EAST LANSING, Mich. — It was a good offseason for first-year MSU hockey coach Danton Cole.
He and his staff were able to get the ball rolling on installing new systems and expectations for his players; while getting them acclimated to the new style of Spartan hockey. All of this was done despite the limited time allowed to practice.
“I think it’s been good from a learning standpoint,” said Cole. “I think if we had jumped in at 20 hours [of practice per week], oddly enough I think the guys would have wanted to do everything at once. I think that has slowed them down a little bit, and I think the teaching process has moved along fairly well.”
Cole emphasized that while you cannot change a culture in the offseason, you can definitely get the ball rolling. That mission seems to have been accomplished.
Now comes the hard part.
Cole inherits a team that won only seven games last year, has yet to win a home game in 2017 and lost its leading scorer to the NHL. Oh, and they only have six upperclassmen.
Cole needs to find a way to make MSU respectable again in a conference saturated with ranked teams. No one expects MSU to do any damage this year, especially the pundits who picked the Spartans to finish last in the Big Ten.
But for Cole and his staff, they are more concerned with the process of getting better each week, making progress toward monthly goals.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans won’t use the lack of respect as motivation though.
[su_pullquote]For Cole and his staff, they are more concerned with the process of getting better each week, making progress toward monthly goals.[/su_pullquote]
“You look at something like that and it’s great trying to prove the world wrong, that can be a tremendous motivation,” said Cole. “It’s always gonna be ‘you against the world’ or ‘us against the world’ so let’s just look at it that way. Pick us seventh every year, who cares, and we’ll take care of business when it’s time to take care of business.”
For the Spartans to do that, they will need to see improvements at every position. At forward, MSU will miss leading scorer Mason Appleton, who signed with the Winnipeg Jets of the NHL. A corps of sophomore forwards (Patrick Khodorenko, Taro Hirose, Logan Lambdin and Sam Saliba) will be relied upon to pick up the slack and produce at key moments.
“Everyone is going to be put into certain roles and situations, and I think in terms of the four sophomores, it’s up to us to be able to handle those situations and perform,” said Saliba.
The center from Lincolnshire, Ill. registered 18 points (10 goals, eight assists) last season and expects big things from himself and his classmates this year.
“Personally, I expect myself to be able to perform in those situations, and I know the other three do as well,” Saliba said. “A lot of challenges, but a lot of good challenges, and we’re excited to tackle ‘em.”
Cole wants to play just as aggressively on offense as he does on defense, but that doesn’t mean that MSU will be a run-and-gun team that wins games 9-8. The Spartans just aren’t built for that style.
What they are built for is an aggressive, yet disciplined game that emphasizes speed and aggression on both ends of the ice.
“I think the faster that we can play, the longer that we can play, and play the way we want to without making mistakes. That’s the fatigue factor of it, those two things we can take time and space away from teams,” Cole said.
On defense, the Spartans return key players in senior Carson Gatt and junior Zach Osburn. They also receive a welcome addition in freshman Tommy Miller, an alum of the U.S. National Team Development Program. Like the forwards, they are a young group and must improve from last year’s performance in order to be effective.
“I think it’s going to be a big improvement,” said Gatt. “A lot of the freshmen last year got a lot of experience, a lot of games under their belt, so that was good.”
The key focus for this year will be defense and the penalty kill, both of which ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten last season. For Cole and his staff, improving the defensive play first makes sense. It can be a first-year coach’s most consistent asset, and it doesn’t require tons of skill.
“I think defense doesn’t go into a slump, I don’t think you need a lot of talent to play defense. I think you need a lot of attitude and a little cohesiveness,” Cole said.
Strong play in net would help tremendously in regards to that cohesion. Unfortunately, Michigan State has been without a standout goaltender since Jake Hildebrand graduated in 2016. Last year saw flashes of promise between the pipes but little consistency. This season features two goaltenders, senior Ed Minney and sophomore John Lethemon, who will be in an open competition for the starting job.
“We set it up in a meeting and talked about it early on and said, ‘Hey, it’s gotta be a good, healthy competition,’” Cole said. “Hopefully they both have really good years this year, hopefully they push each other.”
[su_pullquote align=”right”]Cole and his staff have a combined 42 years of hockey coaching experience, so they are more than qualified for the task that lies ahead.[/su_pullquote]
The one thing that Cole wants to see from this competition is a friendly camaraderie between the two netminders. Assistant coach Joe Exter should be key in this regard, having previous experience in managing dual goaltender situations at Ohio State. The fact that Exter was himself a goaltender at Merrimack College should also help.
“They [the coaching staff] have been very supportive, kinda telling me things I need to do, where they want me to be at, where they see me,” said Lethemon. “With the addition of Joe Exter, it’s good for the goalies having a guy there every day to talk to and give us feedback.”
The excitement with the new coaching staff is evident with every player on the team. Everyone is excited, that is to be expected. But what may be a bit surprising is how unified this team really is.
“I think what surprised us a little bit was how together they are as a team,” Cole said.
This team unity, all without a man wearing the “C,” is quite impressive, but not too surprising when one thinks about it. This group has seen some tough times over the last few years and is motivated to get better and become a respectable program again.
“We want to get back to winning games and compete for championships, and I think it’s just motivation within ourselves as a group to get better every day and improve,” Saliba said.
With this team motivated to improve every day, it should be a very coachable group. Cole and his staff have a combined 42 years of hockey coaching experience, so they are more than qualified for the task that lies ahead.
The goal now should be to return Michigan State to playing competent hockey. As Cole alluded to in his press conference, “competence leads to confidence.” The Spartans were missing both last year, but seemed primed to bring those aspects back into their game this season.
“This is a pretty good group of young men, and they’re gonna work hard, and they are going to get better,” Cole said. “I think we as a team are just going to keep getting better and better this year and leading into next year.”
Cole also advised fans to “get your tickets now while you still can,” alluding back to a time when hockey tickets at Michigan State were worth their weight in gold. That advice elicited a few chuckles from the press corps and likely a few more from those reading this page.
But in a few years, who knows? Maybe Danton Cole will have the last laugh.