Minnesota State jumping skates-first into new season with same high expectations
The Minnesota State University men's hockey team is coming off a season in which it won the WCHA regular season championship, won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in program history and made the first Frozen Four appearance in program history. But the Mavericks need to "turn the page" quickly, as they open the season with back-to-back series against the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country.
A year ago, Mike Hastings talked often about then-freshman defensemen Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone, saying they were “thrown into the deep end with ankle weights.”
This season, Hastings is tossing the whole Minnesota State University men’s hockey team into the deep end.
Hirose and Livingstone learned how to swim quickly last season and the Mavericks will need to learn how to do so as a team early this season, which begins today (6:30 p.m.) and Sunday (3 p.m.) with a two-game non-conference series at No. 1-ranked and defending national champion University of Massachusetts.
Tonight’s game is sold out, as the Minutemen will raise their first-ever national championship banner at the 8,096-seat Mullins Center in Amherst, Mass. (The game can be live-streamed for no charge at CollegeSportsLive.com ).
The good news: MSU has 17 players back from last season’s team that went 22-5-1 and earned the first NCAA tournament victory and first Frozen Four appearance in program history. And those players know how to swim in whatever waters they’re thrown into.
“This weekend will be a great opportunity for us,” fifth-year senior defenseman Jack McNeely, an alternate captain, said this week. “It’ll be a hostile environment, we know that. It’ll be important for us to not get too high or too low, stay even keel and just play our game.”
This weekend’s series will mark the first time MSU has played a game in an arena where attendance isn’t limited due to COVID protocols since a 4-2 WCHA playoffs victory against Alaska Anchorage at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center on March 7, 2020.
“When we’ve looked at video with our team throughout September, there have been different clips at different times that have shown full houses,” said Hastings, who enters his 10th season as MSU’s head coach with a 236-89-24 career record. “Some of the guys have commented multiple times ‘boy, I can’t wait to play in front of a crowd again.’
“We know it’s going to be a very hostile environment. We know UMass is out to defend their title. But for us to start the season in an environment that’s unique … we’re incredibly excited about the challenge.”
Stability in an unstable time
The Mavericks’ excitement stems from the roster stability they’ve had from last season to this season, with 17 players back. With the relaxation of NCAA transfer rules, the transfer portal was loaded over the summer with players moving to new programs; 154 players in all changed schools.
MSU lost two players in the portal — forward Chris VanOs-Shaw and defenseman Colby Bukes — and added four: forwards David Silye (Clarkson), Josh Groll (Michigan) and Zach Krajnik (Alaska Anchorage) and defenseman Benton Maass (New Hampshire).
McNeely and senior forward Reggie Lutz also took advantage of the NCAA rule offering all athletes who were on an NCAA roster last season an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic altering or canceling many teams’ seasons.
“For us, it’s a new beginning,” said Hastings, whose team is one of seven that left the WCHA after last season to help reboot the CCHA this season. “We have guys who return, but their roles hopefully are evolving and they’re not in the same role they were the year before. Yeah, we have guys who’ll be on the power play or on the penalty kill again, but the infrastructure in your locker room … we’re asking guys to take leadership roles and provide examples for the 10 new individuals we have in the locker room. That’s a significant amount.
“We have to start at Ground Zero. We have to earn everything we get. With what we have on our plate this weekend, if we’re not focused on that, this thing can get away from you in a hurry.”
MSU also has a guy in goal in who allows his teammates to take a deep breath and feel confident that the opposition won’t put many crooked numbers on the scoreboard. Senior Dryden McKay, a Mike Richter Award and Hobey Baker Award finalist last season, is back after going 21-4-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage last season. The three-time WCHA goaltending champion enters the season with 24 career shutouts, needing just three more to break Ryan Miller’s all-time NCAA record of 26.
“Any successful hockey team starts with goaltending,” Hastings said at CCHA Media Day two weeks ago, “and we’ll lean on Dryden McKay.
“He’s going to have to continue what he’s doing and take another step, but no one challenges Dryden more than Dryden does.”
McKay, a 6-foot, 183-pound senior from Downers Grove, Ill., will have plenty of help in front of him. Six defensemen return for the Mavericks, led by senior captain Wyatt Aamodt, senior alternate captain Jack McNeely, senior Andy Carroll, and sophomores Hirose, Livingstone and Tony Malinowski.
MSU added Maass out of the transfer pool and freshmen Bennett Zmolek and Steven Bellini from junior hockey, giving it great depth and a great mix of size, speed, hockey sense and skill.
“We have a deep group, for sure,” Aamodt said. “We all have the same goal. As long as the team wins, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying the load. We’ll do it piece by piece, together.”
Up front, MSU will be led by fifth-year senior Reggie Lutz (an alternate captain) and by a pair of forwards named to the Preseason All-CCHA Team: Nathan Smith and Julian Napravnik.
Nathan Smith, a Hudson, Fla., native is a junior and a 2018 third-round NHL Draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets. He was second on the team in scoring a year ago with 25 points and was a force in the NCAA tournament, with four goals in three games.
Napravnik led MSU last season with 28 points and was named the WCHA Offensive Player of the Year. The Bad Nauheim, Germany, native tied for the team lead in goals (10), power-play goals (5) and led the team in assists (18).
Lutz tied with Napravnik and current Calgary Flames prospect Walker Duehr for the team lead in goals (10) and led the Mavericks with 93 shots on goal.
Cade Borchardt (9 goals, 24 points), Ryan Sandelin, Brendan Furry and Sam Morton are among the other returning forwards who picked up their play down the stretch as MSU made a run to the Frozen Four last spring.
“Some of those guys separated themselves at the most important time of the year last year — Nathan Smith, Reggie Lutz, Julian Napravnik, Brendan Furry, Ryan Sandelin. I thought those guys played their best hockey at the most important time of the year. We’re looking forward to them coming back and establishing a presence on the ice and in the locker room.
“We’ll need that leadership as well as the influx of new talent and character to carry us early because of the schedule we have.”
A challenging schedule
Things don’t let up for the Mavericks after opening with games against the defending national champions.
Next weekend, MSU plays its home openers against No. 2-ranked St. Cloud State, the team that lost to UMass in last year’s national championship game (Oct. 8 at 7:07 p.m., Oct. 9 at 6:07 p.m.). Then it’s a trip to Duluth for the Ice Breaker Invitational on Oct. 15-16 against Providence and either No. 3-ranked Michigan or No. 6 Minnesota Duluth.
The Mavericks have a week off after that grind of a three-week stretch, before opening CCHA play at home against Northern Michigan Oct. 29-30.
“We’re looking forward to what this season brings for us,” Hastings said. “We’re really excited about it.
“We’re excited to turn the page and we’ll utilize the experience of our own guys who’ve gone through some positives, some negatives throughout our journey as we continue to try to climb the ladder.”