Gophers men's hockey has holes but freshman class has team ‘giddy’

·3 min read

The 2021-22 Gophers men's hockey team won the Big Ten regular-season championship, rallied to beat the reigning national champions in overtime and earned the program's first NCAA Frozen Four berth in eight years while seeing center Ben Meyers become a Hobey Baker Award finalist.

Despite those accomplishments, coach Bob Motzko's group was left unfulfilled on that April Thursday in Boston when a first-period lead against Minnesota State Mankato evaporated in a 5-1 loss in the national semifinals.

Seeking their first national championship since 2003, the Gophers will embark on a retooling season. Gone are Meyers and his team-high 41 points, along with stalwarts like Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin, plus Chaz Lucius, a first-round draft pick who signed with Winnipeg, and Tristan Broz, a second-round pick by Pittsburgh who transferred to Denver.

"I see some familiar faces out on that ice and a whole pile of new guys,'' said coach Bob Motzko, whose team began practice Monday in preparation for the Oct. 1-2 season-opening series against Division I newcomer Lindenwood (Mo.). "We can skate, the guys are working their tails off, there's great camaraderie and great spirit inside of that group, and we're excited to get going.''

The familiar faces include a pair of Olympians, junior defenseman and captain Brock Faber and sophomore forward Matthew Knies. Faber anchors a deep blue line that also includes draft picks Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Mike Koster, while Justen Close, last year's midseason savior in goal, is back for his senior season.

The Gophers have 11 fresh faces on their roster, and it's a group full of high-end talent. Leading the way is center Logan Cooley, the No. 3 overall pick in this summer's NHL draft by the Arizona Coyotes. Right winger Jimmy Snuggerud, son of former Gophers standout Dave Snuggerud, was the No. 23 overall pick by St. Louis. Washington took defenseman Ryan Chesley in the second round, and Tampa Bay grabbed forward Connor Kurth in the sixth.

"When you have a large freshman class, it just brings this giddy little energy in the [locker] room,'' Motzko said. "We've got to blend it together, and that's the fun part of coaching. … We've got to replace some great offense. We've got guys who can do it; I just don't know if they can do it right away. They'll get there.''

LaCombe believes the newcomers will have a short learning curve.

"They're a great group of young guys, so for us it's just teaching a few things for them right away,'' he said. "They're going to adjust really well. We're excited to get it going with them.''

A quick maturation process would help for the Gophers, who have a home-and-home series with defending NCAA runner-up Minnesota State Mankato on Oct. 7 and 8, then play host to bitter rival North Dakota on Oct. 21-22.

"Button up, huh? Right off the bat,'' Motzko said. "Mankato's been a nemesis for us. They've ended our season two years in a row.''

Motzko's hope is that the Gophers season ends in April with two Frozen Four wins in Tampa, Fla.

"We want to win that last game of the year, and we'll keep poking,'' he said. "… We're knocking on the door. And if we keep knocking on the door, it's gonna happen. We've got to go back and build it again.''