Funny how the significance of the national championship trophy flips, just as the calendar flips into October.
Starting one Saturday night in April and continuing through September, it’s a celebration and a sigh of relief — no use for lingering regrets from the last season. It’s the sign that you’re the tops in college hockey.
But when the puck drops on a new season, it means something else. Suddenly, you’re the biggest target on some teams’ schedules. More, like it or not, you have an incredible burden.
For 30 years, no team has started the season as the defending national champion and ended it with another golden NCAA trophy.
But anything less wouldn’t be quite enough, would it? Maybe that’s especially true when you’re from the “State of Hockey,” as it’s known in your parts.
To make things just a bit tougher, you’ve lost your top point scorer, your top goalscorer, your top defenseman (who, by the way, was voted the best player in the nation last season) and your top goaltender.
Go to work, Minnesota. With everyone gunning for you and the Golden Gophers’ faithful having had a taste of the NCAA championship, there’s plenty to be done.
“If it is a burden,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said of the national title, “I’d like to have it more often.”
The losses are astounding, but that the Gophers have the potential to get back to the same form this season is just as phenomenal. The Gophers knew they were going to lose Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, 75-point scorer Johnny Pohl and oft-maligned goaltender Adam Hauser.
They didn’t know at the start of last season that top goalscorer Jeff Taffe would be departing as well, but that’s one of the consequences of an outstanding year.
But through quick progression of young players and a top-notch recruiting class, the Gophers could get back to the promised land this season.
The Gophers’ biggest weakness on offense likely will be at center, where Pohl and Taffe held things together. Suddenly, Matt Koalska, he of the “Polish Leap” after tying last season’s title game against Maine, jumps two spots to become the top centerman.
“One of the reasons we were as good as we were last year is we had three outstanding centers in Pohl, Taffe and Koalska,” Lucia said. “The luxury we had with that is that we never worried about what line was on the ice against another team. We could play our third line against other people’s No. 1s and that didn’t bother us at all.
“That’s what we have to develop this year. Matt, as the only one of our top three centers returning, and he’s going really from No. 3 to probably No. 1, he has to elevate his game. We don’t need him to score 30 goals, but we need him to closer to 20 than 10.”
The Gophers, in fact, may not feature a 30-goal scorer like Taffe this season, Lucia said. But his team features enough experience (is there better experience than a run to the national title?) and talent to have a number of 15- or 20-goal scorers.
Troy Riddle, Grant Potulny, Barry Tallackson and Keith Ballard are just a few of the players that fall into that category. And that doesn’t even count incoming freshmen Gino Guyer and Thomas Vanek, each of whom was a star at the junior level.
Guyer, especially, could have a quick start to his collegiate career. Described as a natural goalscorer, he’ll get plenty of chances to do just that because that’s why the Gophers recruited him, Lucia said.
Four of the top six defenseman are back, with Leopold and Nick Angell the exceptions. Paul Martin and Keith Ballard likely will be counted on to be the Leopold-Matt DeMarchi combination of this season, though DeMarchi will be back himself.
“I think Keith will really come into his own this year with Leo gone because he’ll get that ice time that he didn’t have,” Lucia said.
For the first time under Lucia, who’s starting his fourth season with the Gophers, they won’t know the identity of the No. 1 goaltender by the start of the season. Hauser was a four-year starter and became the WCHA’s all-time wins leader last season.
The Gophers didn’t recruit another goaltender, leaving it up to Travis Weber and Justin Johnson. Weber saw more time than Johnson last season, but neither saw the kind they’ll get this season.
“I don’t think we have a No. 1 guy right now,” Lucia said. “I think what our plan will be, play them both early and see how that works. If they both play well, they’ll both continue to play. If one starts to outplay the other one, then he’ll get a majority of the games.”
Last season, the Gophers had the motivation of having the Frozen Four in St. Paul, a stone’s throw from their campus. Thanks to the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 16 teams, they’ll have a similar motivation to get to the big dance this season.
With the tournament switching to four regionals instead of two, Mariucci Arena was added as a host site for this season.
“We’re going to be young, and we as coaches have to be patient,” Lucia said. “We’re going to have a lot of freshmen and sophomores in our lineup. We only have two seniors that are going to be playing, so we have to be patient and not worry about where we are in October and November.
“Our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament and play in Mariucci Arena. That’s a heck of an incentive for us.”