Minneapolis, Minn. — Looking over a roster of 14 NHL draft picks, plenty of pundits think it is an easy job to put together a lineup for Minnesota. The reality is that it’s always a challenge to find the right chemistry and every fall the concern over early lineups are brushed aside by Bob Motzko with a grin and a cliche that the lines he sets at the start of the year have never been the lines he puts on the ice to finish the season. Well the 2022-23 season is just another example of Motzko proving that cliche correct.
Motzko constructed his forward lines at the start of the year by spreading out the new talent and experience on the roster. Sophomore Aaron Huglen centered sophomore Matthew Knies and senior Bryce Brodzinski on the top group, Senior Jaxon Nelson centered junior Mason Nevers and freshman Connor Kurth on the second group, freshman Garrett Pinoniemi centered freshman John Mittelstadt and freshman Brody Lamb on the third and freshman Logan Cooley centered sophomore Rhett Pitlick and freshman Jimmy Snuggerud on the fourth line.
Motzko traditionally starts the season by pairing up two players together and then interchanging the third player throughout the lineup when he feels like an adjustment is needed, but this year even some of those initial duos were nixed as the coach reviewed the results.
Freshman Jimmy Snuggerud and Logan Cooley arrived on campus with a bit of familiarity after playing on the same line with the USNTDP, but the two first round picks were put on separate lines through early practices while Motzko tried to find the right combinations for his roster. That experiment lasted only a couple weeks.
“Cooley played with Snuggy in the US program. They had great chemistry so I kept them apart for the first two weeks,” said Motzko. “And then when I slipped him back together it was like they just had a little giddy up with each other. They feed off each other. We’ll see how that goes in time.”
While that duo was reunited and started the season with Pitlick, eventually Knies was added to the line and looking back it was the kind of move that wins you the NCAA’s coach of the year award. The two freshmen ended up tied as the Big Ten’s regular season scoring champions and the line also ended up with two Hobey Hat Trick finalists in Knies and Cooley.
The trio of players possess the attributes anyone looks for when building a line. It’s got a dangerous shooter in Snuggerud who doesn’t need much space with his quick release and doesn’t need a perfect pass to produce a heavy shot. It’s got a talented playmaker in Cooley who can hold onto the puck longer than most and has strong edgework to combat any defensive structure. Adding grit to the line in Matthew Knies gives them a nearly NHL ready power forward that can play through checks, win wall battles and provide a presence around the paint. The other thing that Knies added to the group was some leadership and experience he learned last season as Ben Meyers’ wingman.
“When he’s got a little bully mode in him, he clears the path and is a real good hockey player to boot. I know his numbers aren’t as big as, when I read a couple of articles, as the other two candidates for the Hobey. But from our standpoint, we wouldn’t be in our position without either of them,” said Motzko. “So the importance to what they mean, what Matt has gone through over the last two years to our team, is far more measured than being 15 or 20 points behind someone else because he’s an awful good hockey player.”
The line was put together October 21 against North Dakota and only Cooley’s suspension vs Michigan on Nov. 18 has kept them apart since. They traditionally all stick together on Minnesota’s top player play unit and while Knies kills penalties, they trio often are the first group on the ice after the Gophers get back to full strength. The line is one of the most dangerous groups in college hockey that consistently drive play for the Gophers and were a big reason the team finished 19 points ahead of Michigan in the Big Ten Conference Standings.
The line has shown over the year that they can play almost any style the other team wants to play. When the game turns into a run and gun game of transition hockey, they are able to push the pace on the ice to generate chances and get back on top of pucks defensively to win them back. When the game becomes a grind with compact structure in the neutral zone, they’re able to get pucks behind the defense and patiently put their ground game into play. And when the game gets physical, they tend to respond to fire with fire.
“Their beauty is they want to start [a fire] and they do a lot of times,” said Motzko. “Their downfall sometimes is they want to start it all the time and are always trying when actually sometimes you’ve got to fold your cards, put ‘em in, and then come back for another shift. They’re getting better at that.”
The next line that Motzko has learned to lean on came together following a 6-4 Friday night loss to Ohio State on the road. The Gophers played kind of a loose game against the Buckeyes and gave away too many scoring chances for the coaches liking. His response was to get away from spreading out some of his returning players and put them together. The strategy worked the next night and while it took another couple of weeks for the coach to keep the line together for an entire week of practice, it became the next group Motzko would rely on for the rest of the year.
“We weren’t really together on a line before this week. I think Motzko wanted us to be kind of a leadership group and [Penn State] really played a crazy style, they just want to get the puck out of the zone,” said Brodzinski in November. “I think he relied on us a lot to kind of show the young guys how to defend against that and stay back and play unselfish hockey, putting the team first and getting back on defense. I think we did a great job of that and hopefully we stay together for a while.”
The line of Nevers-Nelson-Brodzinski gave Motzko a group that was extremely reliable defensively, while providing Brodzinski with the most consistent scoring chances of his Gopher career. Brodzinski has taken advantage of those opportunities scoring a career high 19 goals so far this season that ranks fourth on the team. The line has been especially productive down the stretch as Brodzinski was named the Fargo Regional’s Most Outstanding Player and the Blaine forward scoring 10 goals over his last 13 games.
This line has been counted on with difficult minutes throughout the season, especially if other teams try to get their top line away from a matchup against the top line of the Gophers. Nelson and Nevers are also given the responsibility of killing off the opening shift when Minnesota goes short handed.
“Just being older guys. We kind of understand the way we need to play and us being really close we can get on each other,” said Nelson. “If someone is not having a good game you can get on them and they’re not going to take a personal because, we know we have the best interest of each other. So I think that’s really important too. Even for the younger guys just to know that nothing’s ever personal, we just want to the best for you and we’re always looking out for you.”
The feeling is mutual from Brodzinski.
“He’s my best friend on the team for sure,” said Brodzinski. “It’s really nice to be able to play with him because if he does something wrong, or if I do something wrong, we sort of yell at each other and we’re not afraid of it. Because we’re brothers, we know we’re gonna go home and be just fine. So yeah, it’s nice being able to play that.”
Figuring out who should get ice time to fill out the rest of the lineup each night has been the challenge the coaching staff has had for most of the second half. Pitlick-Huglen-Kurth have played the most games together of any group, but those plans may have to be tossed out when Kurth picked up a lower body injury during the Fargo Regional. Motzko shared at the Frozen Four media availability that the freshman winger is 100 percent healthy headed into the match-up with Boston University, but it’s an unknown if he’ll be back in the lineup.
The line hasn’t been as consistent scoring as the top six, but they’ve chipped in points in some key moments. Huglen provides the trio with a reliable player defensively below the dots and someone who can hold the puck in the offensive zone, drawing defenders and creating scoring chances for the quick Pitlick and heavier Kurth. The line has also shown an ability to spring Pitlick on stretch passes during the second half that has led to some highlight goals like the one against Michigan in the Big Ten Championship game.
The fourth line has seen a mix of players throughout the year Mittlestadt, Pinoniemi, Lamb, Charlie Strobel and Colin Schmidt have all gotten chances to be in the lineup with Lamb being the one most likely to move up in the lineup during games. The one thing to note with this group is that Motzko has shown a willingness to shorten up the bench the last few weeks of the season more often than in the past which might have something to do with his confidence in his top players more than anything.
“Huglen, Pitlick, Lamb, Kurth, Pino… it’s finding the right chemistry,” said Motzko in February. “Quietly it’s coming,, I think that is something that could make us even more dangerous. Pit got going right before Christmas, he’s gonna get going again. Hugey has been really good since Christmas.”
“It’s finding the right mix, Connor Kurth got a big goal for us last week playing on that line. We’re just going to continue to shake that tree a little bit and see how it comes together… I told them today, guys I’m just calling balls and strikes… I’m not picking favorites.”