The young bunch of skaters effortlessly lugged barbells and medicine balls across the ice. Their big bodies dwarfed the equipment as they playfully posed for the team’s freshmen photo shoot.
Off to the side, senior forward and fellow big man Seth Ambroz shook his head, unwilling to accept the notion that the freshmen are the Gophers’ new brawn.
A glance up and down the Minnesota roster argues in the rookies’ favor, though. Four of the six freshmen tower over most of their new teammates. The biggest of the bunch, 6-5, 204-pound Ryan Collins, is 10 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier than one teammate.
This incoming class is built to make an immediate impact, much like last season’s large freshman class. However, the Gophers coaching staff isn’t planning to rely on this strong class to carry much weight.
“When last year began, if we were going to have a good year, our freshmen were going to have to contribute offensively just because there were so many that were playing and the roles they were in on the power play,” coach Don Lucia said. “That’s not really going to be the case this year. We don’t need our freshmen to come in and make significant offensive production.
“They’re not necessarily going to be put in that front-line role like some of the freshman last year. We don’t need that. We need to find some complimentary guys.”
The coach’s mix has already had early success. Jack Glover, a 6-3 freshman defenseman, scored the first goal in the team’s lone exhibition victory, and fellow freshman defensemen Collins and Robin Hoglund each contributed an assist. Steve Johnson debuted in the Ice Breaker Tournament championship game; he combined with Hoglund and Collins for seven shots, and the trio was on the ice for two goals.
Highly touted Swedish forward Leon Bristedt, ineligible the first weekend because a pro player played two games with his Swedish junior team, will make his debut Friday night against Bemidji State in the team’s home opener.
Bristedt, who skated with Kyle Rau and Hudson Fasching on the first line this week in practice, has the scoring ability that could earn him more playing time after a few games. Hoglund will contribute up front, with Fasching and Ambroz. Glover is the first to add depth, as he was the only freshman in the lineup for the regular-season opener and was plus-1 with one shot.
“Size is definitely something I‘ll have to utilize and use to my advantage to get playing time and make impact,” Glover said before the season. “It’s not something I’m going to rely on, because I think I have other skills that I can use to help the team, but it’s definitely something I’ll have to try and make the most of.”
Collins said he hopes the added size and strength can be the missing piece that elevates last season’s national runner-up to a championship. He expects the big freshmen to make room for some of the team’s smaller scorers.
“They’re pretty quick and pretty big, too,” 5-9 senior forward Sam Warning said. “They’re all about 4 or 5 inches taller than me — just powers. They definitely add size, but when I see those guys skate, they skate like the wind.
“Last year the freshmen set the tone for this incoming freshman class. All those guys stepped up and played huge rules for our team. I think for the freshmen coming in, it’s not going to be easy [to get] in the lineup every day, so they’ve got to work their way up and prove that they can play every day.”