After a successful Mariucci Classic and another week off, the Minnesota Gophers (7-9-4 Overall, 2-4-4-3 B1G) start up the second half of the season in earnest on January 10th.
With the Gophers firmly entrenched in the middle of the pack, both in the conference and nationally, I’ve been thinking about the team itself and about how individual players have met / exceeded my expectations. I’ll be assigning letter grades to everyone that has played a bit, and I’ll be discussing the things that I think they deserve to be singled out for (for one reason or another). Disclaimer that these views are my own and are only informed by my own eyes as I’ve watched the team this year.
On to the grades:
Gopher 5×5 Offense – D+: The team struggles to score or to generate offense. I do understand that they’re young and raw, but they sure don’t seem to have many players that can bury the puck. I’ve been overall disappointed in the offensive output (in terms of goals, shots, and chances) this season.
A+: Sampo Ranta, A: Ben Meyers, A-: Scott Reedy
Ranta has bar none been the best and most improved Gopher. I’m glad to see some results on the scoresheet match up to his tremendous potential as a game-changing forward. Meyers has been the most impressive freshman, logging serious minutes at center and showing good puck hunger. Reedy’s scoring output has ticked up this year, but his fundamentals are the same as always: strong possession play in the offensive zone, with a big body in front of the net.
B+: Sammy Walker, Jaxon Nelson
Sammy Walker is gripping the stick pretty tightly – he’s not having the type of scoring success that he did in his freshman season. He’s still a difference-maker when he’s on the ice, and I’d still rate his play as very good. Nelson has been something of a revelation, a guy recruited very young who was a whale in the small SW MN pond and didn’t have much success in junior hockey. He’s exceeded all expectations and has shown solid hockey sense and a nascent ability to put the puck in the net that the team sorely lacks. I’m excited to see him develop – I think he could be a great Gopher player when all is said and done.
B: Blake McLaughlin, Jack Perbix, B-: Brannon McManus, Bryce Brodzinksi
McLaughlin is another guy who hasn’t quite lived up to very high expectations, but is nonetheless a key cog for this Gopher team and has the ability to be a game-changer down the line. I think Walker and McLaughlin lead this team to a deep run in the NCAA tournament in a couple years. Perbix has been a steady, consistent minutes-eater who is good on the PK and makes solid decisions. I like him with the aforementioned Jaxon Nelson. I wish McManus moved the needle more on offense – he’s got good hands and he’s got a good shot, but he doesn’t seem to have that ability to drift into the prime scoring areas like great goal scorers do. Brodzinski, Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey in 2019, looked like a true freshman at the beginning of the year, but has grown throughout the season and shows some of that innate goal-scoring knack that is rare. I expect him to continue improving.
C+: Jonny Sorensen, Garrett Wait; C: Nathan Burke, Cullen Munson, Joey Marooney
All of these guys have been at least average, and provide good effort. Sorensen hasn’t shown us much yet, but I think he can become a solid 3rd / 4th line guy. Wait has been more impressive than expected in his limited run. Burke hasn’t been given the opportunities he had last year (on the BMW line with McLaughlin and Walker), but again is another grinder-type that good teams need. Munson and Marooney don’t play much, but when they’re on the ice they provide good effort. It was nice to see Munson get his first Gopher goal earlier in the year.
Gopher Defense: B
Other than Ranta and Meyers, the D-Corps has been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year. Starting three freshmen from game one isn’t a recipe for success in college hockey, but the unit has stepped up and provided solid play in front of the net, and moved the puck adequately.
A’s: None. B+: Ryan Johnson, B: Matt Staudacher, B-: Jackson LaCombe
The three freshman defensemen have been the most impressive D-men on the team. I love Ryan Johnson’s steady play in the defensive zone, and he’s a good first-pass D that can skate with the best of them. Staudacher is as stay-at-home as you get, and he’s good at it. LaCombe is a bit more of a project, but the offensive talent is clearly there. He needs to develop a bit to turn into a difference maker on both ends of the ice.
C+: Robbie Stucker, Tyler Nanne; C: Ryan Zuhlsdorf, C-: Ben Brinkman, No Grade: Sam Rossini, Matt Denman
Stucker started the season as the 7th D / powerplay specialist, but has found himself playing more of a regular shift in recent games. I like his offensive instincts, and he hasn’t struck me as terrible on the defensive side. Nanne is a guy that I often blame for bad defensive lapses, but I think he’s been better this season than last year, and his offensive instincts are still good. I often think he’d serve this team better as a forward. Zuhlsdorf and Brinkman are this low because I expect more from them. Brinkman was a very highly touted prospect, and Zuhlsdorf is a steady senior, but neither have been great on either side of the puck.
Gopher Goaltending: B+
B+: Jack LaFontaine, Jared Moe
The goalies have been another pleasant surprise. Coming into the season with zero combined games between the pipes for the Gophers, both LaFontaine and Moe have been very good. LaFontaine seems to have won the job recently, but I expect both he and Moe to get in their share of games in the second half.
Gopher Powerplay: D
The powerplay has been awful. There’s no getting around it. They have a hard time entering the zone, they have a hard time finding the opportunities when they do get it set up, and they don’t have the guys to finish the chances once they get a nice one.
Gopher Penalty Kill: A-
The PK, led by guys like Perbix and Walker, has been steadily good. Coach Motzko has the team buying into a system, and that system is effective. It helps that LaFontaine and Moe have been as good as they’ve been between the pipes.
That’s my two cents on the team at the break. What do you agree with, and what do you think I’m totally wrong about?