Minneapolis, Minn. — While watching Minnesota sprint out of college hockey’s starting gates to four straight wins over Penn State and Ohio State, it was obvious that the Gophers defensive corps were playing at a high level. Coach Bob Motzko’s roster touts Buffalo first round pick sophomore Ryan Johnson, Anaheim second round pick sophomore Jackson LaCombe, Los Angeles second round pick Brock Faber and Toronto fifth round pick Mike Koster, but it was undrafted sophomore Matt Staudacher who got three points during the first weekend to lead the team’s defensemen in scoring.
“We have a really talented group of young defenseman, we saw that they can skate,” Motzko said on his season opening radio show. “Johnson and LaCombe are at another level, Faber and Koster have just been outstanding right from the get go and Staudacher has picked it up. You know, of all of our offensive defenseman, Staudacher is leading our D corps in points after four games. I think there’s a great story in there that the guy you’re not counting on to get offense, he finds it.”
Gophers followers have often seen talent flow through the blue line over the years and back in the early 2000s Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard and Alex Goligoski thrived at Mariucci. The program made three trips to the Frozen Four in four seasons with those players carrying the mail and during that time, the program won two NCAA titles–which just happen to be their last two NCAA titles.
Motzko never explicitly said it last year, but it wasn’t hard to deduce when he talked about the progress of his blue line, that at times he felt like he was working with a crew that might echo back to the defensemen he saw during his time as assistant coach for the program.
The talent is an easy parallel to draw between the today’s team and the team back then, but the previous era’s D corps also had some grit brought to the rink by players like Matt DeMarchi who was a two-year USHL veteran. He brought a complimentary skillset to the defensive pairings by being able to consistently back up a risk prone partner, dish out heavy play in the defensive zone and absorb hard forechecks when necessary.
Staudacher is an early 2000 birth date defenseman who played at Shattuck St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn. for a couple seasons and then spent two years in the USHL with Muskegon. He thought for a long time he might land with a school out east after being ignored by the schools in his home state of Michigan, but he became a target on the Gophers’ radar in February 2019 and committed to the program a month later in March at the age of 19-years-old.
Looking at some of the other players in the Minnesota lineup right now, Ben Brinkman and Mike Koster committed at 15-years-old, Faber originally committed to Notre Dame at 15-year-old before flipping to Minnesota, and LaCombe and Johnson committed at 17-years-old. Grabbing an older player like Staudacher was a change from the norm.
The staff was looking for a different kind of defenseman at the time. Last October, Motzko described Staudacher as an incoming recruit who was a leader of his team, a player who his coaches loved and a player who he wanted in his program–especially knowing that he had ‘the two fancy pantsers coming and maybe some other fancy pantsers coming [later.]’
“I know what my game is — be a prick in the D zone and that’s what I’m going to do,” Staudacher said last season. “They can do the pretty things and I’ll do the hard work in the D zone–I’m totally fine with that.”
Building a program with talented puck moving defensemen along with some seasoned older defensemen looks like a strategy Motzko and assistant coach Garrett Raboin honed while at St. Cloud State. While putting together the Huskies roster, his average defensive commit was nearly 19-years-old and started playing college hockey at 20-years-old. Don Lucia’s Gophers teams often had defensemen who committed at 16-years-old and started playing college at 19-years-old. The difference in projecting a player like Staudacher to college hockey as a bantam or during summer USA Hockey Player Development Camps compared to seeing him succeed during the grind of a USHL season is night and day. I’ve heard from more than one coach that you make your worst recruiting mistakes while watching players in camps and during the summer.
Finding the right balance of acquiring the best talent they see on the recruiting trail against building the best roster to compete at the college level when the talent arrives on campus is the challenge facing college coaches across NCAA hockey.
This season it’s a comfort being able to lean on a player like Staudacher for the coaching staff, because they have no choice but to throw out so many inexperienced players. The Gophers have the fourth youngest roster in college hockey at 21 years – 2 months and it’s especially true on defense with four of their top six defensemen under 20-years-old. Last year Motzko had to do something similar with his forwards by routinely playing 10 underclassmen forwards on his four lines.
“We’ve got to play them and they’ve got talent,” Motzko said. “It’s kind of like what we did with our freshmen [last year]. You guys have seen McLaughlin and Walker and Reedy and Ranta and Meyers, well we’ve got to do that with our D now, but they’re a pretty talented group and they’re gonna come along quick. Staudacher is kind of anchoring with us right now with Brinkman, the two big strong kids, and you’re going to see [21-year-old freshman Carl] Fish in there very soon, another big strong kid.”
The role Staudacher plays is something that he has embraced while often being paired with LaCombe.
“I think our games complement each other really well. He’s more of a playmaking, puck moving defenseman, while I’m kind of stay at home, take care of the garbage a little bit.” Staudacher said. “I think we’re doing well– we’re breaking the puck out well, we’re playing hard, we’re getting our chances offensively and I think as the games go on we’re slowly getting more comfortable with each other.”
The trend to grab some older ‘grit’ defensmen to pair with ‘fancy pants’ defensemen might be something that Gopher fans will have to get used to in the future. Looking at defensemen committed to Minnesota, there are just two to project as Rosemount athlete Jake Ratzlaff decided to commit to Wisconsin for football this past month and Edina native Jake Boltmann decommitted this past week from the Gophers.
The two defensemen still verbally committed include Nick Williams and Luke Mittelstadt. Williams announced his ties to the Gophers the year before Motzko was hired as a 15-year-old when he played for Edina HS and was hoping to play his senior year for the Hornets before the pandemic put that plan on hold. Mittelstadt who also committed as a 15-years-old just after Motzko was hired and the Eden Prairie HS product has at least started his 17-years-old season with Lincoln in the USHL.
While it’s not clear who the next grit defensemen Motzko and Raboin might unearth from the USHL or NAHL, the current player branded with that label is excited about playing the two Big Ten schools in his home state.
“I’m probably one of the most excited guys because I get to get back in that pure Michigan air,” Staudacher said. “My bags have been packed for a little while now. I think everybody should be excited, the first road trip of the year is always the best one because you kind of find new habits about other guys that you didn’t know before. You get closer as a team.
“Road trips are nice — it’s just the boys’ time to bond and going into the series, I think I think we’ll match up well against both teams… smaller ice sheets, so I think our speed will still be an advantage and I think we just kind of go in and play hard.”