Season Preview: New Season, New Slate! Gopher Hockey Open Up Season Friday!
The last two seasons for Gopher hockey have been disappointing. This team represents the state of hockey in the division I college hockey ranks, and they cannot even break the field of 16 to make the NCAA Tournament.
With the hiring of Bob Motzko before last season, the Gophers hope to bounce back in the coming years. But it seems the team has been trailing downwards since the 2013-14 season when they lost in the national championship game to Union.
Since then, they have only made the tournament twice, and they were booted out of the first round in both appearances. Hopefully a new sense of optimism for the future of the program can be seen starting this season.
The Gophers did end the year strong last season after sweeping Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals to find themselves in the conference tourney semi-finals against Notre Dame. But they lost a heart breaker in overtime 2-1, ending all hopes of making the NCAA Hockey Tournament.
As disappointing the last two year's have been, it is a new season. A new slate is better way to describe it. And I know it is hard to create hype around a hockey team in the Big Ten, which is full of sub-par hockey teams with no real excitement except for maybe Notre Dame. Believe me, just like everybody else, I still wish the Gophers were in the WCHA with the old-school rivalries, but as a hockey fan, you have to take what you can get.
There are still things to be excited for. For starters, this will mark the 99th season of Gopher Hockey. We have so much history and tradition here, it is unreal. That is why I think it is so frustrating to see this team struggle and finish around .500 on any given season.
The big question on any season preview is: how will they finish this year? That is a loaded question as easy as it sounds. The real answer is, I really have no idea! In the 2019-20 Big Ten Hockey Preseason Coaches' Poll, the Gophers are predicted to finish fifth out of seven teams. Not a very friendly prediction, but it is only that, a prediction.
Off a hunch, I will say this years' Gopher hockey squad will finish better than that. With a young squad last year, they still finished the season strong after a slow start to the year, and almost made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game with a young team. And now this year they have plentiful of young talent as well as experienced upperclassmen to help aid the youth.
If you look at the stats from last season, on paper, the Gophers were not all that bad. They were second in the conference with 3.11 goals per game, and their defense allowed only 2.84 goals per game, third best in the conference. I know the Big Ten is not very strong, but those are still positive stats to build from going into this season.
Two players to watch heading into this season are senior defenseman Tyler Nanne and sophomore forward Sammy Walker, who were both voted to serve as team captians this year. Walker was named as a Preseason Second Team All-Big Ten selection by the conference coaches. He was also named the 2019 Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season after finishing with 26 points (10 goals, 16 assists).
Nanne brings seasoned experienced. He appeared in all 38 games last year and recorded new career highs in points with 13 as well as goals (five), assists (eight) and blocks (70). That block total led the team and was eighth in the Big Ten. The Gophers are 16-4-0 when he records a point, so they need to give this guy all the opportunities he can get in his senior season.
One element the Gophers will have this season is strong youthful talent. Nineteen of the team's 27 players are underclassmen, either freshmen or sophomores. In addition, the Gophers will have 12 newcomers, 11 being freshmen and junior transfer goaltender Jack LaFontaine. With the departure of Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson, LaFontaine will more than likely be the guy between the nets to start the season. The only other goalies are Justen Close and Jared Moe, both true freshmen.
On top of the youth, thirteen players on the current roster have been drafted by NHL teams. This includes freshman defenseman Ryan Johnson, who was drafted 31st overall in the 2019 NHL draft by Buffalo. Freshman forward Bryce Brodzinkski, the 2018-19 All-USA Boys Athlete of the Year and the 2019 Mr. Hockey Award winner, was also drafted. He was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia. Both players will make great additions to the roster this season.
Minnesota's top three scorers last year, Rem Pitlick (45 points), Tyler Sheehy (41 points) and Brent Gates Jr. (31 points), are all gone. That means younger and more experienced players will need to step up to fill those roles. This includes junior Forward Brannon McManus who was T-4th on the team in points last year (26) and was second on the team in goals (14). He is a experienced player that can be a strong mentor to the younger players alongside Nanne.
Even though I think Minnesota will fall just short of winning the Big Ten regular season title this year, they have a history of winning the Big Ten. They come into the season having won four regular season conference championships in the Big Ten's six-year history. I think they have enough talent to win it, but I think Notre Dame or Ohio State may have more depth and experience. Therefore, if I had to make a prediction, the Gophers will finish a close second in the Big Ten, but that would be much improved from last season after finishing third in the final standings.
With head coach Bob Motzko heading into his second season, he now had his first full offseason to recruit and develop his roster. The Gophers should make bigger strides this year, which I think will include a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years. Natty Champs maybe? I would not go that far, but if they make the tournament, anything is possible!
The Gophers unofficially open up the season with an exhibition against Mount Royal on Sunday, October 6th. They will have their season opener at Colorado College this Friday, October 11th.
PRIDE ON ICE!