MiHockey Previews: Michigan State Spartans look to build on 2011-12 success

The custom cover we designed for the Spartans during our "Pride of the Mitten" cover contest.

By Michael Caples -

The Spartans reached the NCAA tournament in their first season under coach Tom Anastos. What will Year 2 hold for Michigan State?

Rewind

Spartans coach Tom Anastos stepped behind the MSU bench for the first time last fall, and promptly started the rebuilding process in East Lansing. The team followed the coach’s lead, making a five-spot jump in the standings from the 2010-11 season, finishing in fifth place. That earned the Spartans their first berth in the NCAA Tournament since 2008, where they fell to Union 3-1. Days after the conclusion of the season, Livonia native Torey Krug announced that he had signed with the Boston Bruins, forgoing his senior season. Krug’s departure, along with a nine-member senior class, means even more new faces in East Lansing this fall.

Bench Boss

Anastos has his work cut out for him. The former CCHA commissioner ended the 2011-12 season with a 19-16-4 overall record and an important trip to the NCAA Tournament. Now Anastos has the opportunity to fill the roster with the players he wants. Michigan State will add 11 newcomers to the roster this fall (Brother Rice’s Mr. Hockey, Mackenzie MacEachern will enroll in 2013) in Anastos’ first full-year recruiting period. The pressure will be on Anastos and his staff both to recruit elite-level talent, and to develop it within the program, over the next few seasons.

Photo by Dave Reginek/DRW

Line Change

The MSU roster took on quite an overhaul over the off-season. Krug’s departure – he skated in his first NHL game a short time after signing with Boston – will hurt the Spartans the most. Krug was the Spartans’ leader both on (led the team with 34 points) and off the ice. The senior departure list includes Brett Perlini, Trevor Nill, Brock Shelgren, Daultan Leveille, Matt Crandall, Mike Merrifield, and goaltender Drew Palmisano. New names added to the roster include NHL-drafted players Matt DeBlouw, John Draeger and Rhett Holland, along with Travis Walsh, Ryan Keller, Connor Wood, Brock Krygier, Nickolas Gatt, Michael Ferrantino, David Bondra, and goaltender Jake Hildebrand.

If the water bottle is half full…

The Spartans showed great improvement from 2010-11 to 2011-12. They might be a young team, but as Anastos is able to recruit the players he wants for his aggressive systems, the Spartans should continue showing growth. Now with two years under his belt, junior goaltender Will Yanakeff is ready to be the workhorse for MSU, as he will no longer be splitting time with Palmisano. Michigan State’s offense should improve; Lee Reimer, Greg Wolfe, Matt Berry and Kevin Walrod all return up front. The defense, while young, will be much more physical, due to an emphasis on size and toughness in recruiting.

Will Yanakeff (Dave Reginek/DRW)

If the water bottle is half empty…

The roster haul might be too much for the Spartans to overcome this season. Matt Grassi will be the lone senior on the blue line, and Jake Chelios will be the lone junior with any experience. On most nights, there will be four fresh faces on the blue line, and that could mean problems in a grueling CCHA season. The Spartans will also be waiting for an offensive force to step up; Krug led the team in scoring over the last two seasons. Losing ten total players means that the Spartans could take one step backwards in the rebuilding process in East Lansing.

MVP

With little experience in front of him, Yanakeff is going to see a lot of pucks this season. The Jerome, Mich., native had a 2.50 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage last year, and he should thrive now that he is the main guy between the pipes. He’s also going to have to be, especially early in the season, as the new defensemen try to establish themselves in the defensive schemes and systems. Yanakeff could be in for a big season in East Lansing.

Matt Berry (Tom Turrill/MiHockey)

Difference-maker

If he continues to progress, Matt Berry could be the force the Spartans need up front. The Canton, Mich., native and former Muskegon Lumberjack led all Spartans freshmen in scoring with 11 goals and 19 points, 14 of which came in conference play. He’s also shown that he’s not afraid of the big stage; Berry scored MSU’s lone goal at the NCAA Tournament, scored the game-winner against Michigan on Feb. 10, and scored the only goal of the shootout against their in-state rivals on Dec. 10.

From the CCHA preseason synopsis:

MICHIGAN STATE

Head Coach: Tom Anastos (2nd season)

2011-12 Overall Record: 19-16-4

2011-12 Conference Record: 14-11-3-2 (5th)

Letterwinners Returning/Lost: Team – 12/10, Forwards – 9/4, Defense – 5/2, Goaltenders – 1/1

Key Returnees: Matt Berry, F, SO (11-8-19); Jake Chelios, D, JR (2-7-9); Lee Reimer, F, JR (9-22-31); Kevin Walrod, F, SR (9-9-18); Greg Wolfe, F, JR (10-16-26); Will Yanakeff, G, JR (13-9-1, 2.50 GAA, .922 Spct.)

Key Losses: Torey Krug, D, (12-22-34); Mike Merrifield, F, (11-6-17); Drew Palmisano, G, (6-7-3, 2.69 GAA, .918 Spct.); Brett Perlini, F, (9-22-31); Brock Shelgren, D, (3-10-13)

NHL Draft Picks (4): John Draeger (MIN ‘12); Rhett Holland (PHO ‘12); Matt DeBlouw (CAL ‘12); RJ Boyd (FLA ‘10)

Impact Freshmen: Matt DeBlouw, F, Muskegon (USHL); John Draeger, D, Shattuck St. Mary’s HS; Rhett Holland, D, Okotoks (AJHL)

Noteworthy: Three of the Spartans’ incoming freshmen were selected in the 2012 NHL Draft in Pittsburgh, Penn.