By Alyssa Girardi -
EAST LANSING - Tom Anastos and the MSU hockey team are entering the 2013-14 season with a level of confidence that was foreign to them last year.
Sitting at the brink of the Big Ten hockey inaugural season, the Spartans look to put the roadblock of last season — inexperienced, young players — to rest and instead put gained experience to use.
“We introduced 12 new players last year at this time, which when I sat here with you guys last year, it was a pretty uncomfortable place to sit knowing what was ahead,” Anastos said to reporters at the team’s media day last week.
“I don’t think we had any surprises during the course of the year. In addition to having 12 new players, I think a real pivotal piece of that was we had major turnover on defense where we lost five defensemen … We knew introducing that many new bodies back there was going to be a real challenge and it proved to be exactly that.”
Redshirt freshman defenseman Rhett Holland returns to the ice after a season-ending shoulder injury last year, and Anastos said he expects him to add “size, strength and toughness” to the blue line — a job ever more important after Anastos announced sophomore defenseman John Draeger’s injury and a six to 10-week time frame.
Junior forward and Canton native Matt Berry also has from the same lower-body injury as Draeger, and is operating on the same time frame for return. Draeger logged about 30 minutes a night last season, and Berry led the team in scoring (15) and points (31).
“Injury is a part of the game, and we’ll have to deal with that,” Anastos said. “But that’s something that we are going to have to overcome especially early in the season.”
Berry’s loss puts a strain on an offense that already has pressure to put more points on the board.
The team tallied 87 goals compared to opponents’ 115, and managed about 300 less shots than its opponents.
“We need to get more shots on goal,” said captain and senior forward Greg Wolfe (Canton). “We went over some stats and our team had one of the least amount of shots in the country. If you look back at it, we’re also one of the least amount of goals scored so there’s a correlation there. That’s what we’re trying to get ingrained in our heads, that we need to shoot the pucks more, we need to get more people in front of the net.”
The Spartans offensive battle will be joined by five new players: Sweden’s Villiam Haag and the USHL’s Thomas Ebbing (Troy), Mackenzie MacEachern (Troy), JT Stenglein and Jox Cox (Chelsea).
Anastos said these additions add size and skill to MSU, and noted their backgrounds of proven goal scoring.
With these players also comes the upped competition for playing time — something that wasn’t necessarily a factor last season. The Spartans suffered multiple injuries throughout the year, and on some nights, an injured sophomore forward David Bondra dressed primarily to serve penalties.
“It’s definitely going to make us better,” Draeger said regarding competition for ice time. “I think practices are going to be more intense, more demanding out of guys. Guys have to compete for spots so they’re going to have to bring it everyday, can’t take days off.”
One area where the Spartans confidence lies is in net. Senior Will Yanakeff (Jerome, Mich.) started the first few games of last season, but freshman Jake Hildebrand took over and ended up with about 65 percent of playing time.
Hildebrand carried MSU through numerous games, finishing the season with a 2.35 save percentage, facing a season total 908 shots.
Both netminders are coming in looking for the starting nod, but Yanakeff said he doesn’t find the stiff competition unnerving.
“We have to do what’s best for the team in terms of who’s going to start, who’s not going to start,” Yanakeff said. “If somebody’s playing well, that’s who needs to be in net. It might suck to not be in net, but it’s for the betterment of the team and that’s really all that matters.”
MSU will host a Green and White intrasquad game at 5 p.m. on Oct. 5 before an exhibition match against Western Ontario at 7 p.m. on Oct. 9.