The Minnesota Gophers hockey team has their sights set on another run to a Big Ten regular season championship and trip to the Frozen Four after falling 5-1 to Minnesota State in the Frozen Four Semifinal Game last April.
There’s a lot of hype around the Gophers as they not only came in at No.1 on the Big Ten Preseason Poll but came in at No. 2 behind Denver on USCHO’s Preseason Division I Poll. The Gophers’ major competition to look out for in the Big Ten is Michigan and Notre Dame.
The Gophers had four players named to the All-Big Ten Preseason First and Second Teams – Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe as well as Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley.
“We got to go back and build it again. It’s the journey to get there, we got heart, character and leadership that wants to get there,” head coach Bob Motzko told the media on Sept. 13.
The Gophers lost three of their top five scorers this summer from last season in Ben Meyers (COL), Blake McLaughlin (ANA) and Sammy Walker (MIN). Chaz Lucius (WPG) also departed.
While one could argue it makes the path to return more difficult, there’s a lot of potential in this young Gopher team, who added 11 freshmen (seven forwards, three defensemen and a goalie) to their roster this season because of all the departures.
“I see some familiar faces out on that rink, and we have a whole pile of new guys,” Motzko said. “And that brings excitement…we can skate, the guys are working their tails off, got great camaraderie right now, great spirit inside our group, and we’re excited to get going.”
Two of those freshmen to keep an eye on are Cooley (ARI) and Jimmy Snuggerud (STL) – two standouts with the USA Hockey National U18 team. The two were frequent linemates and scored 75 and 63 points, respectively, last season. Cooley was ranked the NHL’s No.5 prospect under the age of 23 by Scott Wheeler at The Athletic.
“It’s going to be exciting, obviously, there is a good balance of older and younger,” Minnesota Wild prospect Faber said in the Sept. 29 press conference.
Heading into the season, it’s clear that the major question facing the team is up front, although there’s plenty of players that could step up or even have breakout campaigns.
“We’re really strong on D, obviously, we sure had a great ending to our goaltending, our goaltending has been strong since I’ve been here,” Motzko said. “But it’s pretty obvious that we got to replace some great offense, and we got guys in there that will do it, I just don’t know if they can do it right away, but they’ll get there.”
That’s why it would help if freshmen like Cooley and Snuggerud can burst on the scene and make an immediate offensive impact to fill part of the void.
With that said, the Gophers have a solid group of returning players that will be depended on to lead the younger team this season.
“I love our returning players, they’re just champions to me,” Motzko said. “And then the new guys, when you have a large freshman class, it just brings this giddy little energy in the room…and the fact that we got to blend it together.”
Beyond the freshman, returning forwards, such as Knies, Bryce Brodzinski, Rhett Pitlick and Aaron Huglen are players that will need to step up, and they’ll have the opportunity.
Knies was tied for second at 33 points with McLaughlin last season, and Brodzinski was sixth with 26 points, so these two need to take charge offensively.
While the offense is suspect, the Gophers are sound defensively and Justen Close is exactly the presence they need between the pipes. Close went 14-5-3 last season with a 1.95 goals against average and .925 save percentage.
The bottom defensive pairing is yet to be seen, but the Gophers top four is solid with Faber, who was drafted by the Minnesota Wild this summer, LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Mike Koster. That defensive group also plays a major leadership role.
“We’re going to be much more solidified on the backend, that’s going to anchor us,” Motzko said in a Sept. 29 press conference. “The biggest growth is going to come from our forwards...it’s going to take awhile to get that plane off the ground, we need a longer runway there.”
One thing to monitor early is special teams because Motzko said they might ice three power play units all year long because of the versatility of the roster.
Another major thing is leadership, something Motzko said has set the tone and the vibes are “great.” Faber, LaCombe and Nelson are serving as captains this season.
“We’ve got enough older guys in there that are setting the pace, too, it starts with our D-core when you get those kind of guys returning back there,” Motzko said. There’s a little confidence and swagger, it will feed off of that.”
The Gophers will begin the season at home against Lindenwood, who is slated to play its first Division I hockey game before facing Minnesota State Oct. 7 and 8.
There’s no doubt that this first weekend will likely be a test in a lot of areas, especially with a younger roster.
“The early part of the season is like putting a puzzle together,” Motzko said.
It’s also probably why Faber said that fans might need to bear with them at the beginning.
As for the Gophers’ quest for another Final Four appearance, the message is clear: they’re ready.
“We’re ready to go, and we’re ready to get this thing started,” Faber said.