If you love Spartan hockey, here are three words for you to embrace for the upcoming season: bigger, stronger, older.
Last year’s tender young Michigan State team, picked third by the media and fifth by the coaches in the 2008-09 preseason CCHA polls, finished tied for 10th place with Lake Superior State at the end of the season, victimized by so many unforeseeable events — including more than half a dozen shoulder injuries — that by the end of the season, all anyone associated with Spartan hockey could do was shake it off and look to a new year.
While senior goaltender Jeff Lerg proved once and for all that he was for real, playing terrific hockey without a terrific team in front of him, the rest of the team struggled to remain healthy, struggled to find chemistry with an ever-changing lineup and struggled especially to score goals. MSU managed to average 1.63 goals per game, tied for 57th nationally in scoring offense. And lest you’ve forgotten, there are 58 Division I men’s ice hockey teams.
“Goal scoring was a major problem last year … and I still think it will be a challenge,” said Rick Comley, who practically had to take out classified ads to find enough healthy bodies to dress for games last year. “I think for sure we’re a better team. We’re bigger, stronger, we’re older. I think that will benefit our entire game.
“Who will score and who will lead that area, I think that’s difficult to say right now. I expect players like Leveille and all those young kids who were really thrown to the wolves last year with the early signings and the injuries and the suspensions and those variables … they’ll benefit from the ice time that they had.”
Sophomore Daultan Leveille is MSU’s top returning scorer without having totaled 20 points last season. After Leveille, only two other returning players — juniors Dustin Gazley and Andrew Rowe — netted more than five goals, and they scored 13 between them.
Given the bench-shortening circumstances of last year’s Spartan season, it’s no surprise that MSU will turn to rookies to produce goals. And play defense. And special teams.
“I like our freshman class,” said Comley. “There are nine of them, and I expect them all to play. They’re an older, bigger, stronger group.”
Older. Bigger. Stronger. And hopefully less fragile.
One big boost for the Spartans is the return of Nick Sucharski, a medical redshirt last season. He was out with one of those shoulder injuries.
“Sucharski returning as a fifth-year senior is a big, big plus for us as far as maturity, ability to win faceoffs,” said Comley. “He’s been through it, played on a national championship team, so there’s tremendous benefits.”
Another bright spot for the Spartans is sophomore goaltender Drew Palmisano, who looked promising the few times he played behind Lerg last year. “We brought him in a year early to work with Jeff Lerg and I think he really benefitted from that,” said Comley.
Like every coach, Comley is optimistic about the start of a new season. “Hockey is that one sport where you can improve a tremendous amount in one year.”
Not as catchy as “bigger, stronger, older,” but certainly a philosophy that Spartan fans can hope to embrace this year.