Don Lucia and the Minnesota coaching staff knew this season was going to be different from an offensive standpoint. You don’t lose Thomas Vanek, Troy Riddle, Matt Koalska and Grant Potulny and just pick up where you left off.
Still, the Golden Gophers coaches got together for a preseason meeting to discuss personnel and how they want the team to play this season and really got a taste of what this season will be like.
For the Gophers to succeed this season, they’ll have to find new sources of big-time scoring; find new heart-and-soul players; get a large group of highly acclaimed freshmen to be productive; and get better goaltending.
So you could forgive Lucia for coming out of that meeting scratching his head.
“I said, you know I have more unknowns about this team than maybe other than my first year at CC and my first year at Minnesota, when we really didn’t have a handle on the personnel,” Lucia said. “I think that’s because we have 10 freshmen. We have so many new guys. People talk about the key being our freshmen. We’re going to have to have some of those freshmen come in and play a major role and be candidates for all-rookie team because of the ice time they’re going to get.
“But I still think it’s going to come down to what kind of year does Barry Tallackson have, Gino Guyer have, Andy Sertich have, Tyler Hirsch have, [Ryan] Potulny and [Danny] Irmen, those returning forwards. Can they, with more ice time and a more prominent role, score more? Their track record says they can, but they have not done it on a regular basis at this level.”
There’s the challenge at Minnesota’s skates this season. The losses from the back-to-back national championship teams — or, in Vanek’s case, just one of them — were huge. But the Gophers will rely on capable players to raise their game and a bunch of freshmen to fill in other roles.
Guyer scored 32 points as a sophomore last season, making him the top returning scorer. He can be a 40-point scorer this year, Lucia said. Irmen netted 14 goals in his freshman season and is the top returning goalscorer. Lucia said he would be surprised if the sophomore didn’t get 20 goals this season, considering he’ll see more time on the power play.
The players to watch up front, in a sense of determining whether the Gophers will be able to get another No. 1 seed in the national tournament, are Tallackson and Potulny.
Tallackson showed what he was made of by scoring five goals in eight playoff games two seasons ago, but last season’s point total of 25 was a career high.
“Barry’s got to play with a motor this year, and we have to demand that as coaches,” Lucia said. “He’s got all the things you’re looking for — he’s big and he can skate, he can shoot. He’s a presence out there, and we as coaches have to help him find that potential that he has. I think a big part of that is him learning to play hard every shift.”
Potulny has big family shoes to fill after his brother drove the team for the better part of three seasons. The younger Potulny was limited to 15 games last season because of a knee injury suffered early, but scored six goals in his first four games after returning in March.
He’s back in camp this year stronger, faster and better conditioned.
“We really look for him to have a big sophomore season for us,” Lucia said. “He’s going to be front and center, getting the ice time to do that.”
Just like the offense, the defense won’t be the same without Keith Ballard. The first-team all-American was a defensive rock and offered a bit in the way of offense, too. The closest thing the Gophers will have this season is junior Chris Harrington.
“He’s got to take that next step and be consistent,” Lucia said of Harrington. “He got off to a difficult start because of the [knee] injury, and I think he played real well down the stretch and at the end of the year for us. But he now has to take that next step and say ‘I’m going to be the man every night.’”
The Gophers will need good seasons from senior Judd Stevens, sophomore Mike Vannelli and junior Peter Kennedy to help ease the need for freshmen Alex Goligoski, Nate Hagemo and Derek Peltier to be top-four defensemen right away.
Freshmen will play a big role for Minnesota nonetheless, with seven or eight figuring to be in the lineup every night.
Kellen Briggs knows the feeling. As a freshman last season, the goaltender was thrown right into the No. 1 spot and earned 25 victories. But he failed to keep his save percentage over .900, finishing at .894, and struggled on the road. Those are things Lucia will keep his eye on this season.
The Gophers find themselves in the unfamiliar spot of having no established stars entering the season, but that’s something that could change quickly.
“When the year begins, we don’t have anybody that’s an all-league player coming back,” Lucia said. “But if we’re going to be the type of team that has the success we need to have, somebody’s going to have to emerge into those spots. That’s going to be the fun this year, to see who’s going to do that. We’re confident somebody’s going to, it’s just a matter who.”