Sam Warning is no longer the “next guy” in the Gophers’ loaded lineups.
The St. Louis native has been among the top six forwards since he skated into Mariucci Arena as a freshman but never the star. This season the spotlight has shifted onto the junior left wing who still learning is how to handle the consistency required of his new role.
“Sam has always had the skill set. When he came in as a freshman he went right into the second line,” said Grant Potulny, a Gophers assistant coach, in the first month of this season. “He’s played in the top six the whole time, but he was always the next guy.
“Now Sam has matured a lot and stepped into the role ‘I’ve gotta be a leader and this has gotta be my time.’ … He’s taking the responsibility serious and you can see it on the rink.”
Warning is the Gophers’ leading scorer and second in the Big Ten with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists). He leads the conference with a plus-25 rating, is a five-time conference player of the week, and has two game-winning goals.
He helped jump-start last weekend’s series sweep of Penn State. Warning, Kyle Rau and Hudson Fasching each scored goals for the Gophers’ first line in Friday’s 5-1 victory.
Getting to this point has required an extra push by the coaching staff. Whenever they get a chance, they remind Warning how good he is.
Warning, a 5-9, 180-pound, 21-year-old, is one of four current Gophers to come from beyond Minnesota’s borders. He’s crossed international borders playing for U.S. Junior Select teams, played 39 games as a Gophers freshman and 29 as a sophomore, battling injuries. This season he got off to the hottest start in college hockey.
Three points came on opening night and he had five goals in the Gophers’ first four games. In the moment, he referred to several of the goals as “lucky.” Warning scored 19 points during a 12-game point streak to start the season.
Then a lull settled in. He went from late October to mid-January without a goal. He had five goals, two assists in January and then went five games without a point. Successful back-to-back weekends to close out February appear to have ended the most recent drought.
“I know one thing, when Sam is playing well our team goes to another level,” coach Don Lucia said. “But he’s still kind of a streaky player, and we’re trying to even that part of his game out because, as we get into March, we can’t have Sam go three, four, five games without a goal. Sam Warning has to score a goal for us every weekend. He has the ability to do that.”
A humble and easygoing personality sometimes keeps Warning from acknowledging his worth. Ask about his accolades or a big night and he quickly turns the attention to his teammates. It’s an admirable characteristic, but Potulny and Lucia want him to believe he’s the star.
Rau knows Warning’s worth.
“He’s been our best player all year long. He’s been rather consistent, which is pretty tough to do throughout the year,” Rau said. “He’s a great player. He’s shown throughout years before that he’s had it in him, and to see him come out this year like this is awesome.”
Warning’s skill might have been showcased best Jan. 18 against Ohio State when he had a natural hat trick. He celebrated his first goal while lying on his back in the Buckeyes’ net. The second goal produced a subtle celebratory uppercut. Goal three required a simple fist pump. Warning kept it cool as usual.
Warning isn’t ready to claim he’s the Gophers’ spotlight forward, but said if he could be in the same position as his predecessors Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad, he would be. The opportunity is there, Potulny and Lucia continue to remind him.
Potulny said Warning’s skill set is second to none. It’ll come down to his consistency, though, as the top-ranked Gophers head into the final stretch of the season.
“There’s always room for improvement. But I think I’m becoming more of a consistent player each week. That’s one thing I’m trying to do right now down the stretch,” Warning said. “When I play well, I can be great, but there are some nights I don’t execute or play as well I should. … I know what I’m capable of.”