Only 14 months removed from a national title, there’s no doubt the Michigan State Spartans hockey team is ready for another. MSU has always been a top college hockey contender, but this year they’ll have to do some retooling to maintain form.
The Spartans made the NCAA tournament last year, after being upset by Northern Michigan in the second round of the CCHA tournament. The Green and White defeated Colorado College in the first round of the NCAA’s before bowing to Notre Dame in round two.
In the offseason the Spartans lost eight players to graduation or early departure. Forward Justin Abdelkader signed with the Detroit Red Wings in April, and defenseman Michael Ratchuk signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. Forward Tim Kennedy became the third early departure after signing with the Buffalo Sabres.
But as in the aftermath of the championship and the departure of the seniors, the Spartans have experience that should keep them in the running in the CCHA and put them in good position to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
A look at the team by position:
Any success next season starts with Jeff Lerg, who was named captain in the offseason.
For two years, Lerg has solidified himself as one of the best goaltenders in MSU history with countless game-saving stops. At 5-foot-6 and just over 150 pounds, he is small, but his ability more than makes up for that. The Spartans haven’t had to worry all that much with Lerg between the pipes. He always gives them a chance to win.
He’s an obvious choice for captain. In his playoff career, he’s been virtually unbeatable. He has started all but one game for MSU in the past two years. He already had a national championship under his belt after his first full year as the starting goalie.
Lerg was a Hobey Baker finalist this year, and barring any major troubles, he’ll surely be one again. He’ll need to put up staggering numbers though to have a shot at winning. Since the award’s inception in 1981, a goaltender has only won it twice. Goalies are often finalists, but the high-scoring forwards and defensemen are the usual winners.
Lerg can look to the Spartans past for inspiration in his quest.
Spartan legend Ryan Miller won the Hobey Baker Award in 2001 after posting a 1.32 goals against average with 10 shutouts and a .950 save percentage. If Lerg can put up really good numbers, he’s got a shot.
Lerg had some struggles early last season, but bounced back and ended the year with a 2.22 goals against average, a .926 save percentage and 4 shutouts. With three years experience backstopping the Spartans, he should have no problem adding to his already stellar career this next season.
No doubt Spartan fans will cherish every game this season, Lerg’s last as a Spartan.
Every year the Spartans seem to lose a few good defensemen. In 2007, it was Ethan Graham and Tyler Howells. This offseason, the Spartans lost Ratchuk, Jeff Dunne, and Daniel Vukovic on defense and will look to rebuild their defensive core heading into this season. All three were solid defenders with Vukovic providing a big physical presence and Ratchuk having a deadly shot.
At the head of this year’s defensive pairings is Brandon Gentile, a senior assistant captain. Gentile has been a solid defenseman for the last few years and will be looked upon to provide veteran leadership. Like some of his predecessors, Gentile has the ability to play physically, which will come in handy when MSU plays teams like Alaska and Michigan who like to throw their weight around. Look for Gentile to have a good year as he enters his final season in the green and white.
Aiding him on the blue line, Ryan Turek and Justin Johnston should also provide stability. Look for sophomores A.J. Sturges and Jeff Petry to step into bigger roles after getting playing time last season. Petry was named to the CCHA’s All-Rookie team after last season.
Incoming freshmen Matt Crandell and Tim Buttery may see some action as well. Both are in the top 10 in scoring among defensemen in the USHL and adding them in the lineup would give the team depth as well as potentially providing additional scoring threats.
Don’t be fooled; the losses of Abdelkader and Kennedy will hurt. Abdelkader was a big physical forward who could score. He was the one who sealed the Spartans’ championship in 2007 with the game-winning goal against Boston College.
When Kennedy got into a scoring grove, he was as dangerous a scorer as anyone in the nation. He led the Spartans in points two years in a row. Together with Tim Crowder, these two could have been one of the best lines in all of college hockey this year.
Couple those departures with the losses of Bryan Lerg and Chris Mueller, and the Spartans have lost four of their top five scorers from last season.
Now the only one remaining, Crowder, another senior assistant captain, will be expected to put the puck in the net a lot. Last year, he was fourth on the team in points with 38.
Expect to see a lot more scoring from senior Nick Sucharski, who had 24 points last season and will be looked to more often for offense as well.
After playing in nearly every game last season, sophomores Dustin Gazeley and Corey Tropp should find a more consistent scoring touch. Gazeley showed flashes of brilliance last season with some pretty goals and great speed. Andrew Rowe played well when given a chance to play and should get more playing time as well.
Among the 10 members of the icers’ incoming class, three players might make immediate offensive impact if given a chance to play. Mike Merrifield and Ben Warda of the NAHL’s St. Louis Bandits will join the Spartans in the fall and recently led the Bandits to the NAHL’s Robertson Cup.
Merrifield posted 57 points on the season while Warda led the team with 74. If these guys can put up numbers at MSU like they have in juniors, it’ll mean lots of goals for the Spartans, who at times have seemed to rely on two or three goals and Lerg’s brick-wall goaltending to get by.
Andrew Conboy could potentially help fill Abdelkader’s void. At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he has the size to be a physical forward and can score too. He scored 35 points in 52 games this past season for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers; the former team of Lerg, Turek, and forward Matt Schepke.
Replacing coaching legend Ron Mason was not an easy task, but perhaps after five seasons and a national title, head coach Rick Comley is being accepted more by the fans.
Despite the team's inconsistent play and injuries, Comley has led the Spartans to three NCAA tournament bids in five seasons, which culminated in 2007’s championship. Add to this a CCHA tournament championship, two Great Lakes Invitational titles, plus earning his 700th win, and Comley has put together an impressive pedigree in East Lansing. If nothing else, he’s helped MSU keep its reputation as a consistent hockey program.
With the better part of his scorers from last season gone as well as a few veteran defensemen, this could be a bit of a rebuilding and learning year for Comley and the Spartans. That said, given the experience of players like Lerg and Crowder, the Spartans should be in the thick of things the entire season, though there’ll be some hurdles in CCHA play for sure.
Under Comley, the Spartans have usually always been good enough for NCAA bids, but the question is whether or not they can find a way to be consistent and play at their best when it counts. The seniors will be hungry for another shot at a championship, and an extended NCAA tournament run would give the younger guys some good playoff experience.
During their 2007 tournament run, the Spartans relied on some timely goals and Lerg’s skills to win games. There’s no questioning Lerg’s ability in net; he’s at his best in high-pressure tournament games. But the Spartans haven’t always found ways to back him up with goals. They’ll need to if they want to get back to the Frozen Four and beyond.