Minnesota to rely on depth, veterans

A deep team means the Gophers will not have to rely on freshmen as much.

Ben Gotz

On their trip to the national title game last season, the Gophers needed and received outstanding production from their freshman class. As the team fights to win a title this year, head coach Don Lucia is not planning on that being the case again.

With the freshmen from last year returning with a year of experience under their belts, veteran players will get the chance to fill the few holes in the Gophers’ line chart.

“Last year, the freshmen came in and made an immediate contribution,” Lucia said. “We don’t need that quite so much from our freshmen this year.”

The team’s six-man freshman class will still get an opportunity to show that they belong, but Lucia said that for the first game of the season the team is planning to go with 12 returning forwards.

That means returning players, like redshirt sophomore forward Connor Reilly and sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri, will have chances to skate with some of the team’s top lines.

“Game one, I think we’ve made a decision that we’re going to play our veterans,” Lucia said. “For me, it’s like [asking] up front, are [Connor and Vinni] ready to take the next step and be top-line forwards?”

While the Gophers still have to replace five seniors who departed from the program last year, they return a lot of their production from last season. Returning players account for 128 of the team’s 143 goals from last season, with 59 coming from last year’s freshman class.

The freshmen who stepped onto campus last year had big shoes to fill, with star players Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Nate Schmidt all leaving to play in the NHL.

But the incoming class stepped up, with newcomer Justin Kloos leading the team in goals and Hudson Fasching appearing as an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team.

With no early departures from the program this year, the freshman class doesn’t need to produce right away like last year’s did. That’s not to say the Gophers’ incoming class isn’t talented — it features three players who were selected in the 2014 NHL Draft.

“A lot of [the freshmen] are coming from good programs, and they’re making a good impact,” senior forward Seth Ambroz said. “I really don’t see anyone who is really not going to be able to compete for a spot day in and day out.”

Three of the Gophers’ freshmen recorded a point in the team’s exhibition victory against Northern Alberta, and backup goaltender Nick Lehr recorded a shutout in net during the third period.

The freshmen won’t likely have the same impact during the team’s opening game this weekend, though, especially with forward Leon Bristedt serving a suspension for the first two games of the season.

Bristedt was assessed a two-game penalty by the NCAA because a professional player was allowed to play with his amateur team in
Sweden.

Senior Travis Boyd said he likes how the team’s current roster is constructed, even compared to the team’s roster two years ago that featured current NHL players.

“I think overall we have more depth than that year,” Boyd said. “I think this year we just go three lines deep. … I think the big difference is coming in and knowing that we don’t have to rely on just a couple guys. We’re going to have a full team of players who can make things happen this year.”