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Michigan State Hockey Season Preview: “Trust the process” in new rebuild

The Spartans open the 2022-2023 season against Bowling Green on Oct. 7 and 8.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: JAN 14 Michigan State at Wisconsin Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

During the 2022-2023 season, the Michigan State men’s ice hockey team will seek its first Big Ten title since the conference expanded to hockey in 2014. The last time MSU won a conference title was in 2005-2006, when the program was still in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association (CCHA) and one year prior to winning the NCAA Frozen Four title against Boston College.

Since Big Ten hockey formed, the Spartans have finished in second place of the conference once, fifth place twice, sixth place twice and last place three times. All of Michigan State’s last place-finishes have come in the previous four seasons under previous head coach Danton Cole.

Less than one month from now, Michigan State’s men’s ice hockey program will launch its 2022-2023 campaign with a new coaching regime. Head coach Adam Nightingale — who was hired by MSU in early May — came to East Lansing from the Team USA National Development Program, the same place Cole came from. Associate head coach Jared DeMichiel and assistant head coach Mike Towns came over from UMass and Clarkson, respectively.

Nightingale brings his expertise in coaching developing players. He’s previously worked with top Big Ten players such as Michigan’s Luke Hughes and Minnesota’s Chaz Lucius. His experience has led to recruiting big names, Christian Humphreys and Misha Danylov are just two of those names. Humphreys scored five goals in his first game for Team USA’s under-17 squad.

Although Nightingale’s resume is eerily similar to Cole’s, fans can be rest assured that this choice in leadership was carefully decided. When deciding in his coaching staff, he went with two coaches who didn’t apply for the position. Nightingale says that a top program like Michigan State should be able to “get the best guys.”

Prior to coaching at Clarkson, Towns was on the coaching staff responsible for building the recruiting class that led to three consecutive Atlantic Hockey tournament victories for American International. DeMichiel, meanwhile, has held an associate position at UMass since 2016 where the Minutemen have three NCAA Tournament appearances, including a finals loss (to Minnesota-Duluth) and a finals victory (against St. Cloud State).

In conversations with the coaching staff, what’s clear is the importance that Michigan State hockey has on the athletics department. Held between heavily-watched sports, football and basketball, and bandwagon sports such as baseball or gymnastics, plenty of alumni and fans alike are on the fringe of the hockey’s program’s success — they tune in when the team does well, and would consistently watch if that was the case.

Last season, the Spartans were sixth in home attendance across Division I men’s ice hockey programs. That’s a lot of fans who would show up to watch a disappointing product.

Unlike Michigan State football’s rebuild, don’t expect any shortcuts to come easy. The new transfer portal rules have allowed football teams to supplement rosters and fill recruiting gaps. In hockey, that strategy may not benefit teams in similar ways; recruiting is far more complex with teams recruiting right now for players who won’t study on campus until the 2024-2025 season. Those players are 16 years old.

Team chemistry can also complicate the issue. There are less roster spots, and there aren’t as many teams. In the offseason, Michigan State senior goaltender Drew DeRidder transferred to North Dakota after finishing fifth all-time in MSU program history for save percentage. Sure, players transfer all of the time, but college hockey players are in college to develop. In football, the best are playing at the college level, whereas in hockey, so many different leagues house developing players. The best 21-year-old players are even sometimes in the NHL.

DeMichiel stresses, even though Michigan State fans may not like to hear it, that they should “trust the process.” I would anticipate growing pains as the season progresses, but otherwise the campaign may be impossible to predict. The program cannot promise better, but it will certainly be different.

Michigan State will play a preseason game against the Team USA under-18 development team on Oct. 1 at a newly-renovated Munn Ice Arena before gearing up for the 2022-2023 regular season.

The team’s home opener will be against Bowling Green on Oct. 7; a road contest against BGSU will follow on Oct. 8. MSU will face UMass-Lowell for a Thursday-Friday series the following week, then faces Long Island prior to opening conference play at Notre Dame on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29.

Michigan State will play Michigan for the first time on Dec. 9 at home. Another game at Yost Ice Arena will be played in Ann Arbor on Dec. 10.

That seems to be the toughest stretch for the Spartans this season. Right before taking on Michigan, winners of the Big Ten Tournament last year, Michigan State will face defending Big Ten champions Minnesota at home on Dec. 2 and Dec. 3.

What’s more intriguing is how Michigan’s current coaching transition will affect its current team. The Wolverines embarrassed MSU on several occasions last year, to a point where the Spartans were allowing several short-handed goals on its own power-plays. It was like watching an NHL powerhouse obliterate a pee-wee squad.

Michigan parted ways with head coach Mel Pearson earlier this month after a report that Pearson abused his staff, forced players to lie on COVID-19 contact-tracing forms, and even retaliated against one former Michigan captain after he came to program leadership about rebuilding the culture.

For the time being, assistant coach Brandon Naurato will be the interim head coach at Michigan.

So how will Michigan State fare this season? That likely depends on your expectation. In conversations I’ve had with Nightingale, he’s acutely aware that there may be growing pains. This is an entirely new, different roster. There’s a different coaching regime. Of course, it is still far too early to predict anything.

Michigan State played well at the start of last season. The team was on the fringe of making the NCAA Tournament until the season collapsed in January. Its only non-conference losses were against No. 3 Western Michigan, in overtime to Air Force and one against UMass-Lowell in regulation (the Spartans tied the River Hawks in the other matchup).

Unfortunately, the Spartans were abysmal in Big Ten Conference play, with a record of 6-18. The team was 0-10 against Big Ten elites Michigan and Minnesota, including two of those losses against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. Fans are hoping that Michigan State can take at least one of eight regular season matchups this time around. Hopefully, if there is a win against either team, it’s against in-state rival Michigan.

The Spartans’ 2022-2023 roster includes six freshmen, three sophomores, nine juniors, three seniors and seven graduate students. Of those, the one that is the most intriguing is graduate transfer Miroslav Mucha.

Mucha is a 24-year-old graduate transfer who comes to Michigan State by way of Lake Superior State. He’s a playmaking forward who knows how to score. In 37 games last season, Mucha tallied 35 points.

The excitement around Michigan State’s men’s ice hockey team is strong this year. In August alone, Nightingale and his staff caught several commitments from high-end players, including Austin Baker and Humphreys.

It’s a new beginning for Michigan State. We’ll see where it takes the Spartans.