There isn’t much of grace period for rookies starting out in college hockey.
“We have expectations of freshmen coming in and making an impact,” Minnesota State men’s coach Mike Hastings said.
For a team that’s been ranked in college hockey’s top 10 for the last four weeks, Minnesota State has relied rather heavily on its freshman class this season.
All eight of the currently eighth-ranked Mavericks’ first-year players have seen action this season. Three have played in every game, and, last Saturday, all of them were in the lineup.
“They’ve had to earn every opportunity to pull a sweater over their shoulders,” Hastings said.
Centers Jake Jaremko and Jared Spooner and defenseman Connor Mackey have played in every game so far. Defenseman Jack McNeely has been a scratch just once, while Rochester native Riese Zmolek, another defenseman, likely would have played every game if not for an injury that kept him out for five straight games.
Jaremko who was the WCHA coaches’ pick for preseason rookie of the year, is off to the best start, scoring-wise. He’s tied for third on the team with 12 points, including nine assists.
Reggie Lutz, who played with Jaremko in both junior and high school hockey, is next with seven points in nine games.
Collectively, MSU’s rookies have 10 goals and 36 points, which ranks fourth in the country among freshman classes.
“We ask our guys to earn their opportunities,” Hastings said. “That group has earned their opportunity. How? By how they handled their summer when they came in — hockey-wise, academically, socially. By how long it took to get situated with the group that was already here.”
There is plenty of precedent for early success at Minnesota State, especially among the current roster.
Last season, Marc Michaelis was WCHA rookie of the year, scoring 36 points to lead the league in overall scoring. Defenseman Ian Scheid quickly became a power-play specialist and finished the year with a surprising 24 points. Michaelis, Scheid and forwards Parker Tuomie and Josh French played in all 39 of MSU's games, while Nick Rivera played in 38.
The previous year, it was defenseman Daniel Brickley who burst on the scene and developed into a hot pro prospect. Forward Max Coatta also made an impact that year. Before that it was forwards Brad McClure and C.J. Suess, who are now seniors.
Hastings heaped praise on the junior coaches who helped develop those players and get them ready for college hockey, something he did himself for 14 years as the coach of the Omaha Lancers in the United States Hockey League
Jaremko and Lutz, both of Elk River High School where the former was Mr. Hockey in 2015, played for the USHL’s Chicago Steel last season, as did Walker Duehr for much of the year before getting traded to Bloomington. Hastings pointed out that, over the summer, Steel coach Dan Muse was hired by the NHL’s Nashville Predators as an assistant coach.
Spooner and Mackey played for Pat Mikesch with the Green Bay Gamblers, as did Michaelis before them. Mackey was the USHL’s defenseman of the year last season. McNeely (Tri-City), Zmolek (Cedar Rapids) and forward Dallas Gerads (Dubuque) also came to MSU from the USHL.
“Give some credit where credit is due,” Hastings said. “Their players come in prepared to play.”
Hastings also credited his own assistants, Todd Knott, who is the program's recruiting coordinator, and Darren Blue for finding the right players.
“They’re identifying good hockey players and good people,” Hastings said.
It wasn’t just that they brought in a talented, ready-to-play group. The Mavericks needed their freshmen from the get-go and will continue to do two when they play at No. 16 Minnesota Duluth today.
Jaremko and Spooner have helped solidify a somewhat thin position down the middle, while Mackey, McNeely and Zmolek have helped replace the graduation of two longtime lineup regulars, Carter Foguth and Sean Flanagan.
“Those guys were recruited with the idea that we needed them to step in and play,” Hastings said. “The only thing we ask is for them to do the work.”