The race for the men’s hockey Big Ten title was hardly fair last season. The Gophers finished the season 19 points clear of the Wolverines and clinched the title in mid-February with four games left to play. It was the program’s sixth conference title in the league’s 10-year history and Minnesota is the favorite to make it seven according to the preseason coaches poll despite losing key players like Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson, Matthew Knies and Logan Cooley to professional hockey.
GopherPuckLive is going to give you six thoughts to think about a couple times throughout the season as they chase an elusive sixth NCAA Championship. Coach Bob Motzko doesn’t expect that his team will win the league by 19 points again this year, but he’s not shying away from the high expectations either.
“We’re going to be more process driven, but they know [our goal is to get to April], they’ve been to three straight tournaments, two Frozen Fours,” said Motzko. “It’s there — we’ve got to get back in the tournament and that’s the fight… we have a group of guys that have been there and know what it’s all about.”
Fifth Year Seniors
Minnesota was lucky enough to have a trio of defensemen turn down chances to leave the program early last season and they became the backbone of a team that made it to the final game of the season. This season the Gophers welcome back a trio of fifth year players that took advantage of the NCAA Covid rules to come back for another season hoping to take things a step further.
While Minnesota traditionally has one of the youngest teams in college hockey, this year goaltender Justen Close is one of the oldest at 25 years and having him back along with Jaxon Nelson (23) and Bryce Brodzinski (23) provide the Gophers with lots of experience.
“It was kind of like Christmas time when we started talking about it. I was hanging out with Nellie and Nevers, and I think Motzko was kind of in Nevers’ ear to get in mine and Nelson’s ear about coming back. He first started talking to us and at first we were kind of skeptical because it was so far away we didn’t really know and just the more we started thinking about it, the better it sounded,” said Brodzinski. “It wasn’t really an official decision until after last season, we lost that game and we still kind of have a little bit left in college hockey and so that was kind of our biggest thing.”
“Coming back for a fifth year, I wasn’t just going to come back just to play one more year. It was coming back to prove myself a little bit and hopefully have the best year that I’ve had”
Motzko may have put the thought in his players’ heads during the middle of last year, but the coach thinks that the bigger influence has been guys seeing players like Faber, Knies, LaCombe and Johnson decide to come back was probably bigger.
“When you’ve got players that have given their heart to the program… that rubs off. It was one of the first things we said, the guys that you’re replacing, did they care about this program?And every returning guy understands it right to the core of their heart and it’s their turn. I think that’s how they’re taking it. It’s their turn to lead this program and we’re in great hands,” said Motzko.
Recruits Finding their Role
The class this year for the Gophers was ranked eighth best by College Hockey News, but don’t downplay it to their coach.
“Recruiting is the lifeblood of college sports and thank goodness we’ve got a lot of good ones here,” said Motzko.
Two first round picks are the highlights of the class with Sam Rinzel stepping into a big role on the blue line and Oliver Moore stepping right into the lineup as a center. Both players are expected to get a big opportunity on the power play and have met the expectations leading up to the first game.
“I’ve watched it work that when you play kids with talent like that, whatever they’re doing is October, it’s a whole lot different in November and it’s a whole lot different in December. It’s kind of easy to say when you deal with first rounders. We’re gonna let them play,” said Motzko.
“We told them we’re gonna have a little rope on you to start, but eventually we’re just gonna keep giving you more rope and there’s a day we’re gonna cut the rope loose. And [Rinzel] is just so receptive to anything we talk about. And Oliver Moore, I don’t know if I’ve talked to him yet — all he does is work. He just skates and works and then he gets two goals in his first exhibition to gain confidence and we’ll keep monitoring that.”
One recruit who might be a surprised to fans could be Jimmy Clark who played last season in Green Bay and was likely set to spend another year in the USHL until Cooley decided to turn pro.
“He keeps quietly in front of our eyes growing and getting better and better. I went and watched him this summer because if we lost Logan, we had to bring somebody in and I went out to watch him. He’s got good smarts and he’s got really good hockey sense and he’s got some size and little girth to him,” said Motzko.
“He absolutely loved his experience in Green Bay, you can’t say enough about the coaches down there. He loved everything about his development process and that sometimes doesn’t happen and that was kudos to to the coaching staff down in Green Bay. We’re four weeks in now and one exhibition game, he’s gonna be right at home here. He’s gonna play a hell of a good role with us this year.”
Power Play Recharge
The loss of so many players straight to the NHL means the loss of a lot of skill on the power play for the Gophers. Motzko is working a lot of players on the special teams right now, but indicates it’ll be up to the players to sort out who stays on those units. During the exhibition against Bemidji State, Minnesota had four opportunities and came away scoreless with the advantage.
“A lot of times skill is not one of our issues. Our issue is going to be how hard we play, like puck battles, winning puck battles along the wall. There were two great clips we talked about after the second period where Connor Kurth got out on the powerplay and won a wall battle and Pino won a wall battle and those are things that we can show now moving forward. Those keep plays alive,” said Motzko.
“You hate being one and done, where you go into the zone and you fly by you’re one and done, you gotta back check. You have to keep pucks alive and stay on top of it. These kids do all the summer hockey, summer training, skill development and it’s all great, but that’s not hockey. It’s great inside how hard you got to compete. Every team right now, you’re chunking off the cobwebs to how hard you got to play.”
Almost every player brings up Faber when asked about leadership this season. Mason Nevers and Brodzinski called him one of the best captains he’s ever been around, Carl Fish noted how heavily they relied on him to anchor the blue line and Connor Kurth credited last year’s captain with making everyone feel welcome.
“We had some great leaders last year that made the freshmen feel welcome,” said Kurth. “So we’re trying to implement that, trying to learn from them and make sure the freshmen feel good and not like freshmen. They’re just another one of the boys on the team.”
This year’s team only has six newcomers compared to last season’s 11, but getting them up to speed will be crucial.
The Gophers are battling a few injuries to start the season. Goalie Nathan Aiery came into fall camp with an injury that required rest and has been unavailable for practice so far this season. Defenseman Mike Koster picked up a lower body injury during practice and will miss the first few weeks of the season. Nevers took a big hit in the exhibition series against Bemidji State and will be out for a few weeks. Forward Aaron Huglen missed the exhibition with an injury, but is expected back for the season opener.
Motzko noted that the Koster injury was a big blow for the senior defenseman, but also a big blow to the team. Koster’s vision and offensive hockey sense was expected to be a big part of the team this year. The absence means that freshman Max Rud and Axel Begley will perhaps get a little more ice time to start the year.
“They are making progress, it’ll be a steady climb for those two, but they gotta continue to make progress,” said Motzko.
Jimmy Snuggerud played on one of the most lethal lines in college hockey last season and took advantage scoring 21 goals and 29 assists to finish fifth in the nation in scoring. The challenge to repeat those kinds of numbers will be a challenge without linemates Knies and Cooley, but the sophomore will start the season with Moore and Brody Lamb looking to make a big impact.
Snuggerud shared that he does think about how last season ended with the loss in the championship game to Quinnipiac, but is looking forward to the second chance.
“I think that’s one of the biggest motivation factors every single time I step on the ice. We lost that game, we have a dream in mind and we need to complete that goal. From the first game to our last this year, for most of our returning guys it is a motivating factor, and for the new guys, they need to embrace that,” said Snuggerud.
“My dad always tells me it’s still in the back of his head [as he Dave Snuggerud lost his last college hockey game to Harvard in the 1989 championship game], which is kind of kinda confusing, but it sticks with you forever… He tells me every day that he didn’t get a second chance at it like I do now. I’m going to embrace every single second of this and try to win that thing.”