As difficult as it was to leave one chapter unfinished, Mike Hastings turned the page over the summer.
The new chapter will have a different look and a different feel in many ways.
Hastings, the ninth-year men’s hockey head coach at Minnesota State University, Mankato, has embraced that word: Different. It doesn’t mean better and it doesn’t mean worse. For the Mavericks, it means change.
“We’re going to be different,” Hastings said. “We’ll have a different look.”
Eight players departed the MSU program after last season, when the Mavericks went 31-5-2 and were ranked No. 2 in the PairWise Rankings when the season was shut down in early March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among those eight departures were seven seniors, including leading goal scorer and Hobey Baker candidate Marc Michaelis, who had 20 goals and 44 points. The one non-senior in that group, junior Connor Mackey, was the team’s top-scoring defenseman, with 24 points.
Michaelis (Vancouver) and Mackey (Calgary) signed contracts with NHL teams. The other six seniors all signed pro contracts, as well.
In all, MSU lost 49 percent of its goals scored and 46.1 percent of its total points.
But when Hastings turned the page over the summer and was able to put the 2019-20 season in the rearview mirror, he realized he was staring at a 2020-21 Mavericks team that has a chance to be special, too.
MSU opens its season with a non-conference series on Sunday (5:07 p.m.) and Monday (3:07 p.m.) at Bemidji State.
The Mavericks are ranked in the top five in both major national polls to start the season and are a favorite to win a fourth consecutive WCHA regular season championship. All of that optimism starts with the guy in goal, junior Dryden McKay.
A finalist for the Mike Richter Award last season, McKay was a First Team All-American and the WCHA Goalie of the Year. He led the nation in victories (30), goals-against average (1.31), save percentage (.942) and shutouts (10).
Success this season for the 5-foot-11, 175-pound McKay may not mean improved numbers. The Mavericks will have at least two, if not three, new defensemen in the lineup on a regular basis, and they’ll rely on McKay to shoulder a big load in the defensive zone.
“One of the best things about Dryden McKay is his mental make-up,” said Hastings, who has guided MSU to the most wins in college hockey (214) over the past eight years. “He’s a calm young man.
“The expectation level he puts on himself is greater than any that my staff or his teammates or anyone out there cheering for the Mavericks is going to put on him. He internalizes that. He’s a guy who wants to get better.”
He’ll be pushed this year by senior Ryan Edquist, a grad transfer from Boston College. The 6-0, 172-pound senior guided Lakeville North High School to an undefeated season and a Class AA state championship in 2014-15 before spending the past four years at B.C. Sophomore goalie Evan Foss also returns to add depth to MSU’s roster.
Good mix on 'D'
The defensive corps will have a bit of a role reversal this season, as the veterans of the group are more the shut-down, defense-first style, while some younger players and newcomers will be looked at to produce offense from the blue line.
Seniors Jack McNeely and Riese Zmolek have both played more than 100 games in their MSU careers and can play in any situation. Hastings called Zmolek a “security blanket” because he is so consistently reliable.
The duo combined for 24 points last season, while Zmolek was second on the team in blocked shots (47) and McNeely was third (41).
“Day in, day out I lean on Jack McNeely and Riese Zmolek,” Hastings said.
Junior Andy Carroll, a Northfield native, had nine points in 33 games last season and will likely see his role expand. Likewise for sophomores Colby Bukes and Tony Malinowski, and junior Wyatt Aamodt, a Hermantown native who had four points in 18 games last season after playing in 36 games as a freshman.
MSU also may have the top two freshman defensemen in the league, with BCHL standouts Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone.
“When we recruited them it was to come here and make an impact right away,” Hastings told The Rink Live earlier this fall.
Hirose was named the BCHL’s Top Defenseman last season after recording 51 points in 57 games with Salmon Arm. Livingstone was second in the league in scoring behind Hirose, with 49 points in 52 games for the Langley Rivermen.
“We’re going to have to buy some time for the young defensemen,” Hastings said. “We have four that haven’t played a tremendous amount yet, in Malinowski, Bukes, Hirose and Livingstone.
“Our veterans, guys like Andy Carroll and Wyatt Aamodt, will have to tuck those guys under their wings and give them some support, whether it’s before we take the ice or when the puck drops.”
The sting of losing three of its top four scorers — Michaelis (44 points), Parker Tuomie (37) and Charlie Gerard (30) — is eased for MSU by looking at the forwards who are returning and ready to embrace bigger roles.
Right at the top of that list are two sophomores from Florida who had breakout seasons as freshmen.
Lucas Sowder, the 2019-20 WCHA Rookie of the Year, is the team’s top returning scorer after a six-goal, 31-point rookie campaign. Nathan Smith, a 2018 third-round draft pick by the Winnipeg Jets, was close behind with nine goals and 27 points.
Hastings said any concerns he may have had about Sowder and Smith resting on their rookie-year accomplishments have been put to rest this fall, noting that MSU strength and conditioning coach Tom Inkrott has them on programs that have helped them both with speed and strength.
“Both of them had outstanding summers,” Hastings said. “Tommy did his job with both of them. They’re bigger and stronger and faster. Nathan Smith is 185 pounds-plus. Lucas Sowder has come in with a drive that he just doesn’t want to be a one-trick pony, to have a good freshman year and not back it up with a good sophomore year.
“They’ve shown they’re not satisfied. They’ve come in with a hunger and are trying to be our best players every day.”
Three upperclassmen are also primed to step into big roles up front this year, as seniors Dallas Gerads and Reggie Lutz, and junior Julian Napravnik all had more than 20 points last season. Lutz is the team’s top returning goal scorer (13), while Napravnik and Gerads both had 25 points.
Seniors Jared Spooner (19 points), Jake Jaremko (16) and Walker Duehr (15) had double-digit points, while junior Chris VanOs-Shaw and sophomores Ryan Sandelin and Cade Borchardt all played in 10 or more games.
Todd Burgess, a grad transfer who led RPI in goals last season (14), will add some scoring punch, too, for the Mavericks, who brought in three 20-year-old freshman forwards this year — Ondrej Pavel, Tanner Edwards and Connor Gregga, all of whom reached double-digits in goals with their junior teams last season.
“We’ll have guys stepping into roles that Marc left, that Charlie left, that Parker left,” Hastings said, “but it’s roles that they’re comfortable stepping into because they’re prepared. They’ve done the work.
“We’re going to have to be a team that beats you with its depth. The test we’re going to have will happen on Sunday (at Bemidji), but they’ll be prepared for it. They’ve been preparing for it since their freshman year.”