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Danton Cole believes he has the depth to take MSU hockey to next level

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

This is Year 4 of Danton Cole's tenure as head hockey coach at Michigan State, and he's not ducking the narrative.

It's getting time to take that next step — yes, even in skates.

"That's fair," Cole said Friday in a Zoom call with reporters, ahead of the season-opening series, Nov. 19-20, at home against Arizona State. "We've been able to get a little better each year. Our depth has slowly improved.

"We like that we're getting pushed by our young guys now. We're not scrambling."

Michigan State coach Danton Cole is looking for his team to build off last season's 15-win campaign.

Michigan State lost its top two goal-scorers from last year, but returns three of the next four, including senior forward Mitch Lewandowski (eight goals, 12 assists), junior defenseman Dennis Cesana (seven, 15) and senior forward Tommy Apap (seven, five), the latter who was elected one of two captains, along with West Bloomfield senior defenseman Tommy Miller. Ann Arbor senior forward Brody Stevens is one to watch.

Fenton junior Drew Deridder takes over as the starting goalie.

The Spartans, meanwhile, will have 10 new faces on the roster, with nine freshmen and a graduate transfer — 5-foot-6 forward Charlie Combs from Bemidji State, where he recorded double-digit goal totals in each of his three seasons.

Among the freshmen to watch are three defensemen: Rochester Hills' Aiden Gallacher, Sarnia's Nash Nienhuis and British Columbia's Powell Connor.

"They're gonna make it hard on the older guys," Cole said. "We've always wanted to be in that position. ...You want that every year. ...They've gotta be pushing them.

"That's when you can get things done, driving that depth. I think we're getting to that point where we can compete up and down the lineup, not just in games, but in practice."

In his first three seasons as head coach, Cole, the former Michigan State star, has compiled a record of 39-60-9, but there was some progress on the Big Ten front last season, at 11-11-2.

Cole said the talent gap showed last season, citing a 2-1 overtime loss to Penn State on Jan. 25 as a game in which one or two bounces might've made the difference in the Spartans legitimately contending for a Big Ten championship. Michigan State finished sixth in the seven-team conference standings, but its 11 wins were just one behind champion Penn State.

Michigan State, a once-proud program, hasn't made the NCAA Tournament in eight years, after making it 24 times from 1982-2012, a span that included two national titles.

Cole took over for Tom Anastos, who made the NCAA Tournament once in six seasons.

"I think we'll score more goals," Cole said. "Give up a few less defensively and all of a sudden you flip your season around. ...We were really, in my mind, one goal away from tying for the Big Ten championship.

"That's how close it was. The margin of error was not that big. That's how it's going to be in the Big Ten."

Speaking of the Big Ten, the conference has announced the first half of a 24-game league schedule. The Spartans get started on that front at Ohio State on Nov. 28-29. Michigan State then hosts Minnesota on Dec. 3-4 and Wisconsin on Dec. 8-9, before hitting the road and facing Notre Dame on Dec. 19-20.

The second half of the Big Ten conference remains TBD, as well as details and dates about the Big Ten hockey tournament. Michigan State's schedule is only set through the end of this calendar year. Dates for games against Michigan, or a possible Great Lakes Invitational, haven't been announced.

That's because COVID-19 still figures to be a significant factor for college athletics well into 2021 — the pandemic already has led to many postponed and canceled football games, including in Big Ten country, with Wisconsin canceling this week and last. Also, there will be no fans, besides possibly friends and family, at under-renovation Munn Ice Arena in East Lansing through at least the end of the year, and probably beyond.

"Maybe it gives you a little more urgency when you're playing now," Cole said of the steep fallout from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which, among many sporting and entertainment events, canceled the Frozen Four at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit last spring. "The urgency is sometimes lost.

"You get these chances. Take advantage, because you don't know.

"You might never get a crack at it again."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984