The 2023-24 Minnesota Golden Gophers hockey season begins officially on Friday night at the same place where Minnesota hopes their season will end in April. The Gophers kick off the season with the “road” end of a home and home series against St. Thomas at the Xcel Energy Center Friday night. The X will be the host of the 2024 NCAA Frozen Four—where Minnesota hopes to return and win one more game than they did a season ago. Minnesota will need to figure out a way to make up for the missing scoring that left for the NHL in Mathew Knies and Logan Cooley, and the defensive presence that joined them in Brock Faber and Jackson LaCombe. But Minnesota does bring in a pair of highly touted freshmen who will do their best to step into the large voids left behind and try to bring the Gophers back to the X in April and to try and finish the job this time.
Well...a lot. As briefly discussed above Minnesota lost two of their three highest scorers and two of the three Hobey Hat Trick Finalists from a season ago as Mathew Knies is now playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Logan Cooley despite originally saying he would return for his sophomore season had a change of heart in July and will be scoring his goals for the Arizona Coyotes this fall. Cooley led the Gophers in goals with 22 and points with 60, and Knies was tied for second in goals with 21 and had 42 points. That’s 102 points and over 40 goals Minnesota will need to find somewhere else in the lineup. The good news is that other than 5th year senior Colin Schmidt who saw 4th line action in nine games last season the rest of the forward group returns.
The blue line is a different story. Minnesota loses three of their top four defenseman from a season ago as Jackson LaCombe is now in the Anaheim Ducks lineup, Brock Faber will be skating for the Minnesota Wild and Ryan Johnson will start the season in the AHL with the Buffalo Sabres organization. Also gone is Matt Staudacher who saw regular playing time for the Gophers for two seasons before redshirting last year and deciding to use his final two seasons elsewhere at Northeastern.
In goal, Minnesota’s backup goalie a season ago Owen Bartoszkiewicz who played in six games a season ago including four starts left the Gophers and returned back to Youngstown of the USHL where he had played the year before. The hope and plan is that Barto will return to the U next season and fight for the #1 goalie job with current freshman Nathan Airey after the graduation of Justen Close.
As said before other than Cooley and Knies the rest of the Gopher forward group is back to make another run at a national title. Other than that Mrs. Lincoln how was the play? But Minnesota does return a large set of very experienced forwards who have the talent to produce yet again. The group is headlined by the man wearing the captain’s C this season in Jaxon Nelson. The Madelia, MN native nearly doubles his career best with 27 points last season and will be called upon to try and bump those numbers up even more. Joining him is fellow 5th year senior Bryce Brodzinski. He set a career high with 19 goals last season playing on a line with Nelson and fellow returnee Aaron Huglin. He will be a much needed goal threat this season for Minnesota and if the Gophers want to return to the Frozen Four he will need to be near that number of 20 once again. Huglin set a career high with 17 points in his sophomore season and will be looked upon to try and raise that number again this season. He suffered a slight injury in preseason camp but will hopefully be back in the lineup to start the season on Friday.
Two more older returning players the Gophers need to get even more out of this year are senior Mason Nevers and junior Rhett Pitlick. Nevers set career highs in goals, assists and points last season playing mostly on the Gophers third line with Pitlick and another forward. He will be called upon to be an even bigger scoring threat this season, but it will have to wait. Nevers was injured on a cheap hit by a Bemidji State player in the Gophers exhibition game last weekend and will definitely not play this weekend and is week to week going forward. Pitlick increased his scoring from five goals and 18 points in his freshman season to 11 and 25 in his sophomore season and Minnesota would love to see even more as a junior. Pitlick is a true sniper and is one of the fastest Gophers on the ice. He scored a pair of goals in their exhibition won over the beavers last Sunday. He can suffer from occasional defensive lapses and if he can put it al together can be a true threat for Minnesota.
The Gophers do return one surefire star in their forward group and that is sophomore Jimmy Snuggerud. He tied for the Big Ten scoring lead with Cooley and was second on the Gophers in goals and points with 21 and 50 behind his linemate Cooley and just ahead of his other liney in Knies. Snuggerud will be the #1 offensive threat for the Gophers this season with a bullet and he will need to adapt to not playing with a pair of surefire NHLers, but definitely has the skill to make his own plays.
Minnesota has two other young sophomores who they really will look to take a big step forward in 2023-24. Brody Lamb and Connor Kurth both traded off time on the third and 4th lines for the Gophers a season ago and both did show glimpses of their offensive powers. Kurth scored seven goals and had 11 total points while Lamb put four pucks in the net and had eight total points. Both will be looked to have Pitlick-like rises from freshmen to sophomores and become legitimate scoring threats for Minnesota.
The Gophers also return a trio of sophomores who mainly saw 4th line action a season ago and will be fighting for similar playing time once again Garrett Pinoneimi, John Middlestadt and Charlie Strobel all played between 20 and 30 games a season ago for Minnesota and earned single digit points. Again, looking for a jump in production with a season of college hockey under their belts, Minnesota hopes the players who earn that fourth line time can make the most of their situation.
Minnesota returns five defensemen from a season ago despite their losses and will expect much from a senior leader and his young protégés. Mike Koster was the second highest scoring defenseman on the roster a season ago behind LaCombe and really took a huge leap forward in his junior season. He will be an automatic top pairing defender for the Gophers—-when he’s healthy. Koster suffered a knee injury in pre-season camp and is not expected to play this weekend, and his return is week to week. He will make a big difference on the blue line for the Gophers and they hope to have him back soon.
The trio of sophomores who all return saw significant time a season ago and will now be called to play much larger roles this season. Luke Mittelstadt scored 21 points in his freshman campaign for the Gophers and shoe off a rocket of a shot from the point. He will step into the big offensive hole left by LaCombe and try to play more of that role. Jumping into the Brock Faber type role is Ryan Chesley. A fellow 2nd round NHL draft pick, Chesley had some growing pains at times as a freshman a year ago but really came on strong later in the season. Cal Thomas jumps into the Ryan Johnson role as a sold defender who can provide offensive on occasion. Thomas put up just six points a season ago and Minnesota would love to see him hit double digits.
The Gophers return one more defenseman in a true bruising tough defensive type in Carl Fish. The 6’3 205 senior from St. Paul has played well in limited time the last few seasons and appears ready to skate a regular shift on the Minnesota blue line this season.
The most important returnee for Minnesota will return to the crease at Mariucci for one more season. Justen Close returns after a year where he started 36 games, had a goals against average of 2.02, a save percent age of 9,27, and recorded six shutouts for Minnesota. After not seeing action for two seasons, Close has been everything the Gophers could have asked for for the last season and a half. Close is rocketing up the Gophers career goaltending record book as his career 2.05 goals against average is the lowest in Gopher history for any player with more than 40 career starts. His current save percentage of .924 is tied with Mat Robson as the highest in program history. His nine shutouts rank him 7th in program history and just four back of Adam Wilcox and Kellen Briggs for the most in Minnesota history. As Close goes this season, so shall the Gophers.
Also returning in goal is sophomore 3rd goalie Zach Wiese. The Rochester native saw his first action for Minnesota playing nearly two periods in the Gophers exhibition win over Bemidji State. Wiese normally would not see much action, but he is Close’s backup to start the season with injuries to incoming goalie Nathan Airey. The last #3 walk-on goalie to need to come on in the middle of the season did ok I guess.
So Who the Heck is New?
Minnesota will have seven new faces on their roster with six freshmen and one transfer arriving in Dinkytown. Some will play much larger roles than others this season. The most anticipated freshman will be forward Oliver Moore. The Mounds View native was a First Round selection by the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL Draft this summer. Minnesota doesn’t fully expect him to have the same type of impact that Logan Cooley did his freshman year, but by pairing him on the same line as Jimmy Snuggerud, Gopher coach Bob Motzko is certainly hoping the two can play off of one another. Moore had a pair of goals in Minnesota’s exhibition win over Bemidji State last Sunday including an absolute snipe for the opening goal of the game.
Right behind Moore in anticipation is another Blackhawks first round selection. This time its defensman Sam Rinzel who went in the first round in 2022. Rinzel is a tall lanky defender who will be expected to both produce on the offensive end and help keep the puck out of the Minnesota net. The Chanhassen native tied for second in scoring by a defenseman in the USHL a year ago.
Edina’s Jimmy Clark was set to play this season with Green Bay of the USHL. Then Logan Cooley decided to go pro. So Clark will suit up for the maroon and gold this season instead. Clark can be an offensive producer, but will have a stark chance from Edina High School and the USHL to the Big Ten.
Minnesota had a pair of freshmen defensemen in Max Rud and Axel Begley. Rud is a St. Cloud native who spend the last two seasons in the USHL with Sioux Falls for his father Eric a former Colorado College star under Don Lucia. He led Sioux Falls in scoring by a defenseman both seasons he was there and will fight Begley for the 6th defenseman spot most of the season.
Begley comes from Hill Murray High School originally and played the past two seasons in the NAHL. He will fill a more traditional defensive role and will fight for playing time for the sixth normal defenseman slot.
The final freshman will be goaltender Nathan Airey. Bob Motzko went back to the Canadian goaltender well and find Airey who was awarded the Michael Garteig Trophy as the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL)’s top goaltender in 2022-23. Airey was set to be the main backup to Close this season and then share time/ fight for the #1 job with a returning Bartoszkiewicz next season. Unfortunately Airey was hurt in pre-season camp and will miss the beginning of the season. Hopefully he will return in time to see some playing time in Minnesota’s weak non-conference portion of the schedule in early January.
Minnesota’s lone transfer is 5th year senior Nick Michel. He comes in after four years with St. John’s (MN) where he was All-MIAC First Team and led the Johnnies with 15 goals and 11 assists for 26 points. Michel will primarily be an emergency body and should not see much playing time.
So...How Will They Do?
The national media is still very bullish on the Gophers. They head into this weekend ranked #2 in the USCHO.com Poll and #1 in the nation in the USA Hockey poll. The Gophers were predicted to win the Big Ten once again by the conference coaches. Minnesota still has plenty of horses on their roster to get back to the Frozen Four yet again, and has a goaltender than can lead them there as well. Minnesota starts the season Friday night in St. Paul, and they would love nothing more than to end the season in St. Paul with a win. It’s now up to them to achieve that goal.