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Minnesota Hockey: Season Preview Part 2: The Players

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Who is back and who is new on the ice for Minnesota

Mike Miller—Big Ten Hockey

As the 101st season of Minnesota Gophers hockey opens this weekend, we take a deeper look at who is gone, who still remains and who is new to a team than enters the season with some of the highest expectations a Gopher hockey team has had in nearly a decade. A year after losing to Minnesota State in the regional final, this team has legitimate Frozen Four expectations. Pair a stud goalie with one of the most experienced and talented blue lines in all of college hockey and a freshman forward class that should easily be able to hold their own with the veterans who still remain and the sky is the limit for this Gopher team. So here is a look at the 2021-22 Gopher roster and how they look to impact the team this season.

First....who is gone?

The answer is many, but really only a few with direct impacts. The biggest loss will be forward Sampo Ranta. Ranta led the Gophers with 31 points in 31 games and was electric in the open ice with the puck. He signed with the Colorado Avalanche organization after the season and will have a chance to see some NHL time this year, but will most likely spend most of his time with the Av’s AHL team in Loveland. The next biggest loss was senior Scott Reedy. The Gophers fifth leading scorer also averaged a point a game and was a playmaker especially on the power play. He signed with the San Jose Sharks in the offseason and should see plenty of AHL time this season.

As for those who Minnesota will miss thir contributions, but should be able to have new players fill their shoes fairly easily are a pair of transfers. Brannon McManus decided not to play his 5th season with the Gophers and instead transferred to Omaha where he will play for the Mavericks. His 25 points from a season ago will be missed, but with the firepower coming from Minnesota’s freshman class, it hopefully can be recovered. Another Gopher transfer whose loss should be able to be dealt with is backup goalie Jared Moe. The junior was stuck behind Jack LaFontaine a year ago and decided to leave to find more playing time...and hopped just across the boarder to become the new backup goalie for Wisconsin. That matchup could be fun later in the year.

Also graduating/transfering in the offseason were a trio of lightly used players in Nathan Burke, Robbie Stucker and Cullen Monson. All played their roles for Minnesota, but all can be replaced on this year’s roster without much pain.

So Who is New?

Minnesota brings in one of the most highly anticipated freshman classes in the nation this season, and gained a transfer who should make an immediate impact. The freshman class is led by First Round NHL draft pick Chaz Lucius. Lucius is a natural goal scorer who’s talent around the net has been compared to last year’s Hobey Baker Award Winner in Cole Caufield. He missed chunks of last season with a leg injury but when he returned to 100% he was electric for the US U-18 team. Bob Motzko already said that at least to start the year he won’t play Lucius at center letting him adapt to the college game on a wing, but the expectations are high for an impact season.

Joining Lucius as an impact forward with be Mathew Knies. The second round pick of Toronto had a great season last year with Fargo in the USHL and from all accounts has looked great in preseason practices for Minnesota. He should immediately make an impact on a roster that looks like it could have four loaded lines.

But it does not stop there. Tristan Broz was a second round pick of Pittsburgh in this summer’s NHL draft and is another highly talented freshman forward who is expected to see significant playing time this season. Two other forwards, Aaron Huglin from Roseau and Rhett Pitlick from Plymouth also will fight for playing time. Both had great USHL careers and Huglin is coming back from a significant back injury that cost him nearly two seasons on the ice. He had a major comeback season last year for Fargo in the USHL and could be a sneaky significant player this season on a fourth line for Minnesota. Pitlick is currently injured its unknown when he will return to the ice, but when healthy he also has natural goal scoring talent. This freshman forward class is loaded.

They also bring in a freshman goalie who will learn for a year behind Jack LaFontaine before hopefully taking over the #2 spot next year. Brendan Boynton helped get Fargo of the USHL to the Clark Cup Finals last season and was one of the best goalies in the USHL in 2020-21. The Champlain native has improved each year in junior hockey and will hopefully step right into the Gopher backup spot.

But the Gophers also get a boost from one of the best available transfers in the portal this past summer. Minnesota added former Colorado College forward Grant Cruikshank to their roster this season. The Tigers leading scorer should give another scoring threat to the Gophers and his speed is something that can stymie opposing defenses. He also comes from incredible blood lines as his mother is US Olympic Speed Skating legend Bonnie Blair. This group added to the talented returners for Minnesota really could do some significant damage.

Ok? So Who is Still Here?

Minnesota may have lost some talent in the off-season, but they bring plenty back to be a national title contender. Starting at forward Minnesota brings back it’s now three time captain in Sammy Walker. The Edina native was second on the team in scoring last year with 29 points despite a slow start to the year. His speed is one of his biggest assets and in transition he is very dangerous. His linemate Blake McLaughlin also returns. The third leading scorer for the Gophers last year McLaughlin took a step forward recording 28 points. Both a sniper on the power play and able to score in transition, he and Walker form two thirds of a dangerous dangerous line. The third major offensive returner at forward for the Gophers is Ben Meyers. As a sophomore he took another step forward recording 28 points and has become a playmaker for Minnesota.

Below these three are the next group of players who are equally important to the Gophers offensive attack and will most likely be penciled in every night. Jaxon Nelson has really improved every single year in the program. He went from six points his freshman year to 15 last season and could take another step forward this year centering what is sure to be two highly talented wings. Bryce Brodzinski is a player who has raw scoring talent, but just is not yet consistent enough at deploying it. When he does, he is a star, but at times he can struggle. If Minnesota can get mostly good Bryce, then watch out.

Minnesota has four other forwards who will be fighting for a roster spot every night. They include juniors Johnny Sorenson, Jack Perbix, and Union transfer Colin Schmid along with sophomore Mason Nevers.

The blue line is once again where Minnesota will shine. The Gophers boast four potential all-Big Ten caliber players who can help Minnesota win in multiple ways every single game. Jackson LaCombe is the player who has recieved the most national attention for the Gophers. The junior was All-Big Ten last year and a second team All-American after leading Big ten defensemen with 21 points on the season. The Anaheim Ducks draft pick is very solid on the defensive end as well making him one of the best all around defensemen in the nation. Fellow junior Ryan Johnson has been great for Minnesota as well. The first round pick of the Buffalo Sabres in 2019, Johnson set a new career high in points last year with 14 and was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. He was second on the team with 36 blocked shots and is a great pair to LaCombe.

The Gophers also got great play from a pair of sophomores last season. Brock Faber came in and lit up the Big Ten in his first season earning All-Big Ten Honorable mention honors and was a finalist for both Big Ten Freshman and Big Ten Defenseman of the Year. He had 12 points on offense and led Minnesota with 39 blocked shots on the season. Mike Koster also had a great year in his first with the Gophers. The Chaska native scored 12 points and was named to the Big Ten Tournament Team. He grew into his role as the season went on and completed a very strong and stable top two pair for Minnesota.

Joining the top four are a pair who saw regular playing time in Matt Staudacher and ben Brinkman, and a pair who in sparing playing time looked good in Carl Fish and Matt Denman. All four will be called upon this season with Staudacher and Brinkman getting a majority of time as the third unit most likely.

Who is left? Ahh yes the most critical cog in the Gophers title hopes this season. Reigning Mike Richer Award winner and Big Ten Goalie of the Year Jack LaFontaine decided to return to Minnesota for his fifth season in net and automatically take Minnesota from a good team to a great one.

What didn’t Laffer do last year for this team. He racked up award after award being named the recipient of the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in college hockey, the University of Minnesota’s male recipient of the Big Ten Medal of Honor , he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, he was a First Team All-American, the 2021 Big Ten Goaltender of the Year and a First Team All-Big Ten selection and the Most Outstanding Player of the 2021 Big Ten Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament. LaFontaine led the nation with 22 wins and set new school records with a .924 save percentage and a 1.79 GAA. His save percentage was tied for the best save percentage in the NCAA and he posted the third-best GAA in the NCAA among regular goaltenders. The best part—-there is no reason to think he might not be even better this season. As Jack goes, so will the Gophers.

As said above Brennan Boynton steps into the backup goalie spot opened up with Jared Moe transferring to the Badgers. Boyton will see limited playing time this season especially against weaker non-conference opponents, but his main job will be to watch and learn to take over the #1 goalie job next season. Justen Close returns as the Gophers #3 goalie but is not expected to see any significant time.

So? How are they Going to Do?

This team is loaded. They lose two great offensive threats, but this freshman class brings in more than enough firepower to recover from the loss of Ranta and Reedy. As we have said time and time again, this team will go as Jack LaFontaine goes. If he can play as well as last season, the Frozen Four has to be the expectation. Michigan and Wisconsin will still be threats in the Big Ten with their offenses, but with the strong Minnesota blue line and goalie, and the ability to score with those teams, there is no reason the Gophers shouldn’t win the Big Ten as the coaches predicted. It will all come down to getting up for the big games, not sleepwalking through the first few periods as this team has been known to do and doing what they should have the talent to do and get back to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014.