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Finally! Gopher Hockey Returns This Weekend

Finally! Gopher Hockey Returns This Weekend

This weekend, the Golden Gophers take to the ice in an effort to get the storied program back on course after missing out on the NCAA Tournament for the past three seasons. They’ll start that quest against Sacred Heart in a two-game set at Mariucci Arena on Friday and Saturday. Both games start at 7 p.m. though the Saturday game won’t be televised. The Pioneers were 6-25-6 last season and finished second-to-last in Atlantic Hockey, so they shouldn’t provide a ton of resistance for the Maroon and Gold this weekend.

So, the following is more of a position-by-position preview / look at the season in general as opposed to breaking things down for this weekend. GPL will have full coverage of both games this weekend and then starting next week we’ll be back to the weekend-specific previews, starting with next weekend’s first WCHA series in Duluth against the defending NCAA Champions.

Gone: Jay Barriball, Jacob Cepis, Mike Hoeffel, Patrick White, and Max Gardiner.
Returning: Nick Bjugstad, Jared Larson, Zach Budish, Taylor Matson, Joe Miller, Nate Condon, Jake Hansen, Nico Sacchetti, Erik Haula, and Tom Serratore.
Freshmen: Kyle Rau, Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz, Travis Boyd, and Christian Isackson.

Last season, the Gophers tied for fourth in the WCHA with the eventual National Champion Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs with 91 goals in 28 WCHA games. However, the main on-ice reason for the team’s recent decline over the past four seasons has been the inability to produce offensively. There are several things that factor into this, such as the lack of elite puck-moving defensemen like the teams in the early and mid-2000s had, but there’s no doubt that the forwards need to produce more if this team is to return to the top of the WCHA and the NCAA Tournament.

Last year’s three leading scorers, seniors Jay Barriball, Jacob Cepis, and Mike Hoeffel, have departed, but none of this three hit the 30-point mark a season ago, so it’s not as if their levels of production aren’t replaceable. Sophomore center Nick Bjugstad figures to anchor the team’s top line this season after a very solid freshman campaign. He had a bout with mono early in the season and struggled to get going prior to Christmas, which was to be expected out of a true freshman who played high school hockey a season ago. However, after representing the U.S. at the World Juniors, Bjugstad returned to the U and arguably the team’s top player during the second half of the season. Over the team’s final 12 games, Bjugstad had six goals and 14 points, so look for him to hopefully take a major step in what figures to be his final season as a Gopher if he performs as well as many expect him to.

Another second-year player – Erik Haula – figures to be a staple in the team’s top-six forwards. He was slowed during the second half of the season with injuries but he still had 24 points in 34 games, and centered the team’s top line all season long. He was pretty thin last season, so hopefully he used his summer back in Finland to put on some pounds and comes back ready to build on a nice freshman campaign.

The team has a lot of nice incoming players, but after missing almost all of last season, Zach Budish will be, in a sense, the team’s best recruit. Though not a freshman of course, Budish is coming back off his second ACL injury in three seasons. He had six points in seven games last year before injuring himself in a moped accident, but if he can stay healthy, he could be one of the team’s best players by season’s end.

As is often the case these days, most of the team’s key players will be underclassmen, but a trio of seniors should be in the lineup each night up front and could be difference-makers. Captain Taylor Matson has been very productive when he’s been healthy, but injuries have plagued his Gopher career up to this point. He had 10 goals in 33 games last season though he probably (hopefully?) won’t have to be counted on to score as much as being a leaned on to check the other team’s best players, kill penalties, etc.

Nick Larson is a player who could join Matson on that third line. His career at the U so far has been just okay, but he’s a bigger body that can chip in a goal from time to time, but not the type of player you want to count on to score.

Jake Hansen came to the Gophers with much fanfare after putting up nice numbers at White Bear and also in the USHL, but he’s never blossomed into the high-end forward many thought he would become. However, he did take a step forward a season ago as he finished with 20 points in 35 games; he should get a look at top six minutes early on, and hopefully he can build on what he did a season ago.

Sophomore Nate Condon showed off his high-end speed at times last season and racked up 17 points in 35 games though was very “hit or miss,” which is of course common for freshmen. He seems like a tweener type in that he might be able to assume a roll in the top six forwards if some of the yet-to-be-mentioned freshmen don’t pan out, but could use his wheels to be a great checking forward; either way, he should be a guy who plays each and every night.

Returnees like Nico Sacchetti, Tom Serratore, and Jared Larson figure to be fourth-line guys who may have their minutes carved into by younger players if they don’t get off to solid starts.

As always, there will be some freshmen that could be leaned heavily upon to score from day one. Kyle Rau is probably the most “name” player of the bunch. He’s been one of the state’s most dynamic forward each of the last two seasons while playing for Eden Prairie and of course scored that dramatic overtime goal to help the Eagles win the state title last spring. After his high school season ended, he headed to Sioux Falls of the USHL and led the playoffs in scoring, which is a great sign for his chances of making an immediate impact with the Gophers.

A year ago at this time, Seth Ambroz was one of the top recruits in the country for 2011, but his third USHL season was very so-so and his draft stock dropped like a rock. Still though, he’s a beast physically (6-2, 210 lbs.) and hopefully he can use his size to make an early impact and maybe use the fact his NHL draft status (was taken in the 5th round by Columbus) wasn't what he thought it would be as motivation as well.

A couple of other USHL standouts – Sam Warning and Christian Isackson – figure to battle for playing time with a handful of others on the team’s bottom two lines this year. Warning is a native of Missouri and had 43 points in 56 games with Cedar Rapids last season, his second full campaign in the USHL. He’s noted for being an excellent / fast skater, which should bode well for him getting in the lineup regularly as a first-year player. Isackson led Sioux Falls in scoring during the regular season with 44 points in 58 games after being a standout at St. Thomas Academy a few years ago.

Hopkins’ Travis Boyd rounds out the freshman forwards, and he’s a kid you kind of forget about since he’s been playing with the NTDP in Ann Arbor the past few seasons. He had 18 points in 24 USHL games for the NTDP last season and is a super talented kid; however, he just turned 18-years-old and it might be tough for him to be a regular each night this season. He should fill out though over the next calendar year and by this time next year could be a key piece for a team that figures to lose a good deal of forwards both to graduation (Miller, Sacchetti, Matson, Hansen, and Larson) and possibly leaving early (Bjugstad? Budish?).

Gone: Aaron Ness, Kevin Wehrs, and Cade Fairchild.
Returning: Mark Alt, Seth Helgeson, Justin Holl, Jake Parenteau, Chris Student, and Nate Schmidt.
Freshmen: Ben Marshall and Nate Thompson.

While the team should be solid at forward and in net this season, there are big-time question marks on the blueline heading into the 2011-12 campaign for the Gophers. Gone are puck-moves Aaron Ness and Cade Fairchild, along with Kevin Wehrs, and the team has just one upperclassmen on the backend – Seth Helgeson – and then a bunch of young guys with potential. However, having a young and inexperienced defensive core is generally not a recipe for success in the WCHA.

Two sophomores could be the key to the unit’s success this season, and those guys are Mark Alt and Justin Holl. Both came to the U right from high school last year and had their share of struggles before getting their feet under them a little more during the second half of the season. Both have the talent to become big-time college bluelines, but that might need to happen sooner than later for the sake of this year’s squad.

Freshman Ben Marshall comes to the team from Omaha in the USHL where he had a great season, putting up 33 points and making the USHL All-Rookie team. He’s in the mold of Ness in that he’s a great skater but undersized. He should get chances to lead the power play, get big minutes, etc.

Another guy to keep an eye on is sophomore Nate Schmidt. He came in as a freshman last season with big credentials after putting up nice numbers in Fargo, but last season he really struggled, was moved to forward for a while, and was generally a healthy scratch. Hopefully having Mike Guentzel, who recruited him, will get him back on track.

Guentzel's return in general should help all of the defensemen, but at this point it's tough to gauge what kind of shot in the arm he can provide for the group and even for the team as whole.

Helgeson is what he is at this point, which isn’t the worst thing in the world: he uses his size well, won’t ‘wow’ you with the puck, plays mean, and should be a stabilizing guy back there. Freshman Blake Thompson is in that “Helgeson mold,” and though he may not play a lot as a freshman, he could be a regular down the road. Sophomore Jake Parenteau will likely be a healthy scratch as he was last season. Sophomore Chris Student joined the team last season as a transfer from Northeastern, so it’s tough to tell what to expect from the former Benilde star, but he could turn into a solid two-way player.

Gone: Alex Kangas
Remaining: Kent Patterson and Jake Kremer
Incoming: Michael Shibrowski

This one is pretty straight forward: Kent Patterson, a senior, should start 95 percent of the games this season and if he gets hurt, the team is in a ton of trouble. Alex Kangas graduated and has moved on, so that leaves senior Jake Kremer, who has been the team’s third goalie the last few seasons, and sophomore Michael Shibrowski, who is new to the team this fall.

Shibrowski previous played at Colorado College before heading back to the USHL where he played for Des Moines last year. He had solid numbers but nothing spectacular, and even though he has NCAA experience, he’s probably not the type of guy that can carry a team with defensive question marks like Patterson can.

The team’s defense could be suspect, so Patterson is going to need to be a rock like he was last year. Having a good goalie can hopefully provide the team some confidence, specifically the young defensemen. If he gets hurt (like Kangas did last season) or his play falls off, it could be a very long season.

Written by: Cardinal on Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

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