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Let's Sparty Up

People had high expectations for Michigan State coming into this season after a fantastic finish where they won the CCHA Playoffs and returned to the NCAA tournament. But things haven't been working out as hoped for Michigan State this season. Instead of being at the top of the CCHA, they find themselves in the middle of the pack with 6 other teams within a game of .500 in the league.

I talked with Matthew Latham, who ironically is probably better known by the generic handle MSUStudent, and is in charge of Rivals' Munn Message Board, which follows Michigan State hockey. Here were his thoughts on where Michigan State is at so far this season.

WCH: How much does this team miss David Booth, Colton Fretter, and Drew Miller?

ML: This is tough to gauge, but a lot of people would agree that MSU misses all three. Miller was State's best player both on the offensive end and the defensive end of the ice. Throw in the leadership x-factor, and it is tough for anyone on the current team to fill those skates. Fretter’s offensive grit is missed, and David Booth really found himself last year after being injured so much. Spartan fans were thrilled to see Booth take off again last year.

You left one guy off this list though, and I think they might miss him more than any of the three (outside of maybe Miller). That guy is Corey Potter. He was a good defenseman, though I can still remember Comley just giving him a look that would make any 18-22 year old weak in the knees at Joe Louis Arena against Michigan. That was the last time I saw Potter try to make a move as the last line of defense (I believe UM scored the game winning goal off of this attempted deke in his own zone). Outside of that, Potter was a physical force and a leader on the blue line. He helped the younger defense out, and Comley always went with him in crunch time. MSU misses this physical force on the blue line right now.

WCH: Why are Jeff Lerg's numbers down from a season ago? Would State have been better off if Dom Vicari had stuck around?

ML: I think everyone watched that Maine game last year in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. Maine scored a ton of goals by getting traffic in front and deflecting pucks. Some fans have called these "lucky" goals, but really it's just the result of out working MSU for position in front of the net. MSU hasn't cleared the front well, and there have been some funky goals getting behind Lerg as the result of deflections. MSU doesn't score as many of these, because MSU doesn't send as much traffic to the front of the net.

His numbers have slowly improved this year, and I think his play as well, but he knows he can get better, and I have no doubts he will get better as the season goes along. Did losing Vicari mean Lerg lost his biggest threat to his starting job? Yes. Did that hurt him in preparing each week? Maybe, but I would think Jeff prepares the same way regardless. Teams have just sorta figured him out at this point, and now it's up to Jeff to make the adjustments. He still has one of the fastest gloves in the NCAA, and he is still the quickest side to side goalie in the CCHA if not the country, so I have no doubts his numbers will improve.

WCH: How have MSU’s defensemen looked?

ML: Varies from period to period….. We’ll, it’s not quite that bad, but they were all shaky at first. Don’t get me wrong, they would be at the right spot or have the right assignment, but it seemed like they would make bad choices with the puck or playing the puck that resulted in them getting beat. It got better as October rolled around but they haven’t made as much improvement as I would have hoped in the month of November. This really goes for the power play as well. Ryan Turek has looked like he’d be better off trying to tackle a greased pig on the ice the past couple weekends (you could probably say the same thing about Howells and Snavely back there too). No offense to him, because he has had some major growth the last few weekends, and that ND series he was simply brilliant, but all their consistency has been missing this season.

I’m not sure they would ever admit it, but losing Graham to injury has hurt. MSU is 1-4 since he has gotten injured, and I think some of the younger guys need him out there to settle things down. Graham isn’t a physical player, but he just does everything. I’ve dubbed him the Nicholas Lidstrom of MSU, and I swear he could play a full 65+ minutes like Nicholas does.

I think Howells could step it up a bit. He could be key for MSU the second half of the season. Snavely too. Snavely needs to show more out there, I still have nightmares of Hensick getting behind him at Yost pre-Thanksgiving That was a pretty nice shot by Hensick though. By the way, when does Hensick graduate? Isn’t he a 10th year senior by now? I swear I saw him and Turco playing back in 1998.

If Jeff Dunne comes back healthy, I think he could play an important role. I really liked Dunne’s play last season as a freshmen before the shoulder injury really sidelined him, and this season it appears Mono has been keeping him from playing.

Ratchuck is still young and shows it out there sometimes, but dang he needs to shoot more. He’s got a nice shot, one that I don’t think we’ve seen here since Thelen or Liles even. He could really be a new John-Michael Liles if he stays all four season.

Gentile and Vukovic have grown a bit this season (Vukovic literally). In fact, Vukovic could be a Potter type player if he wants to be. I’d like to see him step it up and not be afraid to throw his weight around the ice. At 6-3, 220lbs, he needs to use it.

WCH: Ryan Turek was a player that people expected a lot out of coming into this year and he hasn’t scored a point yet. What are you thoughts on his play so far?

ML: Much like the other young defensemen, he’s had some growing pains the first 2 months of the season, but he has made some great strides the last few weeks. If he can develop a good shot from the point, and if he can control the puck on the point, his offense will come. I really don’t remember him scoring much last season, so I thought he’d fill more of a defensive role. He’s done a pretty good job of that, but it can get better. The Irish series still stands as one of his best weekends this season, especially the second night. The potential for him, and the rest of the team for that matter, is enormous.

WCH: What’s the biggest change that Michigan State could make to turn things around?

ML: Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Power Play. Did I mention the power play?

Seriously though, I can’t sugarcoat this, MSU’s power play has stunk lately. It’s gotten to the point that some of us are hoping the CCHA/NCAA allows us to decline the penalty like in football, because we’ve been much better 5 on 5 this season. This is going to directly tie into your last two questions as well. If the blue line develops into a stable offensive threat, the power play will take off.

People don’t realize this, but MSU had the #1 power play in the CCHA last year, in part because the power play started to score more the second half of the season. However, scoring isn’t the biggest issue with the power play this year, puck control has been. Ohio State scored twice shorthanded simply because we could not control the puck at the point. They probably could have had 1 or 2 more shorthanded, but either the defensemen made a nice recovery or the goaltending saved the day.

The second thing I’d change is the physical play. Comley always had physical teams at Northern. He has yet to bring that style of hockey here to East Lansing. Checking can swing momentum, sort of like a goal, on one single hit. MSU needs to act out there and not react.

WCH: Do you think MSU will play better in the second half of the season?

ML: Yes, I do believe MSU will play better the second half of the season. The trend under Coach Comley has been second half runs. Case in point, his record in the month of November at MSU has been 15-21-7. Compare that to his record at MSU in February and March, 35-15-4, and it’s pretty clear he has MSU playing their best hockey the second half of the season. Also, looking at the Spartans schedule, it does get "easier", simply because we only have 3 games remaining versus current top 10 teams (2 at Miami, 1 vs. Michigan). However, as the CCHA has shown in the past, there are no easy games and with road series at Northern, Miami, and Nebraska-Omaha, MSU must improve on their 1-6-0 road record to stay afloat in the CCHA.

Really, MSU needs to come out and just shove it down the other team’s throats in the first period. MSU seems to be feeling teams out early on in games, and they play aggressive at the end to dominate a game. I don’t understand why we can’t go out and just start hitting people and forecheck effectively.

WCH: How safe is Rick Comley’s job right now? Is there any chance that he won’t be back at MSU next season?

ML: Well, I suppose there is always a chance that he might not be around next year, but I do believe his job is safe. The public outcry isn’t there this season like it was at this point last season, but I suppose it could be if MSU continues to split these series. Given his good relationship with AD Ron Mason, and the fact that we won the CCHA tournament last year, earned a #1 NCAA seed, and nearly qualified for the Frozen Four, MSU would probably have to tank it this year for Comley to be let go. I know the fans won’t like a 55-60% win percentage, because that’s just not good enough, but I don’t think Comley has anything to worry about this season.