Players on Thursday discussed with a sense of determination the keys to improvement for the Gophers men's hockey team. Last year's squad was dumped from the WCHA playoffs by upstart Alaska Anchorage at Mariucci Arena and missed the NCAA tournament for the third season in a row.
"We have a lot of guys with scoring capabilities," said goalie Kent Patterson. "You can single out a few guys who will step it up, but the good thing is there are a lot of them."
Coach Don Lucia talked about the increased strength of his returning defensemen and his already good-sized freshmen, saying, "Those guys will be able to eliminate people in our own zone, rather than just contain them."
The Gophers open with an exhibition game against British Columbia on Sunday night, play host to a nonconference series against Sacred Heart the following weekend and begin WCHA play at NCAA champion UMD on Oct. 14-15.
Who will score?
The top three goal scorers graduated off a 16-14-6 team that finished fifth in the conference.
"A guy like Nick Bjugstad, who had a great second half, is a goal-scorer, and Jake Hansen can score 15 to 20 goals, along with Taylor Matson,'' said sophomore winger Zach Budish, who returns after redshirting because of a knee injury.
Lucia said his top two lines will be centered by sophomores Bjugstad and Erik Haula, and indicated Patterson likely would play most games in goal.
The coach singled out sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt as a player who has been impressive in practice, and said freshman Kyle Rau of Class 2A state champion Eden Prairie will move to wing from center and be among the team's top forwards.
Eighteen of 27 players are true sophomores or freshmen.
"The young guys have to grow up in a real hurry," Lucia said, "and the senior class has to have a real good year, because we really only have one junior [defenseman Seth Helgeson]."
The Gophers missed the WCHA Final Five and NCAA Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center last season, adding to fan unrest.
"It's disappointing, because you want to be a team fighting nationally at the end," Lucia said.
• The Gophers were picked sixth in the preseason WCHA coaches poll, behind Denver, North Dakota, Colorado College, Nebraska-Omaha and Minnesota-Duluth. The preseason player of the year is CC forward Jaden Schwartz, and the preseason rookie of the year is North Dakota winger Rocco Grimaldi.
• Lucia is in the final season of his contract, but has been offered an extension, which has not yet been signed. Mike Guentzel has returned as an assistant coach, replacing John Hill.
• Matson is team captain, with alternates to be named.