Rebounding is the goal for U hockey team

by Adam Banse

It had to happen sometime.
After decades of ripping through the WCHA, compiling records and producing some of college hockey’s best players, the Gophers men’s hockey team might have been due for a smack in the face.
And last season, they got it. Minnesota finished 17-22 overall, 12-16 in league play — one of the worst showings in team history — and saw their hopes for a face-saving postseason run vanish when they blew a four-goal lead in the deciding game of the WCHA first-round playoffs.
When the Gophers open practice Oct. 1, they hope to prove that last year was an anomaly.
As always, talk of this year’s team is flavored with a new enthusiasm — and judging by the words of the players and coach Doug Woog, there might well be reason for optimism.
“Our expectations aren’t very different than any other year,” senior defenseman Bill Kohn said. “We expect to compete for the WCHA championship.”
Kohn will help lead a defensive crew that was beset by injuries and early departures last season. At times, the Gophers played with as few as five defenders.
“We didn’t get any offense from our defense last year,” Woog said. Because of injuries, “we put them in a position where they probably couldn’t have been successful.”
The Gophers look to improve at the position this year, despite the NHL defection of sophomore Ben Clymer and the losses of Brett Abrahamson and Jason Godbout to graduation.
The Gophers could be buoyed by recruits Woog calls his “biggest group” ever, and he’s speaking literally. Of the nine newcomers, each stands at least 6 feet tall, and only one weighs less than 180 pounds.
“There are a lot of big kids,” said junior wing Nate Miller. “They’re going to be a big factor.”
The primary players to watch in this group are forward John Pohl (Red Wing H.S.) and goaltender Adam Hauser (Greenway of Coleraine H.S.). Pohl set the state career scoring record last season, eclipsing Gophers teammate Dave Spehar’s mark, and Hauser spent the season with the U.S. Developmental Squad in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Pohl also won the annual Mr. Hockey Award, giving the Gophers the last 11 winners. They also signed all but one of the five award finalists each of the last two years.
Woog considers the goaltending position an area of concern. Last year’s leading net-minder, Steve DeBus, left school to pursue a pro career, and backup Erik Day is out for the season with a possible career-ending knee injury.
That leaves untested junior Willy Marvin and the rookie Hauser in the net. Marvin has one start in two years for the Gophers, and Hauser has yet to suit up in a Minnesota uniform. The Gophers have also scouted several goalies who could possibly walk-on.
Considering that DeBus was the last line in a relatively porous defense a year ago, an inexperienced goaltender could be a huge liability for the Gophers this season — if the defense again fails to come around.
Woog said he wouldn’t make a decision on who would start for the Gophers until practice gets underway, but Hauser’s resume makes him the odds-on favorite.
Minnesota also said goodbye to two-year captain and emotional leader Casey Hankinson, who recently signed a pro contract with the Chicago Blackhawks, but Woog is confident that leadership will not be a problem this year. The Gophers will be led by captain and third-team all-WCHA center Wyatt Smith.
Woog describes Smith — Minnesota’s leading scorer overall and its most consistent performer — as a “low-maintenance” guy who embodies what every team is looking for in a captain.
The WCHA’s leading scorer, center Reggie Berg, will also be relied upon to lead the Gophers.
Woog said the Gophers’ fortunes lay in the continued improvement of players such as Dave Spehar, Rico Pagel and Mike Anderson.
“We need the guys in the middle echelon to move up a notch,” Woog said. “They need to be more productive.”
The coach also places defensemen Mike Lyons and Dylan Mills in that select group, saying, “(they) have got to move.”
Minnesota will have a shot at revenge early on when it faces Minnesota-Duluth, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs a year ago. And if the Gophers plan on climbing into the WCHA’s upper echelon, they’ll have to do a little moving of their own.