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Mavericks hockey notebook: MSU's all-senior line forming a tight bond

Minnesota State men's hockey coach Mike Hastings said he expects he'll shuffle his lineup this weekend when the Mavericks host WCHA rival Bemidji State in a non-conference series. One line that he has liked a lot so far, and has left together for all three games, is an all-senior unit of Reggie Lutz, Jake Jaremko and Todd Burgess.

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Minnesota State Mankato junior forward Reggie Lutz

With eight players and 196 points gone from last season’s team, there has been a fair amount of trial-and-error -- or, more accurately trial-and-more trial -- with the Minnesota State University men’s hockey team’s lines this season.

One group that hasn’t been shuffled for the No. 5-ranked Mavericks (2-1-0 overall) is the all-senior line of center Jake Jaremko, with childhood friend Reggie Lutz and grad transfer Todd Burgess on his wings.

That trio has been together for all three games and they are currently MSU’s top three scorers, having combined for three of the Mavericks’ eight goals, and 11 total points.

“You look at the line of Jaremko, Lutz and Burgess, they’ve been our most consistent line,” MSU head coach Mike Hastings said. “That’s why they stay together, because it’s working.”

Lutz has history with both of his current linemates. He and Jaremko grew up together, and as seniors at Elk River High School, they led the Elks to a 22-5-1 record and a trip to the Section 7AA championship game, where they fell to Duluth East in OT.

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Lutz also played with Burgess for the NAHL’s Fairbanks Ice Dogs in 2015-16, when Fairbanks won a NAHL championship. They went their separate ways after junior hockey, Lutz going to MSU and Burgess to RPI. Burgess joined the Mavericks this summer as a grad transfer, and has made an immediate impact on the lineup.

“Obviously, with Jake, we’ve played together for a long time, so I’m comfortable playing with him,” Lutz said. “Adding Todd to our line just made us better. We’re lucky to be able to play with Todd and I’m lucky to be able to play with those two. We click well, we’re able to find each other on the ice and we love playing with each other.”

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Todd Burgess

Burgess’ first goal as a Maverick was a big one . His second-period goal in a 2-0 win at Michigan Tech on Dec. 7 was not only the game winner, but it was MSU’s first power-play goal of the season.

“He’s just a skilled player,” Lutz said of Burgess. “He’s a bigger guy who can get in on the forecheck. He’s great with the puck and makes smart plays.

“I was lucky enough to play with Todd in juniors, in Fairbanks, so I kind of knew coming into this year how he plays. We picked up where we left off in Fairbanks four years ago.”

More freshmen to get a look?

While the Lutz-Jaremko-Burgess line will likely stay together, Hastings said this week he expects to do some lineup juggling for this weekend’s home-opening series against Bemidji State (7:37 p.m. tonight, 5:07 p.m. Saturday).

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It could mean players such as freshman forwards Tanner Edwards and Connor Gregga spotting into the lineup for the first time, or it could mean different combinations of players used on the power play, which has struggled to score through the first three games.

“Our guys are asking that, too,” Hastings said. “Usually in the first half of the year, before you get to conference games, you want to utilize those opportunities to get everybody’s feet wet, get freshmen in the lineup. Because we haven’t had the number of games we usually have at this point, we haven’t had that opportunity.

“We’ll be looking forward to that this weekend and trying to get some different guys in the lineup who haven’t had the opportunity to be in yet. And we’ll give guys some different opportunities, guys who maybe have been in the lineup but haven’t been in the role that they’re going to play this weekend.”

Hastings noted he’s liked the competitiveness of practices this season and can see that the players understand what they have to do to earn a spot in the lineup on game day.

“That is a heavy plate,” he said, “when guys come to the rink, the guys who come into the building feeling really good about themselves, they don’t have a lot of stress for understanding ‘am I going to be in the lineup or aren’t I?’

“For the guys who haven’t been in the lineup, or are in and out of it, it’s stressful for them when they come to the rink. We try to provide an environment where they can show themselves every day and they can either continue where they’re at, move themselves up the lineup or move themselves down the lineup. If I’m a player, that’s the type of environment I want to be around.”

Who sticks with Smith?

Hastings has kept his top two returning scorers, sophomores Nathan Smith and Lucas Sowder, together through the first three games.

They’ve had a different player with them each night, though. Junior Julian Napravnik played with them in the season opener on Nov. 22, then Dallas Gerads took that spot in the series opener at Michigan Tech on Dec. 6, and sophomore Cade Borchardt filled that spot in the 2-0 win at Tech on Dec. 7. Borchardt scored his first college goal in the second period of that game.

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Minnesota State Mankato freshman forward Nathan Smith

“Right now, when talking about giving different guys opportunities, one thing that has been really good about Nathan Smith is I can use him with anybody,” Hastings said of Smith, a 6-foot, 185-pound center who was drafted in the third round in 2018 by the Winnipeg Jets. “He’s a guy who’s been really consistent throughout the first half of the year and the three games we’ve played.”

Smith, who had nine goals and 27 points last season, has two assists through the first three games. Hastings said he’s loved what he’s seen from the Hudson, Fla., native so far this winter.

“He’s turning into a veteran, with his preparation and his consistency,” Hastings said. “I feel comfortable using him down the middle and putting different guys on his walls. … I know what he likes to do. He likes to share pucks and be the guy who drives that line. I think we’ll see him play with multiple people throughout this weekend.”

Finding an identity

MSU’s identity last season was obvious: Marc Michaelis and Connor Mackey were two of college hockey’s best players. The Mavericks had seven seniors who were counted on at both ends of the ice. But with all those players -- and their production -- gone this season, MSU’s identity has needed some time to develop. Hastings said this week that he’s starting to see flashes of what this team can and will be.

“It’s one thing we’ve tried to establish in a short timeframe,” he said. “You can see we can be a heavy team. We can be hard to play against. We can possess a puck. We did a really good job of that over the last two games (at Michigan Tech) and even (the season opener) at Bemidji. When you possess the puck as much as we have, and have offensive opportunities, I like that piece of it.

“We have some guys who’ve played a lot of college hockey up and down our lineup. We still have to find an identity on who’s going to drive our offense.”

Through three games, MSU is in the middle of the pack in the country in goals scored (2.7 per game), ranked 26th nationally. The Mavericks are ranked 34th in power-play efficiency, at 10.0 percent (1-for-10).

“We’ll continue to tinker with things until we become more productive throughout our lineup,” Hastings said. “Our penalty kill has been good. Coach (Todd) Knott has done a really good job with that, and our goaltending piece has been very important.

“We need to find some mojo on our power play. We need to be able to create a little bit more and have that become a difference-maker for us.”

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