Despite losing three of his top six scorers from last season, a combined third of the team's total goals scored, coach Bob Motzko isn't worried about this incarnation of the Gophers.
Actually, this season's team could be even better.
"I don't see a whole lot of difference between the four lines. It may be the deepest team I've ever coached," Motzko said. "… Our speed and skill and the little swagger we have is pretty neat right now."
The Gophers will take that triple "S" ethos into their season-opening series starting 7 p.m. Friday at 3M Arena at Mariucci against Mercyhurst. The speed and the skill comes from a forward lineup of veteran centers and promising new wingers. The swagger is all defense, with every defenseman and the No. 1 goaltender returning.
While Brannon McManus (Nebraska Omaha), Scott Reedy (San Jose Sharks) and Sampo Ranta (Colorado Avalanche) have moved on, the No. 2 through No. 4 top scorers from 2020-21 are back in center Sammy Walker, winger Blake McLaughlin and center Ben Meyers.
Walker and McLaughlin — "PB and J" as Walker calls them because the seniors have been linemates their whole career — are in the market for a new right winger on their quick and deft line. And there's six new forwards vying for the honor.
"All of them are unbelievable players, so it's not hard for them to jump right in," Walker said. "… They transition really well, and it's exciting to see what they'll do for us in the games."
Meyers might have already found at least one of his matches in freshman Matthew Knies. The pair has found some early chemistry since starting practice Sept. 13. Knies is 6-3, 210 pounds but a surprisingly agile skater for his size, per Motzko. And Knies, along with Colorado College transfer Grant Cruikshank at 5-11, 190, can lend a bit of the heavy, gritty ground game Ranta and Reedy took with them.
Jaxon Nelson and a mix of either Jack Perbix or Jonny Sorenson will likely anchor the third and fourth lines. But the real competition might be for a spot on one of the power play units.
Motzko recalled fondly his first year with the Gophers, when the team ran a five-forward power play with strong scoring from the wings. The past two seasons he hasn't been as impressed with the output, with a passing defenseman acting as point man.
Nudging some of those defensemen into more offensive moments might be the next challenge for those players, since the defensive part is pretty well mastered.
Motzko pointed out sophomore Brock Faber as a player who had a particularly good offseason. He, along with juniors and high NHL draft picks Ryan Johnson and Jackson Lacombe, highlight the confident D-corps. And they have fifth-year Jack LaFontaine in net, looking to continue his reign as the top goalie in college hockey after winning the Mike Richter Award last season with his .924 save percentage and a 1.79 goals-against average.
LaFontaine recalled the disappointments they've endured, from a season cut short because of COVID-19 to just missing out on the NCAA Frozen Four last season. He called those experiences "heartbreaking," and something the team took personally heading into a new season.
"For a lot of these guys, and myself included, our first year and their freshman year, we've kind of had our highs and lows, and we've kind of gutted out some tough periods," LaFontaine said. "We finally feel like we have everything solidified here. And we're ready to take that next step to be an elite team."