Everybody remembers the end. The NCAA tournament. The Final Five. The first home playoff games in a decade. The record 24 victories for the Minnesota State men’s hockey team a season ago.
Coach Mike Hastings remembers "the process."
“The program made some steps on the right direction,” he said. “But, ultimately, did we understand the process? Because the process was 1-5 at one point, if you don’t recall. And I don’t remember there being a lot of pom-poms and a lot of, ‘This is great!’ going through that. It was hard. …
“The process a year ago was substantial, so you can’t forget about that.”
What happened after that rough start was historic for the program. Now, the Mavericks enter the season with more preseason accolades than ever had in their Division I era.
They’re ranked 11th in the nation and made the favorite to win the new Western Collegiate Hockey Association. Junior forward Matt Leitner has been mentioned as a potential All-American and Hobey Baker Award candidate. Sophomore goaltender Stephon Williams was drafted by the New York Islanders over the summer, and his name adorns lists of the best goalies in college hockey.
Hastings, who is beginning his second season at MSU, treads cautiously around the hype. Those honors don’t win games, he says, and neither do last year’s statistics.
“I think how we handle progress is going to be paramount to whether or not we continue to progress,” he said during an interview in his office last week.
Indeed, Hastings’ WCHA Coach of the Year Award from last year isn't displayed prominently for his visitors to see when they walk in the door. Rather, it rests on a lower shelf, below photographs of his family and former players.
“We made some steps,” he said. “But just like with anything, I think if you don’t continue to push to get better, you’re going to take a step or half a step back in some of the areas.”
Those steps led the Mavericks to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five and to Toledo, Ohio, for the NCAA Midwest Regional. Each stay was short-lived, one and done, as Wisconsin knocked them out of the conference tournament 7-2 and Miami did the same in the national tournament 4-0.
“Are we willing to be held accountable for progress?” Hastings said. “Because … human nature gets you to look in the rear-view mirror if you like what you’re seeing. If you like what just happened, you have a tendency to continue to look at it. If it’s a train wreck, you just focus on what’s in front of you. So (last year is) gone. We cannot change it. We cannot make it better.”
Leitner said he's not resting on any laurels from last season or the preseason.
"I think it was pretty easy to move on from last year with the way we finished, with two tough losses," Leitner said. "All summer I couldn't wait to get things going. Last year is behind us. It doesn't matter anymore. It's a new team and a new group of guys."
Minnesota State didn't lose a lot of players from last year’s team, but there are significant holes to fill.
Co-captains Eriah Hayes and Tyler Elbrecht graduated. The Mavericks will have to replace their strong leadership in the locker room and one the ice, as well as Hayes’ 20 goals and 36 points. Last week, senior forward Zach Lehrke decided to quit playing hockey due to a medical condition.
Hastings expects the upperclassmen to lead the way. Senior Johnny McInnis was named team captain this week, and Hastings compared the forward's learning curve to Eriah Hayes a year ago.
“We need Johnny McInnis to take a step both as a leader and on the ice,” Hastings said. “At times last year, he was dominant. At times. He’s a senior, and that needs to be a daily thing. To this point I’m excited about where Johnny McInnis is going. I’ve seen that daily focus.”
Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine, both juniors, scored 47 and 35 points, respectively, last season. They rank first and second among the WCHA’s top returning scorers, and Leitner is fourth in the nation in that category. The two have compiled 139 points over their first two college seasons.
“They’ve had a good first half of their careers,” Hastings said. “To me, what they do over the next two years is going to define their careers.”
Junior forward Chase Grant and defenseman Zach Palmquist and Josh Nelson are part of that core of upperclassmen, too.
“Zach Palmquist needs to be a leader in all situations – power play, penalty kill, even strength – same thing with Nelson,” Hastings said. “Those guys need to be our big minutes eaters. They need to be leaders in the locker room, off the ice, on the ice, everything. They’re two guys – righty, lefty – that need to fill that role.”
Last season, the Mavericks had a pretty special rookie class, starting with Williams in goal. He won 21 games and had a goals-against average that didn't rise to 2.00 until the postseason.
“One of Stephon’s strongest qualities is his competitiveness,” Hastings said. “I think he looks inside himself, I think he looks inside the locker room and I think he looks out at the world of goaltenders, and he has a want to be considered one of the best. The only way you do that is by going to work and preparing yourself, and he’s done that.”
Forwards Dylan Margonari, Teddy Blueger, Brett Knowles and Bryce Gervais quickly became key players in all situations as rookies, and each finished the season with at least 13 points. Defenseman Jon Jutzi played in every game.
“They came in and did not play like freshmen, did not act like freshmen,” Hastings said. “They were part of the fiber of the success of the team. We need our freshman class to do the same this year. Make an impact on this program and this team.”
This season’s rookies have also gotten some preseason spotlight. Former Shattuck-St. Mary’s standout and the United States Hockey League’s third-leading scorer last season, Zach Stepan, was voted WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year. Forwards Michael Huntebrinker and Jordan Nelson and defensemen Carter Foguth, Sean Flanagan and Casey Nelson (Josh’s brother) all will get playing time. Hastings hopes goalie Cole Huggins will put a little heat on Williams, too.
“To me, if I’m a freshman, what an unbelievable opportunity,” Hastings said.
The Mavericks will play an exhibition game against the University of Lethbridge at 5 p.m. today at the Verizon Wireless Center. They will open the regular season on Friday, beginning a nonconference series at Providence.