Despite losing three of their top four scorers from a season ago, the Minnesota Gophers appear loaded at forward for the 2013-14 season. Few, if any, teams in college hockey will be able to boast the wealth of speed and skill The U will possess up front, and mixed with a few of those "gritty" players every team needs it gives head coach Don Lucia plenty of options. However, like the defensemen, the one thing this group is lacking is size. Of the 16 forwards listed on the roster, only three are over 6'0, and just two that are at least 200 pounds. For a team that struggled last season on the smaller NHL-sized ice surfaces, and especially against sound defensive teams capable of slowing the game down, this could be an issue, especially when two of the guys they lost from last season in Nick Bjugstad (6'6 and 210+ pounds) and Zach Budish (6'2 and 220), were both very big guys.
The only two remaining players who are both over 6'1 AND 200 pounds are a true freshman and a junior who played mostly on the fourth line in last Saturday's scrimmage/cage match against Lethbridge. Concerning? We'll find out soon enough, I guess. At least the team showed they wouldn't back down from rougher opponents, but it's going to be a real battle for them when they have to play bigger teams on smaller surfaces that can neutralize or limit changes with Minnesota's speed and skill. It should be one of the highest scoring forward groups in the country, but whether they'll be able to do it come playoff time, when now ALL of the conference and NCAA playoffs will be played on NHL-sized rinks, will be the key.
Thanks to Nate Wells (if you're a college or pro hockey fan, give him a follow on Twitter @gopherstate) of
Western College Hockey blog SBN College Hockey we got a good idea of potential line combinations for the season, as Nate attended the exhibition game and reported the following:
Hudson Fasching - Kyle Rau - Vinni Lettieri
Nate Condon - Justin Kloos - Taylor Cammarata
Connor Reilly - Travis Boyd - Christian Isackson
Tom Serratore - A.J. Michaelson - Seth Ambroz
Ryan Reilly - Empty - Christian Horn
Junior Sam Warning didn't skate, but in a post on his Ice Gold blog in the Strib, new beat reporter Jason Gonzalez says Warning should start on the top line with Rau and Fasching, which could make for a potentially lethal trio. Further down in Nate's post about line combinations, he quotes Lucia on the obvious chemistry between Kloos and Cammarata, so that second line seems a pretty solid bet to happen too. The third and fourth lines will likely change quite a bit as the season goes on, but barring injuries I'd expect those top six guys to stay pretty consistent.
The three guys who left early- Bjugstad, Budish and Erik Haula- weren't only three of their top four scorers from a season ago, but all of them would have been seniors this seasons. With their departure it leaves just two seniors in this class, and while neither are expected to play on the top line, both will fill very important roles. Nate Condon was named a co-captain this season, and has progressed nicely in his three seasons at The U, increasing his goals and point totals every season. Last year he was fourth in goals with 12 and sixth in points with 31, and should be one of the team's top scorers this season. If he doesn't make the top power play unit, expect to see him on the second, and Lucia can trust him in all situation as his +15 from a year ago showed.
Tom Serratore will only be a third or fourth line player, just as he has his entire career, but his role is still a very important one for the Gophers. Serratore is an excellent defensive forward and a trustworthy senior who is going to be responsible both with the puck and without. While his -1 from a year ago doesn't look great, remember that not only does Serratore himself not get many points (his seven goals were actually 10th on the team, but his eight total points were 14th) but as third or fourth liner, his linemates won't score a ton either. Not only that, but he and his line are often asked to match up against the opponent's top line and he also kills penalties. In my opinion the Gophers need a few more forwards like Serratore to balance out so many smaller skilled guys, but that's a debate for another day.
The junior class was the strength of the forward group last season, and they should be again in 2013-14. They're led by Kyle Rau, the team's leading returning scorer (15-25-40) who was second in power play goals a season ago with six and led the team with a whopping seven game winners. Rau may be small in stature at barely 5'8 (and that may be with skates on) but few players in college hockey bring a bigger game than he does. He's totally fearless going to the net or mixing it up in the corners or along the boards, and has a supernatural gift for not only being in the right place at the right time for scoring goals, but also for getting under the opposition's skin. If there's a big goal to be scored it's likely Rau, and if a scrum breaks out after a whistle, it's likely Rau right in the middle of it.
The departure of Haula and Bjugstad not only leaves a scoring void in the lineup, but they were also the team's top two centers the past two seasons, and were both very good on faceoffs. After playing wing his first two seasons, Rau will shift to top-line center, and his ability to play a different position and win key faceoffs cannot be overstated. He should be a front-runner for the Hobey Baker award and All-America status, and if this is his last season in Maroon and Gold make sure to enjoy it because they just don't make them like Kyle Rau.
We mentioned Sam Warning earlier, and there may not be anyone else on the roster, including Rau, with as much offensive ability. I mean seriously, just look at this "Datsyuk-ian Dangle" from last year. WHO DOES THAT? Well, besides Datsyuk? Sam Warning, that's who. He's had a bunch of highlight reel goals for the Gophers, showing off those world class hands, or "sick mitts" as John Buccigross would call them. Oh, and he's done it in juniors too. The one thing Warning wasn't able to do was stay healthy last season, as he missed 11 games. His absence from the exhibition game didn't sound like anything major, but Warning's so dangerous in Minnesota's lineup that he needs to be healthy this season.
Travis Boyd was The U's third line center last year, and should start the season in that same spot. Depending upon how Rau adjusts to playing center, Boyd may get a chance to move up in the lineup, but for now will play an important role as the third line center trying to provide some offense and defense, and he'll also kill penalties.
His linemate from a year ago, Seth Ambroz, is 6'3 and 215 pounds and one of just two potential power forwards on the roster. Potential's been a bit of a dirty word with Ambroz, as he's still trying to live up to the hype he created as a 15 and 16 year old high school player in New Prague, who back then was thought of as a potential 1st round NHL draft pick. But after two years in juniors, and two more seasons with The U, it's looking pretty unlikely he'll fulfill that kind of promise. And you know what? That's fine. He doesn't need to be the Gophers' best forward to be successful, he just needs to be one of their top nine as he was a year ago, finishing with 16 points (9 G- 7A) with a solid +11. His 22 penalty minutes were also encouraging because based on his size, he's one of the few guys on the entire roster capable of really mixing it up in front of the net, in the corners and along the wall. Ambroz may never develop into an elite scorer, but if he can continue to show a bit of that nasty streak and play physical hockey, he could be a real handful. The Gophers have so much talent up front they could get by if he falls out of the top nine, but they're better when a guy of his size and skill set is playing well.
Ambroz won't be handed that third line wing spot though because there's plenty of other good players vying for it, and while none are as big, they're all plenty talented. Christian Isackson may have the best blend of size and speed of the remaining non-freshmen, playing in all 40 games a season ago, including plenty of chances with the top line. At 6'1 and 190 he's a bigger player with a bit of an edge to his game (20 penalty minutes), and had a nice offensive season with 20 points (4G- 16A). He looked plenty comfortable with the top line last year, but could be a real luxury on the third line as well. Just looking at the roster he would seem to be the seventh forward for the top six to start the season, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him move up at some point.
On such a stacked team, the sophomore class of AJ Michaelson, Ryan Reilly and Christian Horn made little impact as freshmen a year ago, yet even with Haula, Bjugstad and Budish gone, I still wouldn't expect that to change much this year. Michaelson has value as a center on a team that has less than last season, and was solid with six points (3G- 3A) in 22 games last year. Ryan Reilly played in just eight games last year with two points while Horn didn't play at all, and with Warning back for the regular season, all three of the sophomores will be competing for the 13th forward spot most nights.
Lucia is going to lean on this group heavily, hoping their skill, ability and hockey smarts will outweigh freshmen mistakes most nights. While they're sure to screw up from time to time as most freshmen do, and may take some time to adjust to college hockey, the investment in these four early should pay off come playoff time. Nate Well's post gives a really nice summary of how they looked in the exhibition and their potential for this season.
It's hard to say which of the best four is most important, but since we know Hudson Fasching will begin the season on the top line, I'm going to say it's him. With Rau and Warning both smaller players, having a truely skilled power forward in Fasching (already 6'2 and 210) would be the perfect compliment. Per Nate Wells, Fasching stood out for all the right reasons in the exhibition game, as well as this past summer, and Lucia has noticed:
"He's been that way since I saw him at the World Junior camp this summer," Lucia said after the game. "I was impressed with him there. He's playing with pace. He's playing hard. You get rewarded when you play that way."
So I guess there IS more pressure on Fasching than the other freshmen simply because of his size. Look, you HAVE to have Kyle Rau on the top line, and you'd really like to put Warning up there too because, as we've already covered, he's freaking ridiculous. But neither of those guys are taller than 5'9, and while the other freshmen besides Fasching are all great offensive players and all worthy of consideration, there's one, um, "small" problem there (sorry, couldn't help it...sorry I'm not sorry): none of those guys are taller than 5'9 either. In college hockey, or heck in juniors or even high school, no matter how talented the players, you're going to have issues playing players who are all 5'9 or shorter together. Fasching provides that balance, and is one of the only forwards on the roster who can do it.
But don't look at the other freshmen not making the top line as a sign they're not any good because it's the opposite. They're REALLY good. Center Taylor Cammarata has been a scoring machine at every level, and it shouldn't be any different in college hockey. He scored a whopping 93 points in 59 games in the USHL last season to lead the league, and is an absolute lock for the #2 center position. And heck, if for some reason Rau can't handle center, it's possible we could see Cammarata move up and perhaps Sam Warning slide down to the second line. Taylor is absolutely that good, and don't be surprised if he plays as well as Kyle Rau did when he was a freshman a few seasons ago when Rau was one of Minnesota's leading scorers and a freshman All-American.
Former Minnesota Mr Hockey Justin Kloos (when he had ONLY 103 points in 31 games at Lakeville South in 2011-12) will begin the season on Cammarata's wing, the same place he was last season with Waterloo. Kloos was supposed to make the jump to the Gophers last season until Bjugstad annouced he was coming back. So instead Kloos spent a full season in juniors and boy did it pay off, as he finished second in the league in scoring with 87 points (29 G- 58 A) in just 54 games. As previously mentioned he and Cammarata have obvious chemistry and the hope is to keep the two dimunitive dynamos together this season (it would seem to make sense that these two could join Fasching on the top line as early as next season), and while it's unlikely they finish 1-2 in the league in scoring again, they should still put up some good numbers.
Vinni Lettieri, the grandson of Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne, is yet another highly touted recruit, and got to play with Rau and Fasching on the top line for the exhibition game. While it's likely he'll move off that line with Warning's return, Lettieri gives Lucia an uber-talented player who can play just about anywhere at anytime. With 56 points (28g- 28A) in 61 games for the Lincoln Stars of the USHL last season, it'll be very interesting to see where he slots into the lineup this weekend because a kid this good needs to play somewhere.
The last of the true freshmen is Gabe Guertler, who is suspended indefinitley because of a DWI arrest last month. Coach Lucia has said they'll re-evalute his status in November, but as of now it's very unlikely Guertler makes much of an impact, if any, this season.
Last, but certainly not least, is the only redshirt freshman of the group in Connor Reilly, twin brother of Ryan and older brother of Gopher defenseman Mike Reilly. Connor missed all of last season due to a knee injury suffered during a, um, "team activity" last August. At 22, he's actually one of the older players on the roster, and spent the 2010-11 season in the USHL before destroying the BCHL (35-51-86 in just 54 games) two seasons ago with the Penticton Vees on a team that included both of his brothers AND Mario Lucia. If his injury is fully healed, Connor brings good speed and a big shot, and he'll fight for time in the top nine.
It's a roster of forwards as deep and talented as anyone in the country, and while losing players like Haula, Bjugstad and Budish to the pros certainly hurts, Minnesota potentially could have the firepower to replace them. That's not saying any one player will match Haula's 51 points from a year ago, but the Gophers should be one of the highest scoring teams in the land once again in the regular season. But what they lack is size, and the question remains: unlike last season will they be able to compete and produce on the smaller sheets against bigger teams come playoff time?