2008-09 Michigan State Season Preview

It’s a fact that hockey players don’t like to be referred to as elfin. It’s a theory that’s been tested on several players from Parma, Ohio, and word that was bandied about among the local reporters in the press room at the 2006 Frozen Four in St. Louis.

Still, if you play for Rick Comley, you’d better have a really good sense of humor — even if it’s about your stature.

At this year’s CCHA media day, Michigan State’s head coach began his remarks by introducing senior goaltender Jeff Lerg, who will be this year’s Spartan captain.

“I would like to announce that we put Jeff Lerg on a stretching program this summer, and he is now five-eleven,” Comley said.

Lerg, listed as 5’6″ on the MSU roster, could do nothing but smile. Laughter is a requirement for the Spartan locker room, and not because it makes up for shortcomings in the Michigan State hockey program. (See? It’s contagious.)

It’s just that Comley brings a demeanor to his job that’s easy to be around. He and his staff are all business, but they can afford a little perspective. Sure, losing to Notre Dame in the West Regional of the NCAA tournament was a hard way for the Spartans to end their 2007-08 season. After all, they wanted to defend that 2006-07 national championship.

Aha! That’s what makes it work in East Lansing. There couldn’t be any coincidence.

A Few Numbers

Too much has been made about Jeff Lerg’s height. The kid plays like a giant, especially in postseason. What makes him remarkable is the way he prepares for playing with chronic asthma, the way he keeps an astronomically high GPA while logging nearly every minute in the Spartan net, and the way he’s easy to smile — even at jokes at his own expense — when he’s not getting down to business.

No one thinks higher of Lerg than Comley. “When we pick captains within my program,” says Comley, “there are basically two votes. The players get one, and I get one. And if there’s a tiebreaker, I get another one. Fortunately, we didn’t need a tiebreaker this year.”

In his first three seasons, Lerg posted an average save percentage of .922. This year, he becomes the second goalie in Spartan history to wear the “C,” after Dave Versical, who did so in 1977-78, nine years before Lerg was born.

Like any captain, Lerg will be the leader of this Spartan team in more ways than one this season. MSU welcomes 11 new players this season, three of whom grace the blue line: Tim Buttery, Matt Crandell, and Brock Shelgren.

How respected is Jeff Lerg in the Spartan locker room?  The goalie is MSU's captain this season (photo: Ray Bartnikowski).

How respected is Jeff Lerg in the Spartan locker room? The goalie is MSU’s captain this season (photo: Ray Bartnikowski).

“I think I learned on our campus very early that it doesn’t do you any good to talk about freshmen,” says Comley. “When they put jerseys on and skate on the ice, our community, our media expect that they’re all great players.”

The price of excellence.

Levers and Pulleys

Like other consistently excellent programs, Michigan State pays another price for excellence: early departures. Tim Kennedy and Justin Abdelkader — MSU’s top two scorers a year ago — left early for professional hockey, as did sophomore defenseman Michael Ratchuk.

Lost the right way (that would be, through graduation) are Bryan Lerg and Chris Mueller. Kennedy, Abdelkader, Lerg and Mueller accounted for 72 of MSU’s 135 overall goals.

But just like other consistently excellent programs, the Spartans are still loaded while reloading. Seniors Tim Crowder, Matt Schepke, and Nick Sucharski can help carry the proverbial torch; they had 35 goals between them last year and 12 power-play markers. Look for sophomore Corey Tropp and a few of those untalked-about freshmen to fill out the ranks.

“I think you enjoy coaching young teams because they’re very enthusiastic,” says Comley. “They’ll play hard.

“We know what battles we have ahead of us. We’ve had a pretty good run here in the last couple years and I expect that to continue, although we’ll have to grow as the year goes on.”

Pure Coincidence

MSU welcomes 11 newcomers. Comley needs 11 wins to reach 750 all-time.

If the Spartans streak out of the gate, Comley could reach that plateau in the 11th month of the year.