East Lansing — Danton Cole feels right at home in his second year as head coach of Michigan State’s hockey team, looking to take the next step to help the Spartans climb up the Big Ten ladder.
Cole, who played on MSU’s national championship team in 1986 and on the New Jersey Devils' 1995 Stanley Cup championship team which defeated the Red Wings, has brought in a solid freshman class to join one of the premier lines in college hockey.
The Spartans finished 12-22-2 (6-16-2) last season, doubling their win total in league play from the 2016-17 season, owning three wins against top-10 ranked opponents.
“I think we’re a little bit bigger, a little faster, definitely deeper up front and the competition in practice has been much better and that’s a really, really positive thing for us,” Cole said during MSU Media Day Tuesday afternoon at Munn Arena. “There’s a lot of good things looking forward and we’re excited about this season. We’ll be a better team this year.”
Junior Patrick Khodorenko centers MSU's top line of sophomore Mitchell Lewandowski (Clarkston) and junior Taro Hirose. The line combined for 44 goals and 108 points with Lewandowski (19 goals, 34 points) earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors and Hirose (12 goals, 42 points) All-Big Ten second-team.
Who will be the top line’s supporting cast?
“If you look at the second half of the year, we had a little more success, hovered around .500 and beat some pretty good hockey teams in the Big Ten I think that we started to get some of that secondary scoring,” Cole said. “I think guys like (Logan) Lambdin and Cody Milan started scoring a little bit 5-on-5, he did a good job on power play all year, but 5-on-5 goals were a little harder for us to come by at times, and Sam Saliba I think will have a good year.
“(Center) Tommy Apap and Brennan Sanford did a good job and they chipped in some goals and towards the end of the year Brody Stevens scored a couple of goals. If we find a true No. 2 line that would be really good for us and hopefully that’s emerging and like I said some of the freshmen have some offensive capabilities.”
Mitchell Mattson, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound forward and fifth round pick of the Flames, is one of the freshmen Cole will be looking to provide some offense, along with defenseman Dennis Cesana on the power play.
The Spartans, who were picked to finish last (seventh) in the Big Ten preseason poll by the league coaches, will be led on defense by senior Zach Osburn, redshirt junior Jerad Rosburg and sophomore Tommy Miller. They will be joined by a talented freshman group which includes the Krygier brothers — 6-2, 190-pound twins Christian and Cole — along with Cesana. Christian was a seventh-round pick of the New York Islanders and Cole a seventh-round pick of the Florida Panthers.
Osburn is optimistic about the Spartans.
“The one thing that I definitely noticed is that our guys from last year are a little bit more experienced,” Osburn said. “We didn’t lose a ton of guys and guys that played meaningful minutes last year have more experience coming into this year. And, with the freshmen that are coming in we’re a lot bigger, too. Now, we have the Kriegers, we have Mattson so they are a lot bigger and there’s going to be quite a bit of competition in the net, too, which is good.”
The Spartans return 6-2 junior John Lethemon between the pipes. He had a 12-19-2 record with a 2.88 goals-against-average with a .903 save percentage. He will be challenged by freshman Drew DeRidder, who played 42 games on the U.S. National Development program U-18 team.
“Drew in net has been outstanding,” Cole said. “His compete level is off the charts. He keeps getting better and better every day. I think one thing that he brings that really helps us is that compete level in practice and never giving up on pucks and that refuse-to-lose mentality.”
Osburn likes what he sees in the freshman defensemen.
“The Krygiers are both big guys, both have a lot of reach, they skate well and have good vision," Osburn said. "Dennis (Cesana), his size isn’t as big (5-9, 189), but he brings to the table good offensive ability, a good mind, good puck movement and a good skater."
Lewandowski feels the Spartans will be playing with a chip on their shoulder after being picked seventh by the Big Ten coaches. Notre Dame enters as the defending league champs, advancing to the national title game last season after defeating Michigan in a national semifinal.
Ohio State was picked as the preseason favorite, followed by Michigan and Notre Dame.
“I think we’re going to make some noise this year, turn some heads,” said Lewandowski, who is on the Big Ten preseason watch list with his linemates Khodorenko and Hirose. “We’re not looking for fifth or sixth, we’re looking for that top spot.
"We’re going in this year with a chip on our shoulder. In a nice way, you’re trying to tell people to screw off. That’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go into every game this year with that drive and that motivation and prove people wrong every game. We want those results.”
Big Ten Hockey League Coaches Preseason Poll
1. Ohio State
3. Notre Dame
5. Penn State
7. Michigan State