University of Minnesota season preview

By DJ Powers

The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers will open their 2005-06 regular season on Oct. 14 when they host non-conference opponent Alaska-Fairbanks at Mariucci Arena. The meeting will feature head coach Don Lucia going up against some former players that make up the Alaska-Fairbanks coaching staff.

The always high expectations that are associated with the Minnesota hockey program may be even higher this season due to the number of outstanding players returning along with the most highly anticipated incoming class that will don the maroon and gold this season. The two biggest questions will most likely be how quickly can the team chemistry come together and whether they can live up to the expectations coming from inside as well as outside of the University of Minnesota hockey community.

The Gophers lost six players due to graduation in forwards Jake Fleming, Jerrid Reinholz, Garret Smaagaard, and Barry Tallackson (NJ), defenseman Judd Stevens and goaltender Justin Johnson. Aside from Tallackson, the players aren’t necessarily household names, but they were players who brought some tremendous leadership and character to the team.

Minnesota will be exceedingly deep at the forward position in particular this season. The two players that are likely to draw the most attention are Phil Kessel and Blake Wheeler (PHO). Kessel, the early projection to go first overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, is a player blessed with extraordinary skills that very few can match. His dazzling display at the 2005 World Junior Championships in North Dakota was one of the few highlights of the disappointing performance of Team USA. Kessel comes to Minnesota from the U.S. National Team Development Program (USNTDP), where he rewrote the history books, including racking up an all-time record of 180 career points and 104 career goals.

Most draft watchers were a little more than surprised when the Phoenix Coyotes took the immensely talented Wheeler with the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft. The Plymouth, MN native wrapped up a solid 2004-05 season in Green Bay (USHL), leading the Gamblers with 47 points (19 goals, 28 assists) in 58 games. He was a member of Team World at the 2005 USHL’s All-Star/Prospects game back in February. His 6’4 frame and outstanding skating ability are just good attributes.

In addition to Kessel and Wheeler, two other outstanding forwards will also make their Minnesota debut this season in Ryan Stoa (COL) and Justin Bostrom. Stoa, like Kessel, comes to Minnesota from the USNTDP. The Bloomington, MN finished fourth on the team with 56 points (20 goals, 38 assists). Stoa is noted for his excellent playmaking ability at both at center and left wing.

At 5’9/170 lbs. Bostrom is the smallest of the incoming forwards. The quick and energetic winger comes to Minnesota from Sioux City (USHL), where he had 47 points (26 goals, 21 assists) in 41 games. What will make Bostrom a favorite among the Minnesota fans is his fiercely competitive nature and never-say-die attitude. He’s a player that Sioux City head coach Dave Siciliano describes as “a player that you’d love to have on your team but you’d hate to have to play against.”

Joining the newcomers will be all of the top returning forwards, including senior Tyler Hirsch, juniors Ryan Potulny (PHI) and Danny Irmen (MIN), and sophomore Kris Chucko (CGY). Hirsch led the Gophers in scoring last season with 44 points (11 goals, 33 assists) in 41 games. He really blossomed into an outstanding playmaker last season and paid huge dividends, particularly in the latter half of the season.

Potulny finished third on the team in scoring last season with 41 points (24 goals, 17 assists) playing in all 44 games. Where Potulny was at his deadliest was on the power play. His 14 power play goals led the Gophers and were tied for second in the nation.

Irmen finished second on the team with 43 points (24 goals, 19 assists) and saw his greatest success last season in front of the net, whether it was picking up the rebounds, deflecting shots or simply making life miserable for the opposition. He and Potulny made for one of the WCHA’s most impressive twosomes. The duo both earned selections to the WCHA All-Conference Third team.

The power forward Chucko made his presence felt wherever and whenever possible. He saw playing time in a variety of situations with a variety of linemates. He led all Gophers rookies in scoring with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assist) playing in all 44 games.

“The biggest area is his skating needs to continue to get better but I think he has come a long ways in that. He’s a hard working kid. I think just through repetition and practice, he’s going to become a better skater and a better player,“ said head coach Don Lucia of Chucko in a recent interview with Hockey’s Future.

Another area that will be a strength for Minnesota this season is in goal. Junior Kellen Briggs was very solid, and at times spectacular between the pipes last season. He posted a 21-12-0 record that included two shutouts. He was named WCHA Defensive Player of the Week four times.

Battling Briggs in goal this season is freshman sensation Jeff Frazee (NJ). The Burnsville, MN native is another incoming player from the USNTDP. He posted some astounding numbers last season, going 27-8-0 with six shutouts. His .932 save percentage and 2.13 goals against average were both single season records. What Frazee will perhaps be best remembered for however was his absolutely phenomenal performance at the 2005 IIHF U-18 WJC in the Czech Republic. There he backstopped Team USA to a gold medal with a perfect 6-0 record. His miniscule 1.33 goals against average and 9.59 save percentage were tops in the tournament.

With the exception of Stevens, Minnesota returns all of their defensemen from last season. A trio of sophomores in Alex Goligoski (PIT), Nate Hagemo (CAR) and Derek Peltier (COL) had particularly notable campaigns last season. Goligoski finished second among Gophers blueliners in scoring last season with 20 points (five goals, 15 assists) in 33 games. His immense puck skills were evident throughout the year, particularly on the Gophers power play. Goligoski’s outstanding season also earned him a selection to the WCHA All-Rookie Team.

Hagemo brought some snarl and speed to the Minnesota defense last season. The Edina, MN native became one of the Gophers most effective defensemen last year, despite missing games due to injury and the U-20 WJC. Having to go up against opposing players who are bigger than his 5’11/189 lbs. frame never seems to faze Hagemo. He finished with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in 30 appearances.

Peltier quietly became one of Minnesota’s most reliable defensemen last season. He finished the season third in defensive in scoring with 19 points (three goals, 13 assists) in 43 games. He also led the team in plus/minus (+17). Peltier’s ability to be in the right place at the right time made him quite effective at both ends of the ice.

The lone newcomer to the Minnesota defense this season is R. J. Anderson (PHI). He was a 2004 draft selection of the Philadelphia Flyers (fourth round, 101st overall). The offensive-minded Anderson comes to Minnesota from Centennial HS in Minnesota (USHSW), where he had 51 points (28 goals, 23 assists) last season.

Coach Lucia looks forward to each new season and this season is no different.

“I look forward to the challenge of recruiting and putting the team back on the ice. I feel very fortunate to have been able to do this all these years. This will be my 25th year of college coaching and I’ve really enjoyed it. You don’t know how many more years that you’ll get out of it.”

(Number of NHL prospects on 2005-06 roster: 14)

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