Spartans Trusting the Process
by Nate Wells/CHN Reporter
The beginning of each season brings changes to the college hockey landscape. Graduations, early departures and the ongoing development of underclassmen change the ebb and flow from year to year. Last year’s contender cannot rest on its success if they start this year from scratch.
Such is the case of Michigan State.
Michigan State, which lost to Union in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tournament, began 2012-13 in a much different place after being swept by Minnesota 5-1 and 7-1 to open the season.
“We take what we can,” MSU head coach Tom Anastos said after Minnesota completed its sweep. “We want to be a championship caliber team and have a long ways to go.”
Last year was Anastos' first behind the bench after a long tenure as CCHA commissioner, and things went better than many expected. But now he has a different set of challenges, re-tooling the roster.
One thing which Anastos will have to overcome is a defense that has been almost completely overhauled. The Spartans lost nine seniors and Hobey Baker finalist defenseman Torey Krug, who signed a pro contract with the Boston Bruins, from last year’s team.
The end result was four defensemen – freshmen John Draeger, a third round pick of the Minnesota Wild, and Travis Walsh along with two transfers in Nickolas Gatt (Alabama-Huntsville) and RJ Boyd (Sacred Heart) – making their Michigan State debut to open the season. It showed at times as the quartet adjusted to the speed of the college game and the Spartans found themselves down 3-0 in the first period of their first two games.
Anastos, meanwhile, is able to lean upon a returning face in goaltender Will Yanakeff. The junior finished last season with a .922 save percentage and 13 wins in 22 games and will be the No. 1 this year following Drew Palmisano's graduation.
How much is Yanakeff being relied upon? Even when the team trailed by six goals in the second period against a team picked to win the WCHA, Anastos wanted to see how his goaltender responded to adversity and a young defense leaving him out to dry. The Spartan coach refused to bring in a replacement until the period was over and the game was out of hand.
“We’re going to take away any positives (from being by swept) that we can,” said Anastos.
Knowing that there is a long way to go from last year, Michigan State is looking for small wins to take away throughout the season. It’s hard to know when small lessons from last week pay off a week or three down the line but that is what Anastos and an inexperienced team starting from scratch are hoping for.
They got one last Friday.
Once again, the Spartans found themselves trailing after two periods; only this time it was a 2-0 deficit to Niagara. This time, however, Yanakeff stood tall behind the MSU defense while three returning players — defenseman Jake Chelios and forwards Lee Reimer and Matt Berry — scored in a six-minute stretch to give them their first win of 2012-2013. A frustrating tie with the Purple Eagles followed on Saturday. Still, progress came for a club forced into transition, and a second-year head coach pushing a message of patience after a successful first season.
The end result is a small victory, the first of what looks like many for a young, talented Spartan team, but the little lessons learned in defeat go a long ways as the season progresses. It’s nothing new for Anastos’ squad — last year’s team started the season 2-4 — as the Spartans try to find their place in this year’s college hockey landscape.