After another season where the Minnesota Golden Gophers missed the NCAA Tournament when the Frozen Four was held in its own backyard, Mark Coyle decided it was time to make a change. Don Lucia is out, and Bob Motzko is in. The Motzko Era officially begins Saturday night when Minnesota takes on the team that edged it out by 0.001 points in the Pairwise to qualify for the NCAA Tournament last spring. Of course as we all know now, that team was the UMD Bulldogs and they would run the table and win their second NCAA title, both coming at the Xcel Energy Center. Saturday night the new Gopher coach gets to bring his mostly returning team up to Amsoil Arena and watch that other team drop their NCAA Champion Banner. Welcome to the U Bob!
Motzko is the biggest change to the Gopher program from last year to this year along with his new staff. Garret Raboin was his assistant at St. Cloud State for six seasons before coming with Motzko to the U. Gopher alum Ben Gordon was named at Motzko’s second assistant last week. Additionally the Gophers will have two former Gophers as volunteer undergraduate assistants this season. Stu Bickel and Ryan Potulny are back at the U finishing up their degrees after NHL careers and will aid the Gophers on the ice.
Motzko does have a tough task in trying to get his team up to speed in his program with limited practice time before the season begins Saturday. It will be a work in progress the first few weeks of the season though.
“We’re behind a tad, but the biggest reason is the first two weeks it was two camps, and they were staring at us and we were staring at them,” “It was an awkward feeling-out.”—Bob Motzko
While the team is now a big more comfortable on the ice with him, Motzko did say that they are still behind where he would want them to be going into the first game of the season—much less at the defending NCAA Champion. But, Minnesota fans should not panic if the month of October goes sideways. Minnesota has a very unusual October this fall. After a home and home series with UMD this weekend, the Gophers then will have two solid weeks of practice with two exhibition games on the weekends, one at the US Under 18 team in Michigan, and the other at home against a Canadian Univerity—Trinity Western. Then Minnesota plays its lone other actual game of the month the following weekend, but it will be anything but normal. Minnesota will play rival North Dakota, but in the US Hall of Fame Game in...Las Vegas? Yep, Vegas.
One area where the Gophers should be fairly consistent and settled in should be in net. Mat Robson returns for his junior season for Minnesota and picked up some early honors as he was one of 20 goalies named to the watch list for the Mike Richter Award on Thursday. Robson became eligible at the mid-point of last season and would go 7-5-1 in fourteen game sin net for the Gophers. He would have a .933 save percentage and goals against average of 2.11. While he split series early with Eric Schierhorn, Robson took control and ended up being the #1 guy in net until the end of the season. Whether he will get that same honor this season is yet to be known.
Schierhorn returns for his senior season as well. He struggled a bit last season going 12-12-1 with a save percentage of just .901 and a goals against average of 2.69. It was a significant slideback from his sophomore season when he was the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year when he was 23-12-3. Motzko will have choices to begin the season.
Minnesota will be missing two major pieces from their team a year ago. Casey Mittelstadt left the Gophers after a freshman season where he recorded 30 points and scored eleven goals. The 2017 8th overall selection in the NHL Draft is now a Buffalo Sabre and will be playing every day in the NHL. The other major Gopher missing from last year will be defenseman Ryan Lindgren. He left after his sophomore season to join the New York Rangers organization hoping to earn a regular NHL roster spot this season. Unfortunately for him Lindgren will begin the season in the AHL, not the NHL.
The Gophers do have several returners who will look to make major impacts on the ice this season. Other than Mittelstadt the Gophers return four of their top five scorers from a season ago. Senior Captain Tyler Sheehy returns to the ice at full strength and health after struggling through a good portion of last season with a back injury. Gopher fans hope he can return to his sophomore self when we had one of ten Hobey Baker Award finalists and the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Rem Pitlick will look to have a breakout junior year. He led the Gophers with 31 points and 12 goals in 2017-18. Seniors Brent Gates, Jr and Tommy Novak also will look to continue to find the net at increasing rates. Both players had career highs in goals and points as juniors and Minnesota fans would love to see that trend continue upward.
The Gophers would love to see some of their younger players make the jump forward this season as well. Sophomore Scott Reedy was hampered by some injuries a year ago but still scored seven goals and had eight assists. Brannon McMannus recorded nine points on the season—three of which game in a hat trick against Penn State.
Minnesota will also look to a group of talented freshman forwards to hopefully make the type of impact Mittelstadt did. The three who have the highest potential to flash early are Sammy Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Sampo Ranta.
Walker was the 2017-18 Mr. Hockey in Minnesota for Edina High School. His speed is impressive and he has a goal scorers knack for finding the back of the net. McLaughlin is from Grand Rapids and is the stepson of former Gopher Grant Bischoff and step brother of former Gopher Jake Bischoff. Unfortunately for Blake he suffered an ankle injury early in practice and will miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season. Ranta will be an interesting player to watch. The Gophers first Finnish recruit since Eric Haula was originally committed to Wisconsin but could not gain admittance. Thus Bob Motzko and the Gophers swooped in and took advantage to get the NHL third round pick to the U. Edina’s Garret Wait also could push for early playing time, especially with McLaughlin’s injury.
The Gophers will need some young players on defense to step up. Minnesota has just three upperclassmen on the blue line in senior Jack Sadek and juniors Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Tyler Nanne. Nanne is the Gophers returning leading scorer on the blue line with just ten points—so plenty of room to grow.
The Gophers will be looking for a pair of sophomores to grow up fast. Clayton Phillips came in at mid-season and struggled at times. The hope is a strong off-season will let him take the next step forward. Sam Rossini looked good at times and struggled to gain playing time at times. Both should see regular ice time this fall, but they will be pushed by a trio of talented freshmen.
Ben Brinkman, Robbie Stucker and Matt Denman all come to the U from prolific Minnesota programs. Brinkman accelerated his studies at Edina to enroll at the U early. He will be the youngest player on the Gophers roster, but is expected to make a major impact as an offensive defenseman. Stucker played for St. Thomas Academy and Denman played in high school for Prior Lake, but has played junior hockey the past three seasons. Brinkman is the player who is the most likely to make a major impact for the U, but don’t overlook Stucker either.
Minnesota has the talent to get back to the NCAA Tournament, but it will not be easy. The Gophers will have a gauntlet to get through in the Big Ten this season. Minnesota was predicted to finish fourth in the conference by the coaches a few weeks ago, but thats no slam on the Gophers. The three teams predicted to finish ahead of them are all currently ranked #2 through #4 in the country to begin the year and all made the Frozen Four a season ago. Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame all return key players from their seasons a year and will pose definate challenges to the Gophers. Add in a Penn State team that took four straight games from the Gophers last March to effectively end their season, a Wisconsin team that has not quite lived up to its potential so far under Tony Granato, and a Michigan State team that while predicted to finish last in the conference can still steal a game from you if you are not playing your best and the Big Ten will be the toughest conference in college hockey from top to bottom.
The Gophers will also have a non-conference schedule that will test them. From home and home series with Minnesota rivals UMD and Minnesota State to the single game against North Dakota in Las Vegas, and a pair of home series against St. Lawrence in November and a post-Christmas series against a top WCHA team in Ferris State and the Gophers will have no gimmies.
The key to the Gopher season will be how fast they can adapt to Bob Motzko’s system and if they have the personnel to execute it as he would want. The first year under a new coach is always a tough transition, but as Michigan showed last year in Mel Pearson’s first year behind the boards, good things can happen. We get our first look at just how this might all shake out this weekend.
HOW TO WATCH:
#13 Minnesota Golden Gophers vs #1 UMD Bulldogs
Where: Amsoil Arena, Duluth Minnesota/ Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, MN
When: Saturday/Sunday 7:00PM
TV: FOX9+ Saturday/ FSN Sunday
Stream: NCHC.TV ($) Saturday, Fox Sports Go (Sunday)
Radio: 1130 AM/ I Heart Radio App