to cause a counter attack. With Hildebrand between the pipes it would be great to see the Spartans play a looser game, and look to drive possession rather than focus on blocking shots.

All of this is easier said than done, as Providence has more talented forwards that can drive possession. Hopefully with the addition of players like Josh Jacobs on defense and the maturation of Mackenzie MacEachern at forward the Spartans see an improvement in the advanced metrics next season. If an improvement like Providence's is not seen soon, maybe Mark Hollis will have to search for his own Nate Leaman this time around.