Casey Mittelstadt will make one of the most anticipated Gophers debuts in recent memory Friday, when the men’s hockey team opens the regular season with an in-state showdown at Minnesota Duluth.
The Eden Prairie native, picked No. 8 overall by Buffalo in June’s NHL draft, racked up four points — one goal, three assists — last Sunday in the Gophers’ 6-2 home exhibition victory over Alberta.
Coach Don Lucia pointed to Mittelstadt’s quickness, hand speed and vision, saying, “He’s got things you don’t teach.”
For all the preseason Mittelstadt hype, however, he’s just one part of the conversation on how good this Gophers team will be.
Will the Gophers reach their first Frozen Four since 2014? Minnesota hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since that year’s championship loss to Union.
“It’s the older guys that I think are going to make the most difference,” Lucia said. “Whether it’s [Brent Gates Jr.] taking a step from his sophomore to his junior year, Tommy Novak coming back from injury or Tyler Sheehy having another good year.”
Novak tore an ACL in January, defenseman Ryan Lindgren broke an ankle in March, and Sheehy played through a back injury that required offseason surgery. All three are back at full speed, most notably Sheehy, a returning first-team All-America pick who notched a team-high 53 points last season.
Another critical player is goaltender Eric Schierhorn. The junior is a two-time Big Ten Goaltender of the Year but had his lapses last season. Newcomer Mat Robson becomes eligible at the season’s halfway point, Dec. 8, and Lucia expects him to push Schierhorn for playing time.
Meanwhile, the Gophers want Schierhorn to give them a calmer net presence.
“I’m trying to rein it in a little bit more, so I’m not so kind of all over the place like I can be at times,” Schierhorn said. “… I need to take the next step in my game, and I know that.”
While experienced in goal, the Gophers must replace four key players from last season: centers Justin Kloos and Vinni Letteiri, and defensemen Jake Bischoff and Ryan Collins.
The top incoming freshmen are Mittelstadt and fellow forward Scott Reedy, a Prior Lake native who spent the past two seasons with the U.S. national development team.
Lucia has tried tempering external expectations for Mittelstadt.
“We’ve had some really talented players, like Nick Bjugstad recently that, you know — it took Nick a half a year to kind of figure out college hockey,” Lucia said. “Casey is making the jump directly from high school, so there’s a lot to learn about playing without the puck.”
Bjugstad graduated a year early from Blaine High School and joined the Gophers after getting picked No. 19 overall by Florida in the 2010 draft. He notched 20 points for the Gophers as a freshman and stayed three seasons before launching his NHL career with the Panthers.
Besides Mittelstadt, other players who were top-10 picks before making their Gophers debut include Blake Wheeler (drafted in 2004), Erik Johnson (2006) and Kyle Okposo (2006). Thomas Vanek (2003) and Phil Kessel (2006) became top-10 picks after their freshman seasons.
The Gophers don’t make newcomers available to the media until November, but Mittelstadt’s veteran teammates haven’t been shy publicly with their praise.
“What stuck out to me most was his character,” senior center Mike Szmatula said. “Being eighth overall [in the draft] — you wouldn’t be able to tell just by looking in the locker room. He’s a very humble kid. He works hard. He wants to get better.”
That’s a must teamwide if the Gophers are to reach their always lofty expectations.