Incoming Gophers hockey freshmen big on talent but short on size

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 23, 2013 - 11:17 AM

Justin Kloos and Taylor Cammarata tore up the USHL this year.

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The Waterloo Black Hawks have had plenty to celebrate this season, much of it provided by Justin Kloos, center right, and Taylor Cammarata. Kloos, who led the league in scoring, and Cammarata, who was right behind him, are headed to the Gophers.

Photo: Mathew Putney • Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier ,

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When he watches them from the bench, though, O’Handley often is reduced to one.

“Wow,” said the coach of the Waterloo Black Hawks, the United States Hockey League team where the Minnesota natives currently play. “There haven’t been many times as a coach at this level that I’ve said that. But when you watch them make plays, you just go, ‘Wow, how did they do that?’ ”

O’Handley predicted that spectators at Mariucci Arena will be saying the same thing beginning in October, when Cammarata, from Plymouth, and Kloos, from Lakeville, embark on their college careers. After being named the USHL Rookie of the Year in 2011-12, Cammarata led the league in scoring this season with an eye-popping 93 points in 59 games. Kloos, in his first full USHL season, was right behind him with 87 points in 54 games.

Along with Hastings native and Ohio State prospect Zach Stepan — third in the USHL with 78 points — they formed the most potent line in the league’s recent history. Now leading the Black Hawks in the USHL playoffs, Cammarata and Kloos will arrive on the U campus in June, when they will join a roster reduced by the early departures of five players.

Both have faced questions about their size; Cammarata is 5-7, and Kloos is 5-9. O’Handley said both have the speed, skill and hockey intellect to offset their stature, a claim supported by gaudy statistics. While he expects their wow factor to translate well to the college game, they said their time in the junior ranks has made them more prepared — and more eager — for the next step in their development.

“I’m ecstatic about getting down there and putting on that Gophers jersey,” said the 19-year-old Kloos, named Mr. Hockey in 2012 to cap his career at Lakeville South. “I feel a lot better than I felt last year, and I thought I was ready [for college] then. I’m coming in as an older, stronger and more experienced player.”

Cammarata, who will turn 18 next month, said he is equally prepared. “My work in the defensive zone and my quickness and speed have all gotten a lot better [in the USHL],” he said. “I’ve been watching the Gophers my whole life, and I know it’s going to be a great experience.”

Big skates to fill

Two other forwards — Gabe Guertler (Fargo/USHL) and Hudson Fasching of Apple Valley (U.S. national team development program) — also will join the Gophers next season.

Coach Don Lucia said Monday he is adding three defensemen as well: Jake Bischoff of Grand Rapids (Omaha/USHL), Michael Brodzinski of Blaine (Muskegon/USHL) and a still-unsigned player Lucia declined to name. Forwards Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Zach Budish and defensemen Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt announced after the Gophers’ first-round loss in the NCAA tournament that they would skip their final season and turn pro.

If Bjugstad had left the team last summer, as he considered doing, Kloos would have become a Gopher. He had just finished his prep days at Lakeville South — where he chose to stay for his senior year rather than play in the USHL — with a 103-point season and a state tournament berth. He said he was a little disappointed at first that his Gophers career would be delayed, but he is grateful for a USHL tenure that taught him how to handle a long, grinding season.

O’Handley called Kloos an “off-the-charts kid” who quickly shrugged off that disappointment and got to work. With his offensive creativity and quick hands, the coach said, Kloos can turn a dead-end play into a scoring chance. He also devoted himself to shoring up his defensive play.

Cammarata excelled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault for two seasons before going to Waterloo. Always a prolific scorer, he finished his sophomore season at Shattuck with 71 goals and 68 assists in 54 games. Though he was one of Waterloo’s youngest players in 2011-12, he led the team with 69 points in 60 games and was named USHL Rookie of the Year.

Skill vs. size

Throughout his life, Cammarata said, he has heard comments about his lack of size. He said he has come to appreciate his small stature and exploits the advantages he has — including speed, instinct and vision. “I’ve always been a smaller guy, so I’m used to it,” he said. “You’ve got to know where everyone is at, because you don’t want to get drilled out there, but it helps me with my style of play.”

O’Handley noted that Cammarata has become skilled at avoiding situations where his size might get him into trouble. Most of the time, he is using it to trouble others with his crafty playmaking skills. “His brain is two steps ahead of everybody else,” the coach said. “He’s so smart and so deceptive, he just gets himself into the right spot. If there’s a game with a lot of physicality and they key on him, it could be hard. But knowing Taylor, he’ll find a way to get around it.”

Kloos and Cammarata will attend school this summer and work out with returning Gophers players. Though O’Handley’s job is to ready players for their next stop on the hockey trail, he grew a bit melancholy when he thought about their departure.

“I sometimes pinch myself and say, ‘When are we ever going to get guys like this, who can play the game at this level and still be the kind of young men, the really good guys, that they are?’ ” he said. “They’re special. They’re going to be hard to replace, that’s for sure.”

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