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Column: Adam Nightingale needs to be perfect for Michigan State hockey

Michigan State hockey went from the abyss to worse under Danton Cole. Can Nightingale save them?

Finland v United States: Group B - 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

Earlier this week, the Michigan State Spartans hockey program announced its new head coach. The man who gets the job is Adam Nightingale.

He wasn’t my first choice. He wasn’t even my second or third choice.

My first choice was Minnesota State Mankato’s Mike Hastings. He’s a proven college coach with a history of winning and is coming off of two Frozen Four appearances.

Another home run for MSU would have been Eric Lang. No, Lang was not touted as a huge target, but he made American International a tournament contender in less than four years. Prior to his leadership, AIC was ranked last of all Division I hockey schools.

Adam Nightingale, 42, was perhaps the favorite from the beginning. He played for Michigan State in college and was the program’s director of hockey operations for four seasons.

Michigan State has not made a tournament appearance since 2012 and has fallen behind in the Big Ten since the conference added men’s ice hockey in 2013.

When Danton Cole took over at Michigan State in 2017, the program was not in a good place. The Spartans had two winning seasons since 2011 and none under Cole’s leadership. Cole has not even come close to moving Michigan State forward. Somehow, it has moved backward.

Even with better incoming talent, Cole did nothing. That is why Nightingale needs to be perfect. Michigan State can’t afford the chance that he’s not. MSU hockey is a proud program and fans are sick of not witnessing a winning team after November.

There are two main takeaways I have after this hire. First, it’s the safe move. Second, the safe move is sometimes the riskiest.

He’s similar to Danton Cole

Cole’s resumé:

  • Cole played at Michigan State from 1985-1989 and was an assistant captain.
  • Played in the NHL for the Winnipeg Jets, New York Islanders, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
  • Cole is from Michigan.
  • Head coach of Alabama-Huntsville in the CHA from 2007-2010.
  • Team USA National Development Team head coach from 2010-2017.

Nightingale’s resumé:

  • Nightingale played at Michigan State from 2003-2005 and was an assistant captain.
  • Played in the ECHL for the Charlotte Checkers after college.
  • Nightingale is from Michigan.
  • Michigan State’s director of hockey operations from 2010-2014.
  • NHL video coach with the Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings/Red Wings assistant coach in 2019-2020.
  • Head coach of the Team USA National Development Team last season.

Both Cole and Nightingale were hired for the same purpose: development. The only problem was that Cole couldn’t develop players. He developed a few: Dennis Cesana and Mitchell Lewandowski, who will both now be moving on from the program, were excellent players. Unfortunately, hockey is not a sport that allows great players to carry a team, like in baseball. Skill is required on every single line. MSU never had that.

In 2021-2022, Michigan State lacked synergy between lines. The team couldn’t get any creativity started on offense; the defense consistently made errors; special team units were a joke. The list goes on. Goaltenders Drew DeRidder and Pierce Charleson were making 40-50 saves per game on a regular basis.

Perfection is necessary, for the fans and the program

Nightingale is not a terrible hire. I won’t pretend that he is. But it’s not necessarily a home run in my opinion.

He’s developed several young players, including some of the best that college hockey has to offer. Michigan’s Luke Hughes and Minnesota’s Chaz Lucius are on that list. Recruiting and development needs to be a priority for Nightingale. It was supposed to be for Cole. That did not happen.

Michigan State hockey is in one of the worst ruts its ever seen. His experience with the U.S. development team is an impressive strength.

Nightingale’s job will be to bring Michigan State up from the bottom. The gutter. The abyss. If there’s a place that’s deeper than the abyss, that is where Michigan State hockey is right now. The only way to describe this program’s current state is “miserable.”

The verdict:

Some will say Nightingale is a fantastic hire. We heard the same thing in 2017: Danton Cole took over a Michigan State program in a better position. Allegedly, he was the better man for the job.

Was he at the time? I don’t know. I wasn’t covering Michigan State hockey in 2017 and I sure wasn’t covering it in 2011.

Cole wanted the job in 2011. He wanted it in 2017. When he finally got it, he sank it into the ground. Michigan State is coming off of two of its worst seasons in recent memory. The team has played horrendous hockey and have had few bright spots to show.

Lewandowski is leaving the program after five years with MSU. The irony is that he was arguably Michigan State’s best player while on a Cole-led team, and he wasn’t recruited by him.

Nightingale was given the impossible task of bringing a winning culture to Michigan State. Michigan State needs him to be perfect. The fans need him to be perfect. Or as close to perfection as possible.

At least he’ll be assisted with a renovated arena that opens this fall.