The Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey team will officially kick of the 2019-20 season Friday night in Colorado against the Colorado College Tigers. But the behind the scenes work has been in full effect over the summer and since official practice time could begin. Year two of the Bob Motzko era is here, and there is no greater way to show that this is most definately his team now that the level of turnover in the roster from a year ago today. Minnesota brings in eleven freshmen and a transfer including three new goalies. It may take a bit of time for these players to come together and gel, but you can’t say that this team does not both return a lot of quality talent as well as will be introducing some very soon.
The Gophers are coming off of their second consecutive season of missing the NCAA Tournament. To get back to the NCAA Tournament this season will potentially take a bit of over achieving. Minnesota is the youngest team in the country and as we said will be debuting a full suite of new netminders. If the team can come together like the one that swept huge Big Ten road series at Ohio State and Penn State and went 7-2 down the stretch then things definitely will be looking up. However if they look like the team that struggled to score goals and were held to two or less eight separate times in the fall of 2018—well that will be much less exciting. Lets take a look at the position groups for the 2019-20 Gophers and what we can try to expect?
Goaltenders—Who are you again?
The Gophers will have a completely new group backstopping the defense this season. Graduated is Eric Schierhorn who was a two-time Big Ten Goalie of the Year and is tied for the second most shutouts in program history and third goalie Brock Kautz. Left for the pros is Mat Robson who played a majority of the time a year ago and signed with the Minnesota Wild after the season. Enter three new goalies, a pair of freshmen and a transfer who will be a junior and should see the majority of the time in net to start the year.
That transfer would be one time Michigan Wolverine goalie Jack LaFontaine. He played two seasons for the Wolverines in a three-goalie platoon before leaving Michigan and heading up to British Columbia to play a season for the Penticton Vees in the BCHL. Coincidentally, that is almost the same path that his fellow suburban Toronto native Robson took after leaving Clarkson. LaFontaine was quite good last season for the Vees getting the BCHL Goalie fo the year Award after winning 30 games and recording a .923 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.19. He will have two years of eligibility for the Gophers and most likely gets the initial start in goal Friday night against CC.
The next goalie most likely to see significant action would be New Prague native Jared Moe. The freshman has been a top-10 USHL goalie the past two seasons playing 63 career regular-season USHL games with 37 wins, 14 losses, a .914 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.49.
Finally Minnesota also added freshman Justin Close from Kindersley, Saskatchewan. He has been the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League Goalie of the Year the last two seasons and should provide good depth at the position.
Defensemen—Talent influx is evident
The Gophers bring in three new defensemen while losing a pair, and this is one spot where you can definitely say the increase in talent is evident. Gone is Jack Sadek to graduation and Clayton Phillips who transferred to Penn State after never really finding his footing with Minnesota. Minnesota brings in three freshmen highlighted by the first round selection of the Buffalo Sabres in Ryan Johnson. The son of former Gopher Craig Johnson, Ryan is an offensive puck handling defenseman. He helped Sioux Falls to the USHL crown last spring. Also coming is Jackson LaCombe. A second round pick of the Anahem Ducks, LaCombe excelled at Shattuck-St. Mary where he set a school record for points by a defenseman with 89 points (22 goals, 67 assists) in 2018-19. Those two players step in and may be the team’s best offensive defensemen immediately. Another freshman from Shattuck, Matt Staudacher will press for action on occasion.
The Gophers return five defensemen from a year ago who saw regular time. Nearly guaranteed to play every night will be sophomore Ben Brinkman who was the youngest player in college hockey last season and a pair of seniors in Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Tyler Nanne. Fighting for the probably last spot in the lineup will be junior Sam Rossini, and a pair of sophomores in Matt Denman and Robbie Stucker. Minnesota finsihed third in team defense in the Big Ten last season and this should be one of the stronger groups in the conference once again.
Forwards—You can’t tell the players without a program?
Besides the goaltender spot, where there is a 100% changeover, the forward position will be where you will need to look at a roster for the first few weeks of the season to figure out just who is out on the ice. Minnesota loses seven forwards from a year ago, six to graduation in Tyler Sheehy, Brent Gates Jr., Jack Ramsey, Darian Romanko, Tommy Novak, Ryan Norman, and the one that hurts the most, All-American Rem Pitlick who decided to go pro after his junior year. It will be a big change for Minnesota as that list above encompasses most of the Gophers first line, fourth line and four-fifths of the top power play unit.
So obviously the Gophers needed to bring in some new forwards. Six freshmen will come in for Minnesota with a majority stepping into hig pressure roles immediately. 2019 Mr. Hockey Bryce Brodiznski is one of them. The fourth Brodz brother to play college hockey, he followed Michael’s footsteps to even up the total with St. Cloud State at two brothers each. Two other players who had huge 2018-19 seasons in different leagues also will step in and try and become scoring threats right away. Ben Meyers had a great year for Fargo in the USHL where his 33 goals were the third most in the league. Jonny Sorenson was the NAHL rookie of the year playing for the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and led the team with 56 points (17 goals, 39 assists) in 60 games.
The three other freshmen will will come in and immediately compete for playing time include Anaheim Ducks fifth round pick Jack Perbix, long-time Minnesota commit Jaxon Nelson, and Noah Weber.
Minnesota does return some of the fire power from a year ago that saw the Gophers average 3.11 goals per game. Most notably is sophomore co-captain Sammy Walker. The Edina native was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and looks to take over the top of the Gophers first line this season. Joining him are two other sophomores who had good initial seasons for Minnesota in Blake McLaughlin and Sampo Ranta. Both had great summers—McLaughlin at Da Beauty League and Ranta playing for Team Finland’s team at the World Junior Summer Showcase.
Junior Brannon McMannus stepped up last season scoring 14 goals. he will look to build on those numbers this season. fellow junior Scott Reedy will try and have a break out year. Reedy has been solid, but not nearly the scorer Gophers fans thought we would be before his first two years as a Gopher. Hopefully he can find that scoring touch in year three.
Fighting for playing time will be sophomore Garret Wait, junior Cullen Monson, and senior Joey Marooney. Sophomore Nathan Burke should also fit into the lineup once he returns from an injury he suffered in the regular season finale last year.
What are the expectations on the Gopher team in 2019-20. if you believe the coaches poll—not high. Minnesota was predicted to finish fifth in the Big Ten this season by their fellow Big ten coaches.
Obviously if you ask anyone around the program they think that ranking is too low. But it will be a very competitive Big Ten once again this season. The obvious key to Minnesota’s season will be finding success in net. LaFontaine will get the first shot, but Motzko will give Moe a chance as well to win the main starting job. If the Gophers can get solid goaltending, this team should be better than expected. Minnesota returns a solid defensive corps and adds two playmaking offensively minded defensemen. Now, it definitely may take some time for it all to gel with twelve new players on the roster, but if the freshmen can get up to speed fast, look out. If not, hope for a solid season and watch the expectations skyrocket for 2020-2021.
Minnesota opens play this weekend with an old WCHA conference-mate in Colorado College. It’s the first time the two teams have played since the 2012-2013 season when this was still a conference matchup. The teams first began playing in 1947 and the Gophers hold a 162-86-8 all-time record against the Tigers, but are just over .500 at 60-53-6 in Colorado Springs.
Colorado College has improved in every one of coach Mike Haviland’s three seasons in the Springs and this year seems like no exception. CC last season relished at beating the big dogs in the NCHC defeating UMD, St. Cloud State, North Dakota, and sweeping Denver to end the regular season. Ryan Ruck, a grad transfer from Northeastern will most likely start in net for the Tigers. The Tigers excel on special teams having one of the best power play and penalty kill’s in the nation a season ago. Offensively the Tigers will be led by a trio of sophomores in Ben Copeland, Grant Cruikshank and Bryan Yoon. Yoon’s 26 points a s a freshmen were the most for a first year player for CC since NHLer Jaden Schwartz, But CC does lost talent. 43% of their scoring from last season has departed, so this weekend’s seris may be a battle of which new talent can get up to speed the quickest.
How to Watch:
Minnesota Golden Gophers @ Colorado College Tigers
Where: World Arena, Colorado Springs, Colorado
When: 8:30 Friday; 8:00 Saturday
TV: FSN+ Friday; None Saturday
Radio: 1130 AM, 103.5 FM, IHeart Radio App