Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Gopher Hockey Season in Review

Season Summary:
  • Overall Record - 17-13-7
  • Regular Season Record - 15-12-7
  • Post-Season Record - 2-1 (2 wins vs. St. Cloud State in first round WCHA; 1 loss vs. UMD in WCHA Final Five)
  • WCHA Record - 12-11-5
  • WCHA Finish - Fifth
  • Home Record (Regular Season) - 9-5-6
  • Away Record (Regular Season) - 5-7-1
  • Neutral Site Record (Regular Season) - 1-0-0
  • Leading Scorer - Ryan Stoa (24-22-46)
  • Leading Goaltender - Alex Kangas (17-11-6; .901 Save %; 2.79 GAA; 3 Shutouts)
  • Team Statistics

Season Recap:

As the Star Tribune's beat writer, Roman Augustoviz details, the Gophers' season seemed to take a turn in the College Hockey Showcase game against Michigan. The game was lost by the Gophers 6-3, but it was costly in so many other aspects.

  • First, it was the team's first home loss of the season after a 7-1-4 start
  • Secondly, it was goaltender Alex Kangas's first real clunker of the year. He gave up four goals on just 15 shots.
  • Finally, and most importantly, three players were hurt in this game. Forwards Jay Barriball and Mike Carman ended up returning later in the season. However, freshman forward Taylor Matson tore knee ligaments and was lost for the season.

The early promise to the season, culminating in a #1 ranking, was lost beginning with that game. The Gophers limped to a 10-12-2 finish and had to have some help in securing home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. After sweeping St. Cloud State at home, the team lost to UMD in the play-in game of the WCHA Final Five and was left on the outside looking in at the NCAA Tournament field. It is the Gophers' first season outside the NCAA field in nine seasons.

The season started to turn after the Michigan game, but the team was able to right the ship somewhat leading into the Christmas break. After the World Junior Championships, Lucia got sick, the team was steamrolled twice in Grand Forks (catapulting the Sioux to a MacNaughton Cup after a weak start), and fell from the rankings. A 1-6-1 swoon starting in late January sealed the Gophers' fate to finishing in the middle of the pack.

The Gophers dominated St. Cloud State, beating them 4 times in the regular season and twice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. SCSU accounted for 6 of the team's 17 wins and was the sole reason the team finished with home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Gophers were swept at home by Wisconsin, lost both ends of a home-and-home to MSU-Mankato for the first time ever, and were an abysmal 3-7-1 in road games in the WHCA against teams not named St. Cloud State.

Team Grades:

  • Forwards (B) - Ryan Stoa led the team in scoring (24-22-46 in 26 games) and the WCHA in goals. He was the only player to hit 20 in the regular season. Jordan Schroeder was spectacular in his freshman season (13-32-45 in 35 games). Jay Barriball (11-23-34 in 34 games) had a solid bounce back season, but the goal total is lower than the team needed. Mike Hoeffel (12-8-20) notched half of his goals on the power play. No other player hit double-digits in goals and inconsistency on the second line was a big reason why this team struggled in the second half of the season. The first line (Stoa, Schroeder, Barriball) was solid throughout, but the second line (Carman, Hoeffel, Flynn) was largely inconsistent. The third line (Lucia, White, Sacchetti) started to pick up the slack at the end of the season.
  • Defensemen (C) - Too often, they were weak at exactly the wrong time of the game. David Fischer made some tremendous plays and was the team's best defender game in, game out, but was also subject to glaring errors. Aaron Ness played timid at times - especially when time to shoot the puck - but he will continue his development into the closest thing this program has had to Jordan Leopold. Cade Fairchild (9-24-33 in 35 games) was the team's most improved player this year and quarterbacked the power play admirably down the stretch. The team will miss R.J. Anderson's steady play at the line.
  • Goaltenders (C+) - Kangas was solid at times, especially at the beginning of the season. However, he was absolutely awful in Grand Forks (the team was also, to his defense) and against Michigan Tech late in the season. He'll bounce back. Kent Patterson played sparingly, but was solid, save for the Friday night loss up in Houghton against Michigan Tech.
  • Newcomers (A-) - Ness was good, and Schroeder was the best player on the ice many nights (Update: Further proof here). Defenseman Sam Lofquist had some trouble adjusting, but appears to be a solid prospect. The other freshmen forwards (Nico Sacchetti, Joe Miller, Nick Larson, Jake Hansen) did not contribute much, although Sacchetti had some key goals down the stretch. Having Matson back next year will make this freshmen class much better.
  • Coaching (B) - Don Lucia held the group together through a difficult season. His illness and working so many newcomers into the line up proved problematic.

Flight Risks:

  • Stoa's as good as gone. The Colorado Avalanche second-round pick four years ago has developed into a prominent pro prospect, and the Avs will most likely put on a press to sign him. Lucia mentioned that he expects a decision on this soon, but also mentions that he may have left the door open for a return for his senior season here.
  • David Fischer is a first round pick of the Montreal Canadiens who have been aggressive in signing prospects in years past. My money is that he returns for a senior season.
  • Ness is a NY Islanders' pick but likely needs more seasoning. Garth Snow has said the right things about his development after last year's Kyle Okposo fiasco, but the smart money is on the youngster to continue his development at the U of M.
  • Schroeder's departure depends entirely upon where he goes in the 2009 NHL Draft. If he's a top 5 pick, he would be a strong candidate to depart early. If he goes lower, his chances of a return increase. He accelerated his high school education to arrive at the U a year early, thus explaining why he is only eligible now for the 2009 draft.

Key Losses:

The team only had two seniors, due to the early departures of seasons past (Kessel, Wheeler, Frazee). Defenseman R.J. Anderson was paired all season long with Cade Fairchild and provided a strong defensive presence while the more offensively-gifted Fairchild was freer to rush the puck. Although coming to the U as a puck-moving defenseman with lethal skills on the power play, Anderson's four years with the Gophers were marked by steady stay-at-home defensive play. His presence will be missed.

Forward Justin Bostrom was the team's best penalty-killer and anchored the team's fourth line, usually between two freshmen. He was a versatile, hard-working forward who had a solid reputation in the room.

Key Additions:

The incoming freshman class is documented in this release from the Gophers. Of the six players chronicled in the release,

  • Zach Budish missed his entire senior season with Edina due to a knee injury, and he may miss some time at the start of the next season.
  • Eden Prairie defenseman Nick Leddy won the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award this season.
  • Seth Helgeson of Sioux City of the USHL is a 6-3, 220 pound defenseman. That is exactly what this team needs.

Not on this list but eligible in 2009-10 is former Bowling Green forward Jacob Cepis. He transferred to the U mid-season and will be eligible after Christmas. He'll be a junior when he is eligible. Before his transfer, he had a solid freshman season for BGSU (15-16-31 in 38 games), but slipped in his sophomore year (1-4-5 in 18 games). He is a 5-8, 165 pound forward.

Also, freshman Taylor Matson will return to the Gophers after missing the season due to a knee injury suffered in the Michigan game. Although he notched only one goal in 13 games, Matson was impressive while receiving time on the fourth line, and had only recently moved up to the third line before being injured. He was quick and good with the puck, and the team certainly missed his skills after he was hurt.

2009-10 Outlook:

The 2008-09 season ended suddenly for the Gophers and left a bad taste in their mouths. Anger was also evident from the fan base who search to understand how a team so rich in talent and tradition can struggle to finish in the middle of the pack two years in a row and miss the tournament. One e-mailer mentioned that the Gophers are the same as Michigan football and Kentucky basketball - the expectations are just higher here. The prospects of watching this team sink into mediocrity are disheartening for Gopher fans to consider.

However, the 2009-10 version of this team should be a legitimate contender. Kangas is poised for a bounce back next year, and the team will have a large and experienced senior class (Lucia, Carman, Fischer, Flynn, Barriball, Schack, and Stoa - if he returns) which will add leadership to a team struggling to fit 12 freshmen into the lineup at the start of last season. Having Stoa back will be huge, but doubtful. Still, the prospect of a top line with Schroeder, Lucia, and Barriball is solid as well.

The defensive core is strong and experienced. Anderson's graduation will create an opportunity for a freshman (Helgeson?) to break into the top 6. The defense broke down far too many times in 2008-09 and will need to tighten up to ease the load on Kangas.

Lucia is taking a lot of heat for how this season ended. However, he deserves a pass for a number of reasons:

  • He has won two national championships
  • He was seriously ill during the second half of the season, which sapped his energy and led to being away from the team at times
  • Working 12 freshmen into the line up (9 by the end of the season) was difficult

Coach Lucia is a proven winner and is the right person to coach this team next year. If he is not back, it is because he decided to step away. However, in media reports, he is already looking forward to fall practice and getting back to work.

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