The Mankato Free Press
---- — Mike Hastings certainly put his stamp on the Minnesota State men’s hockey team in his first season as coach.
He led the Mavericks to 24 wins, a Division I-era team record, and had them back in the WCHA Final Five and NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade.
There is little doubt that Hastings had an influence on the players he inherited when he took over the program, most noteably Eriah Hayes, but also Matt Leitner and Josh Nelson, to name a couple.
Hayes became more disciplined — his penalty minutes dropped and his goals went up — and an important locker-room leader. Leitner, already a proven scorer as a freshman, got better at the defensive end of the ice, buying into the new coach’s demands. Nelson quickly became a much-needed, reliable, minutes-eating defenseman.
Hastings maintained continuity from the previous season by keeping assistant coaches Darren Blue and Todd Knott on his staff. The two were heavily involved in the recruitment of a freshmen class that ended up having a massive impact on last year’s team. The Mavericks wouldn’t have played so deeply into the postseason without goaltender Stephon Williams; forwards Teddy Blueger, Dylan Margonari, Bryce Gervais and Brett Knowles; and defenseman Jon Jutzi.
The only rookie to commit to the Mavericks after Hastings was hired was Taylor Herndon. He played just 12 games but was named the team’s most-improved player after the season ended.
This year’s team, which made its debut on Sunday night with a 7-1 exhibition victory over Lethbridge, includes Hastings’ first full recruiting class, players again culled by Knott and Blue. It’s a group, the head coach said, that he expects to make an impact not unlike last year’s rookies did.
That’s a tall task, but, once again, an important one if the Mavericks are to meet the high expectations placed up on them this preseason — possibly win the WCHA, return to the Final Five, go deeper into the NCAAs.
On Sunday, the second-year players shined once again. Blueger was brilliant, and Margonari showed that the whispers about him having a breakout season are justified. Defenseman Nick Buchanan scored a goal.
But Hastings’ freshmen had a nice first showing, even if it was a glorified practice game.
Zach Stepan had a goal and an assist, playing on the top line with Leitner and Gervais. Michael Huntebrinker scored a goal, and he and Jordan Nelson “weren’t shy,” on the fourth line, Hastings said, against that physical Canadian college team. With just 13 forwards on the roster, those rookies will play this year. But there are also three defensemen — Carter Foguth, Casey Nelson and Sean Flanagan — who kept the competition for playing time at that position going strong as the regular season fast approaches.
Shane Frederick is aFree Press staff writer. Read his blog at mankatofreepresshockey.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter @puckato.