Previews: Purple Mavericks seeking a new-coach bounce

Mike Hastings, shown here standing to the left of Nebraska Omaha head coach Dean Blais, became Minnesota State’s head coach in April. (Photo credit: Matthew Semisch)

“Michigan Tech did it,” Minnesota State fans will have been telling themselves over the offseason, “So why not us?”

The Huskies of MTU experienced an extraordinary turnaround under new head coach Mel Pearson in the 2011-12 season. It’s enough to make MSU fans wonder if their Mavericks can witness the same sort of bounce in 2012-13 under their own new bench boss.

Troy Jutting is out, reassigned by the university in April after 12 years at the helm at MSU before eventually taking an assistant coaching job at Nebraska Omaha in August. It ended up being a trade of sorts in the end, with UNO associate head coach Mike Hastings taking Jutting’s place in Mankato, Minn. on April 14.

Switching from the WCHA’s red Mavericks to the league’s purple ones will give Hastings his first experience as a college hockey head coach, but his success at the junior level before stints as an assistant with UNO and Minnesota cannot be overlooked.

Hastings is the all-time winningest coach in the United States Hockey League. The Crookston, Minn. native became a legend in Omaha hockey circles, taking the Omaha Lancers to three USHL postseason titles in a 14-year span without experiencing a single losing season with the club.

MSU disappointed in the 2011-12 season, going winless in its final six games and finishing in 11th place in the WCHA. There is reason for optimism, though, that Hastings can quickly turn his new program in the right direction. Jutting’s recruiting classes had been solid the past couple of years, and, though it’s just Jutting’s luck, Hastings will look to be the one to reap the benefits in the 2012-13 season.

The Mavericks’ three highest scorers in the last campaign were underclassmen, and all three return. Sophomore forwards Matt Leitner (11 goals and 18 assists in 2011-12) and Jean-Paul Lafontaine (13 G, 15 A) will be expected to lead the way again, and upperclassmen forward Zach Lehrke (Jr. – 13 G, 10 A) and Eriah Hayes (Sr. – 8 G, 9 A) will provide experience to go along with their noses for the net.

Several question marks still remain, though, that may hinder the Mavericks’ chances of earning home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in the new season. The most glaring problem is the team’s defense. MSU gave up 3.63 goals per game in 2011-12, second-worst in the league, and that can’t be repeated if Hastings’ men want to accomplish a top-six finish this time around.

MSU will also need to pick up more reliable goaltending. Incumbent starter Phil Cook hardly set the world alight during the 2011-12 campaign, posting a 3.55 goals against average and .887 save percentage in 17 appearances. Those numbers won’t leave the senior netminder with much job security, especially if his understudies, sophomore Evan Karambelas and freshman Stephon Williams, push him for the leading role.

Still, if the Mavericks’ strengths remain strengths and Hastings addresses the team’s issues, MSU fans could see their team make a noticeable improvement in the new season. With its relatively undaunting nonconference slate and a somewhat charitable league schedule pod – four games each against Wisconsin, Alaska Anchorage and Minnesota – home ice in the postseason may well be attainable for this team in the 2012-13 campaign.

Head coach: Mike Hastings (St. Cloud State ’93)
2011-12 record: 12-24-2 (8-18-2 WCHA)
Predicted finish in 2012-13: 9th
Home ice: Verizon Wireless Center; Mankato, Minn.
-Capacity: 4,832
-Average attendance in 2011-12: 3,228

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