Three possible candidates for Michigan State hockey’s job as a coach

On Tuesday afternoon, Michigan State announced that head coach Danton Cole had been relieved of his duties. Now begins the hunt for his successor.

In five years with the team, Cole failed to get a single NCAA tournament spot and did not win a game in the Big Ten tournament. While the rest of the Big Ten are adapting to the changing college hockey landscape, Michigan State has been left in the dust. Whoever takes the helm of the program will have a hell of a job on their hands.

The good news for Michigan State Sports Director Alan Haller and Co.? There are plenty of solid graduates throughout junior hockey and the NCAA.

Adam Nightingale

Nightingale sits at the top of the list of candidates as perhaps the most obvious choice for Michigan State.

Currently, Nightingale is the head coach of Team USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, where Cole coached before Michigan State hired him in 2017-18. With the USNTDP, Nightingale coached a number of the best NHL prospects, including Michigan’s Luke Hughes and Minnesota’s Chaz Lucius. These are the kind of players who have opted for superior Big Ten programs over Michigan State for years now.

Prior to his stay with Team USA, Nightingale spent several years in the NHL as a video coach for the Buffalo Sabers and Detroit Red Wings. Eventually, he was promoted to assistant coach at Detroit.

Nightingale has a history with Michigan State. He played for the team from 2003-05, and he was director of Hockey Operations from 2010-14. There are other MSU alumni who could step up behind the bench, but Nightingale is the best of the bunch. Damon Whitten could be an option, but he has not been particularly remarkable in five seasons with Lake Superior State.

Nightingale has experience in the NHL, experience in the USHL and, most importantly, experience as a head coach. In the USHL and with the USNTDP, he regularly interacted with some of the best young talents in the sport. And of course he has a history with Michigan State. Nightingale is a safe and smart choice for the program. If there were odds on college hockey head coach positions, Nightingale would be the favorite for Michigan State.

Brock Sheahan

The most winning head coach in Chicago Steel’s history could be an excellent, albeit very risky, choice for Michigan State.

Taking on the role of one of the best programs in the USHL, Brock Sheahan has done more than just keep the program on track. Since his promotion to head coach in the middle of the 2019-20 season, Steel has two titles in the regular season and a USHL championship.

Although Sheahan has no experience as a head coach in the NCAA, he began his coaching career in college hockey. He served as assistant coach for a year with Notre Dame before moving to Holy Cross for the same role. He was promoted to associate head coach of Holy Cross after two years with the team. Eventually, Sheahan joined Chicago Steel as an assistant head coach. He was promoted to head coach midway through his second year with the team.

If Michigan State is looking for an outside-the-box candidate, Sheahan is the man. To win in college hockey today and age, a program needs high-quality NHL prospects. Sheahan has dealt with more than his fare on his time with Chicago Steel, such as Michigan standout and number one overall pick Owen Powers. If Michigan State wants to start competing in one of the best conferences in college hockey, they can not keep recruiting older players who are getting older than juniors. Although those kind of players certainly have their place in NCAA hockey – they need young talent with a wealth of upside. Sheahan has proven that he has a keen eye for such talent.

Being the head coach of a USHL team is completely different from running an NCAA hockey team. In college, you have to deal with recruitment, pressure from the university, and a handful of other quirks. This is where the risk comes in. When you hire Sheahan, there’s a chance things will fall apart again for Michigan State – but there’s also a chance he’s pushing the program in front of the basket and to the heights of the old ones.

Erik Lang

Eric Lang is going to be an extremely coveted coaching perspective this offseason. As head coach of American International College, he holds a record of 82-73-14. Lang has led the program to four AHA regular season titles and three AHA tournament titles in just six years with the team. AIC has participated in the NCAA Tournament three times under his supervision – in 2021-22 (reached the regional semifinals), in 2018-19 (reached the regional finals) and in 2020-21 (reached the regional semifinals).

The most impressive part? Prior to his arrival, AIC was a terrible program with no history of winning. The team did not win a single regular season title or tournament match before Lang. AIC’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament was in 2019 – Along the third year of the program.

Under Lang’s guidance, AIC has become a truly competitive program in the AHA year in and year out.

Long may be the best choice for the job. He has built a program from scratch, he has consistently participated in the NCAA Tournament, and his teams are almost always competitive in his conference. It may sound cliché, but Lang can really instill a winning mentality in a program. Michigan State has not had it for more than a decade.

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However, it would be difficult to pry Lang away from his current position. AIC is his alma mater and he has done a fantastic job with the program. Michigan State will not be the only team sending a call to him. Hiring a coach like Lang can cost a little more than Michigan State is willing to spend.

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