Friday, October 07, 2005

WCHA Preview - 2. Minnesota Gophers

Last year: 28-15-1, 17-10-1 WCHA (T-3rd). Lost to North Dakota in NCAA semifinal.
Coach: Don Lucia, sixth season at UM (162-77-21); 19th season overall (441-232-50)
Top returnees
Forwards: Danny Irmen, jr (24-19-43); Tyler Hirsch, sr (11-33-44); Ryan Potulny, jr (24-17-41); Gino Guyer, sr (12-20-32)
Defensemen: Chris Harrington, sr (2-24-26); Derek Peltier, soph (6-13-19)
Goalies: Kellen Briggs, jr (21-12-0, 2.43, .912)
Top newcomers: Phil Kessel, F; Blake Wheeler, F; Ryan Stoa, F; R.J. Anderson, D; Jeff Frazee, G
Biggest losses: Barry Tallackson, F (11-8-19); Garrett Smaagaard, F (8-8-16); Justin Johnson, G (7-3-1, 2.34, .914)

Assess the 2004-2005 season. What went right and what went wrong?:
When focusing on what went right, the answer here is pretty obvious. The Gophers overcame some midseason issues and qualified for the Frozen Four practically out of nowhere. Young players like Potulny and Irmen up front and Alex Goligoski and Nate Hagemo on defense gained some valuable experience during the Gophers' run. Briggs played well, but the defense in front of him in the West Regional was outstanding, as the Gophers protected their goaltender and limited their opponents' shots. As for what went wrong, the answer here is pretty obvious, too. The Gophers went through a midseason slump that saw them swept in back-to-back home series by Colorado College and Michigan Tech. The Gophers also lost home games to UMD and Alaska-Anchorage, and tied UAA when the Seawolves scored a goal with seven seconds left in regulation to force overtime. The recovery from that slump was quick and resounding, however, and didn't end until the Gophers were on their way to Columbus.

Assess the team's overall strengths:
This Gopher team is highly skilled, as usual. Potulny and Irmen seem to specialize in scoring big goals for their team. If Hirsch is fully recovered from whatever issues plagued him during the WCHA Final Five, he is a playmaking force, especially on the power play. Freshmen Kessel, Wheeler, and Stoa only add more to the forwards. Kessel has been a star everywhere he has played so far, and he's almost a lock to be the top pick in the 2006 draft. Stoa and Wheeler give this team some much-needed bulk up front. Hagemo and Goligoski, along with the bruising Harrington, lead a strong defensive corps. Briggs should play well this season, knowing that freshman Frazee is around and ready to take the job.

Assess the team's overall weaknesses:
Obviously, youth can be one of them. The Gophers gained some priceless experience for their young stars a year ago, but here come a bunch more young players this year. While Kessel has played at a high level, as has Stoa, neither of them have played in the WCHA. It's a much more physical brand of hockey than they're used to, and they'll have to show they can take the heat. Goligoski and Hagemo both struggled at times last year, due in part to injury, and Harrington can sometimes find himself in the penalty box too much for Lucia's liking. If Frazee isn't ready in goal, the Gophers could have some problems, as Briggs sometimes seems to have one poor game for every two or three good ones.

Best-case scenario:
Lucia gets the youngsters to play like they've been in this league for three years already. The defense continues to develop, Briggs and/or Frazee play well, and the Gophers match every challenge they're faced with. If all of this happens, there's little doubt that the Gophers are heading to Milwaukee.

Realistic projection:
Something pretty close to that, actually. I think Minnesota will hit a few bumps in the road this season, especially in conference play. But this team is too talented, too skilled, and too tough not to be a huge factor in the WCHA race. I won't pick them to win the league because there's a team that has more experience and, in my view, somewhat comparable talent. But Minnesota will be there in the end, and they're a huge favorite to end up in Milwaukee for the Frozen Four.

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