MINNEAPOLIS — It’s now conventional wisdom that among the six Division I men’s conferences, the WCHA was hardest hit by offseason defections to the pros.
And among the league’s 10 teams, a case can be made that Minnesota suffered most.
Soon after their NCAA tournament loss to Holy Cross — a game that made headlines as one of college hockey’s greatest upsets — the Golden Gophers were rocked by a string of departures that included Hobey Baker finalist Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen, and Kris Chucko.
It got worse in the waning weeks of the offseason, when phenom Phil Kessel made his semi-but-not-quite-expected jump to the NHL as well.
Throw in seniors Chris Harrington, Gino Guyer and company, and — for those of you keeping score at home — that’s a total of 88 goals and 141 assists gone from a high-powered offense.
Minnesota, though, enjoys a perpetual advantage in recruiting from one of the nation’s most hockey-crazed states, and head coach Don Lucia’s incoming freshmen have proved up to the task of filling the void.
Through nine games this season, two of Minnesota’s three leading scorers are rookies. Kyle Okposo, who joined the program to substantial fanfare, has a line of 8-4–12, including a hat trick on Oct. 28 against Colorado College.
More surprising is Jay Barriball, who replaced Kessel on the roster and was given Kessel’s No. 26 jersey to boot. Barriball, who until Kessel’s exit wasn’t scheduled to join the Gophers until 2007-08, has 6-6–12 and had scored a point in every game until Saturday’s matchup against Minnesota-Duluth, which the Gophers still won in overtime, 3-2.
“He [Kessel] decided, and they called me and said I was going to be a Gopher this year,” shrugged Barriball during the Gophers’ weekend series against Wayne State.
“It was an easy decision to bring him in once Phil signed,” added Lucia.
Barriball, all 5-9 and 155 pounds of him, has established himself as a player who’s not afraid to get down low among bigger bodies. A number of his goals have come with the native of Prior Lake, Minn., parked at the edge of the crease.
“I’ve just been in the right place at the right time, crashing the net,” said Barriball.
“He’s not big, but he’s fearless,” agreed Lucia.
The Gophers’ youth is a non-issue for at least one WCHA coach. Scott Owens, whose Colorado College Tigers were swept at Mariucci Arena, was straightforward in his assessment of Minnesota’s talent.
“They’re good,” Owens said. “I don’t care how young they are, they big and they’re strong and they’re fast.”
Barriball’s success aside, size has been a plus for Minnesota so far. Freshman defenseman — and No. 1 overall NHL draft pick — Erik Johnson is among the Gophers who has stature on his side. The tale of the tape on the 18-year-old Johnson has him at 6-foot-4 and 222 pounds.
That’s a load for any opposing player to handle, a fact noted by CC goaltender Matt Zaba after Minnesota’s 2-0 win on Oct. 27, when he referred to the Gophers’ “monsters,” including players like Johnson and 6-foot-4 Blake Wheeler.
Wheeler, a touted rookie last season who came out of the Twin Cities’ Breck School, was the fifth overall pick in the NHL draft in 2005. Now, he is among the young Gophers stepping up their games in 2006-07, with 5-5–10 so far.
Of course, it hasn’t been all youth for Minnesota. Senior Tyler Hirsch, back with the team after missing almost all of last season due to personal issues, leads the team in scoring with 2-12–14. He scored the winning goal in overtime Saturday against Duluth on a pass from Okposo.
Goaltending has been more than solid as well, with sophomore Jeff Frazee performing admirably during Kellen Briggs’ three-game season-opening suspension, and Briggs showcasing his skills since his return. Briggs carries a 1.33 goals against average and a .942 save percentage, Frazee a 1.67 GAA and .912 SV%.
Minnesota has won eight straight games — four of them in WCHA play — since dropping its season opener to current national No. 1 Maine in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game. If the melding of experience and youth continues, there are many more wins in the offing this season.