November 18, 2009 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Team of the Week: Michigan State

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Michigan State goalie Drew Palmisano has been strong this year replacing the mighty Jeff Lerg. (photo: MSU Athletics/Brian Cripe)

Michigan State goalie Drew Palmisano has been strong this year replacing the mighty Jeff Lerg. (photo: MSU Athletics/Brian Cripe)

Just two years removed from a national championship, Michigan State suffered through a wretched 2008-09 season. Everything that could've gone wrong, did.

The injuries hit early, there were defections, and then a mid-year suspension of two players for the rest of the season after an ugly incident at Michigan.

The numbers were ugly too. The team couldn't score, and MSU lost all five meetings to the Wolverines.

It would be difficult for a program like Michigan State not to be better than that this season. But this much better this soon? A 9-2-1 record, first place in the CCHA, and a two-game home-and-home sweep in the first meetings of the season with Michigan?

No, not even coach Rick Comley imagined that.

"I knew right away we were a lot better," Comley said. "The whole second half (last season), our roster was so depleted we couldn't compete. Then we start this year and the schedule has Miami, Maine, Michigan. So no, I didn't know it.

"The combination of an improved team, and a style which suits this team that different than the past, and maybe we're on a mission to regain that respect and pride. I didn't have any pre-set expectations, I just wanted to show people we could still compete."

The Spartans are skating nine freshmen and five sophomores on any given night. But, in direct contrast to last season, everything that could've gone right, has gone right.

In goal, replacing highly-decorated goaltender Jeff Lerg seemed like a tough task in and of itself. But senior Bobby Jarosz and sophomore Drew Palmisano have both been very good so far.

And then there's guys like Nick Sucharski and Corey Tropp. Sucharski missed most of last season after suffering an early-season injury, but has come back as a fifth-year senior to be the top-line center. Tropp is one of those guys who was suspended last year. He not only decided to return, he leads the team with nine goals, which is second in the nation.

"I don't want to say bad experience is good for anyone, but I give him all the credit in the world for maturing and growing up," Comley said. "And (Sucharski) gave us some legitimacy down the middle which we didn't have last year.

"(Tropp) didn't want to just sit, he felt he had to play. He considered major 'A,' Sioux Falls (in the USHL). But eligibility-wise, he didn't want to drop out of school. You can't be enrolled full time in school and play elsewhere. That's when I called him and said, 'You want my opinion? Stay eligible and come back.' I couldn't guarantee anything, but if he kept his nose clean, there would be a spot. ... He's a good kid who got caught in a charged moment. He's come back, he's more coachable, he appreciates it more, and it's been really, really enjoyable watching him grow."

Finally, bypassing the trend among big-time programs to fill the roster with blue chip recruits, Comley went the other way — the big freshmen class was intentionally recruited to be older. That has worked wonders immediately, since they have come in bigger, stronger and more dedicated to the program. Comley has received tremendous contributions right away from players like Chris Forfar, Anthony Hayes and Derek Grant.

"In the past, I tried to get in the arms race for players," Comley said. "They turn out to be good and leave early. So we went for a lot of older kids.

"They're good players (the blue chippers), but their heart and soul isn't with you. They're just passing through. There isn't one of them thinking they're going there four years, with their advisor at every game, the pro team in their ear."

This brings up an ever-increasing debate in college hockey, of just how much these young, blue-chip players are worth it. Team chemistry is affected as kids come and go. And there is no measuring just how much seniors mean to a team. It's hard to turn down blue chippers, and most top-of-the-line programs don't, but somewhere out there, some teams are discovering a balance — like Miami.

"They've managed it the best (Miami), plus their staff and the rink — and Notre Dame is pretty close," Comley said. "Sometimes in recruiting, you go for talent instead of filling the holes on the team. But we were so exposed last year, we knew where we had to shore up — so, more than normal, we took a Chris Forfar, not because he was highly recruited, but because we needed a big, strong center. And Anthony Hayes matches up with Louie Caporusso last weekend and shuts him down.

"So we're pleased with where things are. But now we're battling in the locker room making sure they know 12 games doesn't make a season."

And then Comley changed the systems up a bit this year too, to fit the new personnel. He's been taking a page from the Detroit Red Wings playbook. Comley's ex-video coordinator now works for the Wings, and with the permission of Red Wings coach Mike Babock, Comley and his MSU staff have pored over the tapes.

"Mike Babcock is probably the brightest coach in hockey today," Comley said. "It's plug the middle. We've watched them, dissected their video.

"We can't do what they do, but we've made the system more important than the individual. ... Push the puck outside and keep it ouside. It's not laid back, we pursue in our forecheck. But we recover to the middle. ... Based on the kids we can recruit, we settle now on some things that will work."

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