Whatever you're looking for in a group of forwards, the 2012-13 Minnesota Golden Gophers have it. Size and speed? Check. Grit and determination? In spades. Championship experience? Thanks to winning the MacNaughton Cup and a run to the Frozen Four last year, they have that too. Seniors? Ok, that's about the only thing they're lacking. Minnesota boasts the most impressive forwards in the WCHA- and perhaps the country- and yet there's not one senior in the bunch. Head coach Don Lucia is also adding some talented freshman recruits, but because of all the talent and experience in front of them, they're not going to have to lean on the kids right away for success.
It's probably easiest to break down the forwards by class, so let's start with the upperclassmen...
Of the five junior forwards on the roster, three are locked in on the top two lines, while the other two will be battling for playing time all season long. First-line center Nick Bjugstad was recently named the WCHA preseason player of the year, and will be one of the favorites for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in all of college hockey. Barring an NHL lockout that wipes out next year too (they can't be that arrogant, right? Well Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr are leading this so I guess they ARE that arrogant) the 6'4 scoring dynamo Bjugstad will be playing his last year in Dinkytown. He scores, passes, defends, and hits, and he'll be the best player on the ice regardless of the opponent this season. Wild prospect Erik Haula might be the best second line center in the country, as the excellent two-way forward blossomed into a scoring machine last year with a torrid beginning and end to the season that resulted in a team-best 49 points (20 goals-29 assists). He's excellent in his own end, kills penalties well, wins faceoffs, and as you can see, he can put the biscuit in the basket. Minnesota's greatest strength this season might be their one-two punch down the middle.
Captain Zach Budish has been a staple on the wing on the top line in every season he's been healthy, including last year when he tallied 12 goals and 23 assists. The big, burly power forward is now two seasons removed from the second major knee injury of his young career, and could be a 20+ goal scorer. In the exhibition win over Lethbridge last Saturday, Budish skated with the second line, not the first, and we'll see if that was just head coach Don Lucia exploring his options, or if this might be a permanent move. Fellow winger Nate Condon had a strong sophomore campaign a year ago, and will be battling a bunch of talented underclassmen for a spot in the top 6. Condon jumped around a lot on different lines last season and finished with a very respectable 30 points, including 11 goals. Condon skated on the third line in the exhibition, but with his versatility and experience you could see him on the second line too.
Tom Serratore had just three points last year, but appeared in 37 games and was vital on the third and fourth lines. He was the one constant in the exhibition game as the fourth line center, as Lucia rotated wingers around him as the game went on. Look for Serratore, whose cousin is former Gopher goalie great Robb Stauber, to begin the season anchoring the fourth line.
Kyle Rau was one of two major surprises of the season a year ago (the other involved the breakout of a certain sophomore defenseman)- sure, the former Eden Prairie star was expected to be good, but a true freshman jumping right in on the top line and finishing second on the team in scoring? Rau was everything the team and Gopher fans had hoped for, and yet so much more. Only 5'7 Rau plays much bigger, and showed a great hockey IQ, some tenacity to mix it up, and a real knack for scoring goals and being in the right place at the right time. Because of his size, let's hope it keeps him off the Florida Panthers' radar for awhile, who stole him in the 5th round of last year's draft.
Perhaps this year's breakout forward won't be a freshman but a sophomore as Christian Isackson, who played in just 11 games and didn't register a single point a season ago, not only played the entire exhibition opener on the first line with Bjugstad and Rau, but registered a natural hat trick! I know, I know, I know- just an exhibition game. But the former St Thomas Academy star and Buffalo Sabres draft pick obviously put in some work in the offseason and in fall camp, and the coaches have taken notice. Perhaps Lucia was just juggling line combos and we'll see Budish back on the top line this weekend against Sparty, but maybe Lucia sees the 6'2 Isackson as a great first line option, allowing him to further stabilize the second line by dropping Budish down to play with Haula and giving the Gophers' top two lines a look of 1 and 1A.
Sam Warning spent the exhibition game on Haula's wing on the second line, and will get every opportunity to stay there to start the season. The diminutive wing who is-GASP!- NOT from Minnesota (I know, I know. How'd the even let him on the team, right?), played very well as a freshman last year appearing in 39 games and notching 16 points and 6 goals, two of which were game winners. He played on the second line quite a bit as the season wore on, and has showed some good chemistry and feel with Haula.
Pushing Warning for a second line wing spot will be Seth Ambroz, a massive human being at 6'2 and 210 who was a fifth round pick of Columbus in the 2011 draft. As a 16 year old he was thought of as a potential first rounder, but his play plateaued a bit once he hit juniors in the USHL for the Omaha Lancers. He played in 41 games a year ago with five goals and eight points, and this would be a good time for a break out year for the big fella. Ambroz scored in the exhibition opener, and with his size and scoring ability he could give the Gophers the kind of production you don't usually expect from a third liner.
Centering that third line this year is Travis Boyd, a Hopkins native and former USNDP player who came on as last year progressed. He registered a goal and nine points in 35 games, and had a goal and an assist in the WCHA championship loss to North Dakota. Boyd has some big shoes to fill as the third line pivot as last year's captain Taylor Mattson did an excellent job in that role. A sixth round pick of the Capitals a year ago he was the youngest player available, and he'll be on Team USA's radar for the World Junior tournament this winter for the best 19-and-under players.
The final sophomore forward is Apple Valley's won Jared Larson, who was redshirted last year after playing sparingly as a true freshman in 2010-11. He played the first half of the exhibition game on the fourth line, and that's where he'll be battling for playing time.
This looks to be yet another good recruiting class, but let's not get carried away with the expectations for the forward group for three reasons:
1) Kyle Rau's debut was ridiculous last year, and judging them by his performance, not to mention the contributions from Ambroz, Boyd and Warning, would be setting the bar unrealistically high for this group.
2) They already lost the best of the bunch when Connor Reilly injured his knee and was lost for the season before it even started.
3) Because of the depth, experience and ability of the juniors and sophomores, there won't be as much pressure, or playing time, for the freshmen to make an impact.
That isn't to say there isn't talent here or guys who don't have the potential to make an impact. Connor's twin brother Ryan Reilly is no slouch, as the Holy Angels Academy grad was part of a BCJHL Penticton Vees team that set records for that league on its way to a championship, including a 42 game win streak to finish the season. The team had a distinct Minnesotan flavor, which included Ryan, Connor,
older younger brother and current true freshman defenseman Mike, and coach Don Lucia's son Mario. Ryan finished with 32 goals and 73 points in just 60 games played last year, and will get every opportunity to play on the fourth line.
Pushing Reilly for playing time on the fourth line is Minnesota high school hockey stars AJ Michaelson of Apple Valley and Christian Horn of Benilde-St Margaret's. Horn, who led the Red Knights to a state title in 2012 and set school career records for points (207) and assists (127), played the second half of the exhibition opener on the fourth line wtih Ryan and Tom Serratore, while Michaelson, who skated in the USHL last year and participated in the CCM USHL/NHL top prospects game, joined Serratore and Larson in the first half of the game.
Whether it's Isackson or Budish on the top line, those two are guaranteed top six forward spots to start the year, and Bjugstad and Rau are cemented on the first line with Haula centering the second with Warning on his wing to start. Boyd, Ambroz and Condon make for an excellent third line, and expect Serratore to be the only constant on the fourth line to start the season as Lucia will likely do some shuffling with the freshmen until he finds some combinations he likes.