With 15 drafted players on their roster, the University of Minnesota features more NHL prospects than any other NCAA team this season. So it is easy for lesser-known players to receive smaller amounts of attention. But sophomore and Buffalo Sabres prospect Christian Isackson is emerging from the shadows of the team’s top players and is beginning to establish himself as a rising star in the Golden Gophers’ talent-laden lineup.
After playing in just 11 games and posting no points as a freshman last season, Isackson has already surpassed that this season, playing in all 24 games to date and posting 15 points (three goals, 12 assists).
As Isackson explains, focusing on consistency and improving the weaker parts of his game have helped him to take that next step with the Golden Gophers.
“Last year, I didn’t have my best year and I didn’t play much,” said Isackson. “So the focus for me this year was to get better and work hard every day. I knew that the summer was a good time for me to work on my strength and speed. So coming into this year, I just felt that much more confident and am just trying to play my game a lot more. I think that’s paid off so far.
The coaches have taught me a lot about just playing hard, making sure that I’m always keeping my feet moving, and playing well in all three zones. They’ve also made me understand that I need to always be extremely responsible in the defensive zone too. They always tell me to be very physical and make sure that I’m using my body well when I have the puck.”
Isackson’s renewed sense of confidence has already paid dividends in the Golden Gophers’ success. And as assistant coach Grant Potulny explains, that confidence and his willingness to continually improve all facets of his game have also garnered Isackson the faith of the coaches.
“We told Christian at the end of last year that he will have an opportunity to play and he will have to work himself into the lineup,” said Potulny. “We worked on trying to get Christian to be more consistent and try get into a little better shape. We’ve also worked with him on trying to get him to take things almost to a different level and to understand that the game does change when you move up to the next level. We wanted Christian to come in with the confidence that he could make plays and not have to worry about us coaches looking over his shoulder. I think his consistency has really improved and it’s still getting better as the season has moved along. He had a tough freshman year, but Christian wants to be here and he’s had a great start so far.”
The faith that the coaches have bestowed on Isackson can be seen in the fact that he has played much of the season on Minnesota’s top line with Florida Panthers prospects, junior Nick Bjugstad and sophomore Kyle Rau.
“When you put good players with other good players, I think it makes them elevate their game,” Potulny added. “I think Christian sees that as a challenge and an opportunity to play with two guys that have proven to be good players that can make plays; that play hard and play fast. Christian knows that he’s in a position where if he continually does the things that he needs to do, he’ll be rewarded on the stat sheet and also have that opportunity to face the other team’s top defensive players. And by having the opportunity to play on our top line, Christian also has the opportunity to win the shifts, the battles and eventually helps us win the game.”
“It’s really fun playing with those guys because they always seem to be everywhere and contributing in all areas of the ice,” Isackson said of playing with Bjugstad and Rau. “When they have the puck, they’re able to draws guys to them which opens up lanes for me. I think Nick and Kyle can open up a lot of the game and create more scoring chances. And I think that’s helped me a lot too.”
One of the biggest tests for Isackson in playing on the Golden Gophers’ top line is adapting to playing on right wing. The Pine City, MN native has played center for much of his career and continues to do so at times this season, as well. But Isackson embraces the challenge as an opportunity to become not only a better player but a more versatile one, too.
“It’s a little different playing on wing because you have different responsibilities,” offered Isackson. “There’s less skating in the defensive zone, so that makes it a little easier for me, but you’ve also got to make sure that you’re covering the defense when necessary, too. I think I’m more comfortable playing center just because I’ve played there for most of my career. But playing wing has allowed me to learn a new position and see the game from that perspective. It has also allowed me to be able to combine (in my game) what I’ve learned and can do having played at both positions. I think it’s also helped me grow as a player, too.”
At 6’2”, 190 pounds, Isackson possesses good size, but what is notable this season is how he is utilizing his body. The added physical strength to his frame has allowed him to be more effective in the difficult areas and better able to both protect the puck and fend off opposing defenders. In addition, Isackson has also added a bit more grit to his game. The result has been more scoring opportunities and a noticeably higher level of play. It’s also something that hasn’t been lost on the coaches, either.
“If Christian understands that, if he gets his nose dirty and actually goes into a battle and wins a puck, then that benefits our team,” said Potulny. “We know that he won’t win all of the battles but we’ve gotten him to understand that as long as he goes in there, is physical, and goes in with the mentality of winning the battle and getting to the net, that will help his (developmental) process. I think Christian is improving in that area. We take stats of our players in areas such as giveaways, takeaways and net presence, and we can already see that Christian has increased his takeaways and decreased his giveaways.”
Another area of his game that has benefited from his added strength is Isackson’s skating. He has developed more power in his stride and his foot speed has also begun to increase. Where it has been particularly evident has been in his improved transitioning and ability to play at higher speeds. And it is these parts of his game that Isackson has focused on a great deal this season.
“I think it’s becoming a part of my game because it’s something that I’ve worked on and continue to work on,” said Isackson. “I think making plays in every single zone is an important part of that, whether it’s making little passes or stripping the puck from someone. So being able to do everything at a high speed is something that I’ve been trying to really focus on.”
“I think the big thing we’ve been emphasizing to Christian is ‘playing fast’,” added Potulny. “What we’re trying to do with Christian is to get him to understand that the first few steps in transitioning, whether it’s offense to defense or vice versa, is important in trying to win the race or give himself some space. He has to be able to immediately take off, get out of whichever area he’s in and get going in the other direction. I think Christian is starting to get that concept. He’s a good skater, but he just needs to be able to get up to speed as quickly as possible and keep his feet moving. You can really see the improvement that he’s made in those areas this season because he’s more involved in things and he’s done a great job of that.”
A little known fact about Isackson that has also contributed to his hockey development is that he is also a proficient table tennis player.
“I think it has helped my (hockey) game because in Ping-Pong you’re using your hands a lot and have to have that (hand-eye) coordination. So I think it’s definitely helped with that and in my stickhandling, too.”
One of the unique challenges that Isackson has faced since arriving in the Twin Cities in the fall of 2011 is establishing himself on a team loaded with elite-level players. Although it has been difficult at times, Isackson notes that it has also been quite beneficial.
“I think it’s challenging, but I also think that it helps a lot too,” stated Isackson. “Whether it’s in games or in practices, there’s always that competition because your playing against other guys that have the same goals and aspirations as you do, so they’re working as hard as you are and giving their best everyday, too. It definitely challenges every player on our team because they’re competing every single day for the chance of getting a spot in the lineup.”
For the coaches this season, the decision to give Isackson regular ice time has been a relatively easy one.
“I think it’s been easy because Christian has done a really nice job for us both on the wing and up the middle,” said Potulny. “He’s proven that he can play all three forward positions. Christian has put himself in a category where he has differentiated himself and become an important player for us because of his versatility and his great attitude. When you have a guy that can move around and has that versatility, that’s another nice thing to have because he can help our team in a bunch of different ways. We can put Christian in any spot on any line and the fact that his skill level is so high is an added advantage for us.”
Isackson has attended the last two Buffalo Sabres' prospect camps since being selected in the 2010 NHL Draft. While the camps have offered him a glimpse of what to expect at the pro level, it is the importance of his continual development and maturity that Isackson has learned the most from them.
“Two of the biggest things that I really learned was playing at a higher pace and seeing just how much faster, bigger and smarter the other players were,” Isakcson related. “I had to learn how to do things at a faster pace and just playing at top speed all the time.
The Sabres really emphasized staying after practice and doing whatever I can as far as getting better. They told me that I should be working on my skills every day, not just with my team but also on my own, as well. They also want me to develop personally, too, because if everyone else on the team is developing and maturing throughout the year, then as I develop and mature with them, it will make my team that much better.”
While the Sabres continue to keep tabs on Isackson’s progress, allowing him to continue his growth at Minnesota has been their primary focus.
“They’ve seen me play a couple of times and I’ve chatted with them a little bit, but they’ve basically allowed me to be on my own to develop and mature,” said Isackson. “They want to make sure that I’m focused on that and helping my team.”
So how does Isackson describe himself as a player?
“I would say that I’m a pretty skilled player that’s more of a playmaker. I like making plays all over the rink, whether it’s in the neutral zone, defensive zone or offensive zone. I’m also good around the net, too.”
Isackson lists Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk as his favorite NHL player and the one that he tries to pattern his play after.
“I love the fact that he has great hands and great vision. He also makes sure that he’s one of the most responsible players in the defensive zone. I think he’s one of the best offensive and defensive players too. So I try to model myself after him and aspire to be like him.”
Isackson’s continued development and ability to round out his game are essential to his future success. And if what he has shown so far is any indication, Isackson could potentially succeed in his goal of playing in the NHL one day, adding to an existing top-notch stable of forwards in the Buffalo Sabres organization.
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