Over the last eight-plus seasons dating back to 2012-13, no men’s college hockey team has won more games than Minnesota State, Mankato.
Not coincidentally, 2012-13 was Mike Hastings’ first season as Minnesota State’s head coach. Besides the 200-plus victories, the Mavericks, under Hastings, Darren Blue and Todd Knott, have won five WCHA regular-season championships, including the last three in a row, as well as three conference playoff titles.
Finding talented players is one thing. Finding the right fit for your program is another. And the Mavericks’ coaches seem to have a knack for finding both in the same package.
You won’t find a roster filled with five-star recruits and NHL draft picks (just two this season). Mavericks trend a little bit older. The coaches have an eagle eye for spotting late bloomers in the junior ranks, including a few who turned into hot free-agent NHL prospects as they progressed in college.
So what do Hastings, Blue and Knott look for in developing young players?
Skills and Sense
Like most programs, Minnesota State considers the speed of the modern game and looks at players’ skating and hockey sense.
“In today’s world, you’ve got to be able to skate,” said Hastings, a Crookston native. “And that’s morphed even in the last six, seven years. You have to be able to skate.”
Moving fast is one thing, but thinking fast is another. That’s why the Mavericks look at hockey sense, too. What do players do without the puck? How do they get themselves in a position to get the puck? And do they know what they’re going to do with it before they get it?
“When the game is played at 100 mph, it gets harder and harder to make plays with no time or space,” said Knott, Mavs associate head coach and recruiting coordinator from Red Lake Falls. “A lot of guys can skate fast, but can they play fast? The game is a lot more than skating from Point A to Point B.
So now that they’ve identified who they think can play college hockey, it’s time to start offering scholarships, right?
“Once you do that, that’s when you can, as Coach Hastings says, start to peel back the onion,” Knott said.
Recruiting isn’t just about finding the best players. It’s also about finding the right players. It’s about building a team. And a team has different roles — scorers, defensive forwards, power-play defensemen, stay-at-home defensemen, penalty killers, etc.
For Minnesota State, finding those players to fill out a roster is important, but more important is finding players who have the ability — and the willingness — to do all of those things.
“The more eggs in your basket, the more opportunity you're going to have — in your world, my world,” Hastings said. “You can’t be one-dimensional.”
Knott said a question he likes to ask recruits is: “What’s your backup game?”
“To me, that’s the basement of your game,” he said. “Can you still be in the lineup and help win a hockey game?”
Some of Minnesota State’s consistency can be attributed to just that — players who have taken on a bottom-six forward role while waiting a season or even two to get into a top-six spot or playing along the wall for awhile before moving to the middle.
“If you're not scoring, if you're not the top six, what else can you do well?” Hastings said. “Can you block shots? Can you be a team guy? Can you play the bottom six? Can you be valuable at taking faceoffs, killing penalties?”
Once coaches determine a player has the necessary skills and would be a good fit, the process takes on similarities of a job interview or hiring process. Questions of character can knock a player down on a coaching staff’s recruiting board, if not take that player off the board completely.
The keen eye of a coach who can see sublime skating and special hockey sense also notices the actions that might turn a thumb up into a thumb down.
“Don't exude the qualities that get you redlined,” Hastings said. “That’s discipline. That's bad body language. That’s yelling at a teammate, ignoring the coach, screaming at an official.”
Coaches look at how players handle adversity, too. How do they react when they make a mistake? What about when they’re benched for a shift, a period or even a game?
“Do they think they’re getting the shaft or do they continue to work through it and become a better player because of it?” Knott said. “What do they do the next time they’re in the lineup?”
In an effort spot and avoid red flags, the Minnesota State coaches try to find out everything they can about a player and that player’s family. They talk to current and former coaches, ex-teammates and even staff members such as athletic trainers.
“Getting to know everyone around the player is a huge piece of the puzzle,” Knott said. “They can tell you if the player is an unbelievable kid or selfish, great with teammates or not great with teammates. … Are they a better person away from the rink? Are they impactful in the community?”
If you look through the Mavericks’ roster, you’ll find many players who were captains or alternate captains with their junior teams — players that not only were leaders in title but also in their actions, like blocking shots, winning faceoffs and logging a lot of late-game minutes to preserve leads and get back into games.
A player doesn’t necessarily have to wear a C or an A to be a prospect. Leading by example through work ethic, toughness and being “team-motivated” gets noticed, too.
“I think we've had some success with a lot of selfless people who have come through our program,” Hastings said.
And that recipe for success isn’t likely to change any time soon.
Shane Frederick is a Mankato-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Minnesota Hockey Journal. From 2000 to 2020 he covered Minnesota State and college hockey for The Free Press newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @puckato.