By Stefan Kubus -
EAST LANSING – With plenty of new faces on the Michigan State Spartans’ roster this season, it’s going to be a “baptism by fire,” according to head coach Tom Anastos.
The Spartans will ice a roster featuring 12 new faces this season, the majority of which are freshmen. That’s something Anastos recognizes will be a learning process for everyone involved. But the second-year head coach also refuses to use that as an excuse.
“I think we’ll go through growing pains, for sure,” Anastos said. “We’re not telling guys, ‘Hey, we’re a team in transition. Let’s do the best we can.’ We set very ambitious goals that we’re working towards. Will it present challenges? Yes, absolutely, because we know experience matters. But we’re not going to use that as an out to not compete at a high level.”
On offense, six freshmen – including the redshirted Justin Hoomaian (Novi) – will compete for minutes up front for the Spartans, many of which have already caught the eye of the coaching staff early on.
“Up front, Matt DeBlouw has been pretty darn impressive in the little things that we’ve done so far,” Anastos said.
DeBlouw (Chesterfield) just came off a solid season with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL, in which the Calgary Flames draft pick tallied 34 points in 58 games, good for second on the team.
Although on the smaller side listed at 5-foot-8, Mike Ferrantino plays a much bigger game out on the ice. The Plymouth native amassed 23 points in 58 games last season with Omaha of the USHL.
“Mike Ferrantino has really captured our attention,” Anastos said. “He’s a smaller player, but real smart, and he competes. He’s like a bulldog out there.”
In addition to Ferrantino and DeBlouw, Anastos also pointed out Ryan Keller (Farmington Hills) as a player who demonstrated the skills the coaching staff believed he possessed. Other freshmen expected to compete for playing time on offense include David Bondra (son of former NHLer Peter Bondra) and Connor Wood (Bloomfield Hills).
On the back-end, considering senior Matt Grassi missed the second half of last season due to injury, junior Jake Chelios is essentially the lone returning defenseman this year. But that’s something Anastos is embracing with the new faces coming in.
“We are bigger back on defense,” Anastos said. “This year, we have a number of 6-footers that we’ve added back there, some of which are pretty physical guys and that will add a new dimension to our team as we grow in maturity and experience.”
In particular, John Draeger and Rhett Holland are two such 6-footers that the Spartans bench boss is excited about.
“Back on defense, in particular, Johnny Draeger has stood out as a player that we thought would have a really bright future here,” Anastos said. “He comes here with a real high compete level, a strong leadership base, and high skill set. So far, he’s demonstrated everything we hoped he would.
“Rhett Holland, who is an NHL draft pick, is a very physical guy. We need that element very much. As he’s adapting, I think he’ll play a big role, ultimately, back on our defense.”
Draeger is enjoying the NCAA experience so far.
“I’m very excited [to get the season going],” Draeger said. “It’s been a quick transition, especially being here all summer with the guys. I’m learning from the older guys, grabbing lots of information.”
And while the defensive core is relatively inexperienced, jumping right into the mix doesn’t faze Draeger.
“I think with any experience, you’re going to have your ups and downs,” Draeger said. “But that doesn’t change my game, that doesn’t change our mission at all. We’re going to win a national championship. That’s what we’re going for, and that doesn’t change at all.”
With Jerome native Will Yanakeff expected to take over between the pipes, Anastos said that the other two netminders – sophomore Nathan Phillips (Jackson) and freshman Jake Hildebrand – could very well get looks as the season progresses.
“Will Yanakeff had a terrific season last year,” Anastos said. “He really stepped up, and we expect him to continue to grow in that position. Physically, he’s a very well-conditioned athlete. Technically, he’s a very sound goaltender. Mentally, he’s maturing a lot, and he’s ready to take on a bigger role. And frankly, we’re going to need him to.
“Every day, we’re gonna give [Hildebrand] – Nate Phillips, as well – opportunities to compete with Will for playing time. Every night, our goal is to put the best team on the ice to give ourselves the best chance to win.”
For Hildebrand, he said Yanakeff has brought him under his wing, and looks forward to competing with him every day.
“I think everybody knows Yanakeff has the go right now, since he’s a junior, and he’s a great goaltender, as he’s displayed the last three years,” Hildebrand said. “It’s actually pretty fun in practice. Because he’s such a great goaltender, he makes me better, he makes me work harder, and that’s what I want to do to him; I want to make him a better goaltender. I have a great relationship with Will.”
In addition to the incoming freshmen, two other new faces enter the Spartan dressing room on defense, both transfers in their junior year of college.
RJ Boyd, a seventh-round Florida Panthers draft choice in 2010, played a brief stint at Sacred Heart, before transferring to MSU this fall.
“We’re kinda curious to see what their experience brings,” Anastos said. “RJ didn’t play long at Sacred Heart. He transferred pretty early, and discovered that that wasn’t gonna be the right place for him at that time. He’s really coming out of junior hockey… In order for him to come in and become eligible as he is, he had to take some 50 credit hours over this past nine months and graduate with an associate’s degree at the beginning of August to be immediately eligible. He made an incredible commitment to school to get himself in a position to play.”
Nickolas Gatt (Farmington Hills) comes to East Lansing from the University of Alabama-Huntsville, where he played his freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I think, when he transitioned, it was much different than what he was used to,” Anastos said. “He’s really taken a nice step up in the last week.
“If those two guys can make an earlier adjustment than maybe the others, that would be a nice, pleasant surprise because they do at least have some college experience that they’re bringing to our blue line to start the season.”