To our readers: Thank you for taking part in our Mailbag Monday this week. Star Tribune beat writers received many questions about the teams and leagues we cover, and each writer selected at least a couple of questions to answer. Look for a question and answer about each team in a future edition of the Star Tribune.
Q: If things start on time, how do you think it impacts attendance at the MN schools? You would think Mankato would have been naturally down a little bit after graduating many big-time seniors, but could people being stir crazy (if safe) actually raise attendance? -- Bobblin Mavericks (@BobblinMavs)
A: First off, Bobblin, we need to see if fans will be allowed to attend games this fall and how many would be let in. As of now, I would at least expect limitations – such as fans only allowed in every other seat or every other row – if not entirely empty arenas to start. Any restrictions definitely will impact attendance at the Minnesota schools, but I can see a scenario in which a surge of fans would return when the arenas are fully open. Some people are itching to go to any sort of live sporting event right now, while others are more cautious. A good gauge this summer will be how Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA handle their return to play and when fans are let in the buildings.
As for Minnesota State, community support for the Mavericks has been very impressive as coach Mike Hastings has built an outstanding program. Sure, they lose a lot of stars – Marc Michaelis, Parker Tuomie, Connor Mackey to name a few – but with a goalie like All-American Dryden McKay returning, I still would expect them to be the favorite to win the WCHA. A contending team should prevent a big drop in attendance if and when the building is fully open.
Q: How would you assess Motzko’s first two years in the job, and do you see the Gophers on an upward trajectory going into next year? Seems like we can’t keep using youth as an excuse each season. -- Dan Chang
A: It seems as if I get a version of this question each mailbag session, and that shows that fans care and that they continue to have high expectations for this program.
As for assessing Bob Motzko’s first two years on the job, I’d grade the combined showing a “B’’ – and to me, a “B’’ grade is decent, not outstanding, while anything below a “B’’ is underachieving for Minnesota hockey. In 2018-19, youth was not an issue, but there was a transition period as the coach and a veteran team got to know each other. I felt that Gophers squad was talented enough to make the NCAA tournament but didn’t accomplish that feat because of two reasons. First, the Gophers had inexcusable home losses to both St. Lawrence and Ferris State, teams that finished in the bottom four of the PairWise Ratings. Second, they went 0-3 against North Dakota and Minnesota State, missing out on a chance to bolster their record against quality opponents.
We don’t know how the 2019-20 season would’ve ended for the Gophers or any other team because of the coronavirus pandemic. What we saw was a young team – nine freshmen playing regular roles, 19 total freshmen or sophomores – taking its lumps early against a strong schedule then showing a lot of promise in the second half of the season, resulting in Motzko being named Big Ten coach of the year. Winning the Mariucci Classic began a 9-2-1 run that included a five-game Big Ten win streak and gave the Gophers a chance to win the conference regular-season title. An 0-2-2 finish to the regular season left the Gophers in a three-way tie for second, and they responded with a three-game triumph over Notre Dame in the first round of the Big Ten playoffs. That set up a trip to Penn State for the semifinals, a game that didn’t happen when the season was shut down March 12.
Those young Gophers should continue to improve in 2020-21, and my expectations are that the team not only makes it to the NCAA tournament but also makes an impact in it. Ambitious? Yes, but the standard should be high for this program. One sign I liked late this season was the Gophers’ performance at nemesis Penn State. Though they had to settle for a 3-3 tie and a 3-2 regulation loss, the Gophers held third-period leads in both games. That’s a huge improvement over the previous two seasons, when Minnesota went 0-6 and was outscored 34-15 at Penn State.