MINNEAPOLIS — There are more than 45 days before the Minnesota Gophers’ men's hockey exhibition hockey game versus Mount Royal on Oct. 6. But since the start of the Minnesota State Fair signals the official end of summer in the State of Hockey, thoughts naturally turn to the many questions that the Gophers will have to answer if they are to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.
Here are five queries we are pondering as we wander Falcon Heights, seeking out overflowing buckets of chocolate chip cookies, baskets of deep fried cheese curds and pretty much any food that can be served on a stick:
Who will wear the ‘C’?
Gophers coach Bob Motzko does not pick the team’s leadership. It’s not his style. “Players pick captains and they don’t get it wrong,” he said earlier this summer, meaning that the leadership will be selected and announced sometime in September after the players have a vote. The hunch is that a senior will be named captain, and with only two seniors on the team — defensemen Tyler Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf — who have been a regular part of Motzko’s lineup, it’s relatively easy to make an educated guess. When he announced he would return for his senior season, Nanne made it clear that he was interested in the captaincy, and one suspects that he will be the players’ choice. For the alternate captain spots, junior Brannon McManus, the team’s top returning goal-scorer, is a good bet. When he was at St. Cloud State, current Gophers assistant coach Garrett Raboin was an alternate captain as a sophomore. It would be unsurprising to see sophomore Sammy Walker follow that lead this season.
Which goalie will be the starter?
Goalies are to hockey what quarterbacks are to football. In other words, if you have two or more legitimate starters, you can have a problem. With Eric Schierhorn and Mat Robson among the departed dozen players from last year’s team that are no longer at the U of M, the most important job on the roster is wide open. The most “Gopher conventional” option is freshman Jared Moe, who comes to Dinkytown via a Minnesota high school (Holy Family Catholic) and the United States Hockey League in juniors. He has been a fixture in Da Beauty League this summer. The most experienced option is junior Jack LaFontaine, who transferred to the U of M after playing in 22 games at Michigan, and has faced live college hockey ammo before. The wild card is freshman Justen Close, who was the top goalie in the Saskatchewan junior league the past two seasons. There are two Canadian options and one local option for Motzko to pick from. Expect at least two of them to see time in the crease in October.
Is the defense too green?
If the Gophers had an obvious weak point last season, it was the blue line. Then Jack Sadek graduated and Clayton Phillips left the program, meaning there are jobs to be had on the back side in 2019-20. Enter two early-round NHL draft picks in Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe, as well as Shattuck-St. Mary’s standout Matt Staudacher. They’ve got talent, but lack college hockey experience, which sounds like potential trouble brewing. The optimist will point north to Duluth, where Minnesota Duluth had five inexperienced defensemen on their blue line two years ago going into the season, and proceeded to win the national title with all of that youth. Having veterans is an advantage, but talent — even if it’s green — will take you further in the course of a long season.
Can the sophomores lead the way?
College coaches cannot mandate their players work out in the off-season, and cannot monitor their height and weight, per NCAA rules. But Motzko made it clear that he wanted talented but slender rising sophomores Walker, Blake McLaughlin and Nathan Burke to spend a significant portion of the warmer months in the school’s weight room, and they have. Bigger frames on those three, who constituted the puck-moving “all freshman” line last season, could mean a boost for the Gophers offense. Add to them the return of flashy Finn Sampo Ranta, who scored a number of highlight reel goals for his national team in the World Junior Summer Showcase a few weeks ago, and there’s optimism that the sophomore slump could be avoided to the benefit of Gopher fans.
Will cheaper tickets help fill the rink?
The first step on the road to recovery is admitting there’s a problem. Attendance was down overall last season (782 per game), but when a home playoff series versus Michigan was witnessed by friends, family and invited guests only, there was no more room for sugar coating. U of M athletic director Mark Coyle placed blame solely on his own department and said “it’s on us” to get the fans back in a midsummer interview with The Rink Live. He also made an important move to that end, dropping the prices for tickets in selected sections of 3M Arena at Mariucci. With more affordable seats available, and many predicting a down season for the Minnesota Wild, which may switch the focus of some Twin Cities hockey fans, there is quiet optimism that the crowds may improve in Motzko’s second season at the helm of the Gophers program.