Team of the Week: Michigan State
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
When Tom Anastos was named head coach at Michigan State, there was immediate skepticism from many quarters. Despite his glowing credentials as CCHA commissioner, Anastos had little coaching experience above the youth/amateur level.
Ever since, he's faced a lot of questions from media types like us, wondering how he's handling things. But from Day 1, Anastos has been consistent in his belief — a confident, yet not arrogant, belief in himself.
"Personally the transition is going as expected, no real surprises," Anastos said.
Is he surprised there have been no surprises?
"I've been entrenched in the game and been involved in so many different aspects of the game," he said. "Generally, from the outside world, people have a vision of what I spent all my time doing as commissioner that's probably not completely accurate. I haven't had any real surprises transitioning at all. I'm not saying anything's easy, but I didn't expect things to be easy."
This past weekend, Anastos went head to head with another first-year college head coach. Except that one, Andy Murray, just happens to be a long-time NHL coach taking over team that went to the NCAAs last year. Anastos doesn't have that coaching resume, and his team has been in the second division of the CCHA for a couple years.
So it must have been gratifying for him to take the Spartans into hostile Lawson Arena and come out with a pair of wins against the Broncos.
"Obviously, it's very satisfying, but I was most satisfied because I saw progress in our team," Anastos said.
"It's a very difficult place to play. I was very impressed with their team. They play hard, they're very well organized. It's a tough building when it's sold out and students are screaming at you. It creates a fun college environment. ... I was kinda curious to see how our guys would respond."
At 6-4, you certainly can't say Anastos is over his head. On the contrary, his team has been prepared every game, and is playing hard. And now the hard work is getting rewarded.
"We're progressing along, trying to get a little better each week. We're starting to have a little bit of success. I'm pleased with that progress and how hard the guys are working."
Preparing to face the different coaches in the league — two of which have won multiple national championships — and the advanced systems that are played at this level, could've been daunting to a newcomer. But it hasn't been an issue.
"I always (paid attention to systems)," Anastos said. "I always felt in my role as commissioner, the game itself was the product. So product development was always very important. And I felt, partly because of my playing and coaching background, I had a great interest in how the game was played. So I stayed pretty close to it, and I would do things in amateur hockey to keep pace with today's game. I'm not remotely suggesting that it's D-I college hockey, but in the end, I always watched a lot of NHL, college and stayed in tuned to what was going on, so when I sat in the room with coaches, I could talk the game."
His own team's system is another matter. Anastos knew what he wanted to implement, but jumping in with a new program, for the first time, requires some patience.
"I didn't spend a ton of time to really understand how the team played before," Anastos said. "I tried to get a broad sense because I wanted to know where we were coming from to what we would transition to. We're taking gradual steps, not just throwing a whole bunch of stuff at guys, trying to simplify the game, and trying to provide a structure guys can play within and give a flexibility to try things. Generally speaking, we're trying to possess the puck, attack offensively and attack defensively to get the puck back. I'm not sure our team was built for that, but we're giving everyone a chance."
One of the guys thriving more than ever is senior forward Mike Merrifield. The 5-foot-9 Michigan native missed the first few games with a nagging injury, but has since returned to score six in six games, including three this past weekend against Western Michigan.
Last year, Merrifield had just four goals the entire season.
"He's hungry," Anastos said. He's a hard-working guy that has good skills, plays real hard, is in really excellent condition, and plays with a lot of energy. And he's getting rewarded. He goes into tough areas, he's not scoring perimeter goals. That's the kind of kid he is. I hadn't seen him play much. I didn't know what to expect."
Another player to step it up another notch recently is Torey Krug, an all-league player on defense.
"Given the number of times I'd seen Michigan State, maybe a half dozen a year, I knew how good he was," Anastos said. "But now, seeing him closer every day — he's a very elite player. He has very high-end talent, incredible work capacity. What makes him a very elite player is, he's got the right mentality. He's very mentally tough. He's got high expectations for himself, and he's evolved into a very strong leader."
Most notably, however, this past weekend was the back-to-back starts by sophomore goaltender Will Yanakeff. Whether that leads to a long-term role as No. 1, in lieu of senior Drew Palmisano, remains to be seen. But at 4-1, Yanakeff has certainly earned more playing time.
"We think we have two pretty good goalies," Anastos said. "The plan was to approach each week and see who was playing real well.
"I wanted to give (Yanakeff) a chance to play in that environment, in a road game in a bit of a hostile environment. And he really responded Friday. If not for his play, we wouldn't have won. So it was awfully hard to take him out of the net the next night. ... We'll approach each week at a time, and decided from there."
Anastos is confident that Palmisano will be fine.
"I'm sure he wants the net — I hope he wants the net," Anastos said. "But that's how the position works. He knows that. He's a really good kid, a strong leader, a good goalie, and when he gets in, we have confidence in him."
Just like how the confidence in Anastos himself is building.