Crash Course: San Jose State Spartans return with some big skates to fill

Considering this is a blog full of hockey-mad fans. And one with many living in or around the San Jose area, it's a natural fit to take a look at another San Jose-based hockey team once in a while: the San Jose State Spartans.

If you're new to following San Jose State hockey, here are some of the basics:

  • SJSU Hockey was founded in 1990
  • It's a club team - meaning most of the funding comes from they players themselves - to the tune of about $4500 per player in dues.
  • They compete in Division II of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), which has nearly 200 teams around the country
  • The Spartans finished as the #11 team last season, losing in pool play at the D2 National Championships in Boston, Mass.
  • Former Spartans have made it to professional leagues: forward Sean Scarbrough played for the Cardiff Devils in the UK's Elite League, while goaltender Ryan Lowe had a stint with the Utah Grizzlies of the ECHL./

When we last left the Spartans, they defeated Illinois State 7-3 in pool play of the National Championships. It was a high note to end on after losing the prior two games. Unfortunately for the Spartans, building on last year's finish will be an uphill fight.

Eight seniors from last year's squad have graduated, including three top-six forwards, and three top-six defenseman -not to mention three of the top 15 scorers in school history. Those are some pretty large skates to fill.

It also appears forwards Alex CacasMichael Schwartz won't return to play for San Jose State until the second semester of the season.

With only five new rookies and two former players from prior seasons, that leaves the Spartans seriously shorthanded this first semester. San Jose State will have to start the season with only three lines and five defenseman.

"We're going to be in shape, I guarantee you that much," said head coach Phil Hazelwood.

Among the returning players, there is still some very strong talent, but those players will need to take on bigger roles. Center Nicholas Matejovsky was the new named captain last week, replacing the graduated Sam Cimino. "It's a great honor," said Matejovsky. "This organization has been around for 24 years and there have been a lot of good hockey player to come through here - and a lot of good captains."

And his coach is sure he's right for the job: "Just watching Nick's work ethic - outstanding," said Hazelwood "And I think everyone feeds off of that."

Matejovsky will also have to take on the mantle of being the star offensive player from Cimino as well. He's well-suited for the role - finishing second on the team last year with 60 points in 33 games.

No one person will be able to replace Cimino's output, but the top line looks like it will still be formidable. Former point-per-game forward Ian Seidl returns to Matejovsky's wing and has been impressing his teammates during preseason practices. "Ian, just all of a sudden, has hands out of nowhere, which I didn't see last season," said goaltender Mario Retana. "I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with a lot of ice time this season."

Jacob Hickey appears to be front-runner to take over the spot on the other wing. Hickey is returning to the team after not playing since the 2009-10 season. That year, he put up 19 points in 26 while playing primarily in fourth-line minutes! I wish the Sharks would follow that type of model...

Another key player returning to the team after a hiatus is defenseman Cody Murphy. He'll join Christian Rendino and Michael Stivers as anchors of the defense corps. Muphy had 14 points in 15 games as a Spartan in 2012. His teammates convinced him to return after not playing last year. "You know, I wasn't going to play," said Murphy. "As soon as I started hanging out with the boys again when school started, I missed that. It's like a family feeling. It's good to be back"

Short-staffed or not, I wouldn't count out the Spartans from making the postseason. This will be Coach Hazelwood's second season behind the bench. When the team finally embraced his defensive systems midway through last season, they proved they looked like a different team. With another season of tweaks to the system and goaltender Mario Retana between the pipes, the Spartans should be able to stay in any game.

The Spartans first test comes tonight. After USC had to cancel last minute, Cal-Berkeley stepped in to play their Bay Area rivals this weekend. "It really doesnt matter who comes here on Friday," said Coach Hazelwood. "We just need to make sure we're doing things right."

The Spartans open their 2014-15 season tonight against the California Golden Bears at 7:30 from Sharks Ice at San Jose. Tickets are available at the door. If you can't make the game, you can listen to the smooth, sexy voice of play-by-play broadcaster Jonathan Wold on 90.5 fm KSJS and Black Dog Enterprises.