RJ: I felt this way entering the season, and I still feel this way: Anything less than an NCAA tournament berth for the Gophers in Bob Motzko’s first season as coach would not be a success. Motzko has done a good job of retooling the program after taking over for Don Lucia, and the future looks bright with his solid recruiting. But let’s face it: This is Minnesota hockey, and the expectations are high. The Gophers’ record of 16-15-4 won’t cut it, and Motzko likely would tell you that. Because of inexcusable losses to St. Lawrence and Ferris State, the Gophers sit at No. 21 in the PairWise. That means they have almost no chance to get an at-large NCAA bid and instead must win the Big Ten tournament to advance. Sure, it’s a tall task, but it’s one the Gophers have created for themselves.
MR: ANYTHING short of a NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP would be a DISGRACE. … I’m absolutely joking, but I feel like that is definitely The Vibe™ of most comments on my stories and reader emails. Listen, Randy (and you high-standard Gophers hockey fans), I get it. Such a historic team that has been looked at as a traditional powerhouse for years should consistently make the NCAA tournament at the bare minimum. BUT I think it’s a little unreasonable to expect that from a first-year coach. Call me soft (or “cute,” the dirtiest word in hockey, apparently), but I give some slack for anyone in an unfamiliar situation. Changing culture, implementing a system, gaining the trust of players you didn’t recruit. All that takes time to bear results. And you’re now seeing those changes manifest the past six games. Is it too late for this season? Maybe. But I don’t think falling short of the tournament this one year means utter failure.
RJ: No, it won’t be utter failure at all if the Gophers don’t make the national tournament, but it will be an opportunity lost. Great seasons by Rem Pitlick and Tyler Sheehy, along with the energy provided by the team’s freshmen, have been highlights and show this team’s potential. And it’s not out of the question for the Gophers, who have won five of six, to make a run to the Big Ten tourney title. These Gophers still have a chance to achieve an NCAA berth while still building for the future. Those goals don’t need to be mutually exclusive.
MR: You say it wouldn’t be an utter failure to not make the tourney in Motzko’s first year, but in your first response, you also said it “would not be a success.” So where is the middle ground? I agree, future success and a tournament berth this year aren’t mutually exclusive. It is possible they could have both. But the world is a messy and chaotic place, and sometimes players see personal good seasons not amount to team success (rip Connor McDavid) because of circumstances out of their control. I think the whole team has done a solid job this season after a major upheaval. And that opinion won’t change, whether the Gophers make the NCAA or not.