efense top priority for upcoming hockey season

David La

Minnesota hockey coach Don Lucia concluded the afternoon portion of Friday’s two-a-day practice feeling satisfied about his defensemen and newcomers.
Lucia, who specifically watched the play of defensemen, came away with a favorable impression of his blueliners, a group of athletes who Lucia noted as bigger and more nimble than last year.
Offensive tackles in football who possess this potent combination do a better job protecting the quarterback. For defensemen, this mix of attributes enables them to take pressure off their goaltender.
“We have to cut down our shots against,” Lucia said. “If you’re a little bit bigger back there, you’re not going to get run over.”
Junior goaltender Adam Hauser finished fourth in the WCHA in save percentage a year ago, but among the 11 netminders on that list, only one faced more shots than Hauser.
Lucia will work at cutting down the opposition’s shots, while encouraging his freshmen to take theirs.
Though older players like captain Erik Westrum, assistant Dylan Mills and assistant Johnny Pohl will lead the way, the Gophers are counting on improved play from the younger players in the fold.
Lucia was encouraged by what he saw in the eyes of his less experienced players.
“That struck me right away, the difference a year has made for last year’s freshmen,” Lucia said. “I went up to (sophomore) Ben (Tharp) out there and said, `You don’t have that deer-in-the-headlights syndrome.'”
While the sophomore class impresses Lucia, the freshmen are having the same effect on the veteran players.
“The word I’d use to describe them is solid,” Mills said. “From top to bottom they’re a real good class.”
“They’re big kids, they’re older kids and they’re more experienced,” Hauser said.
Five of the seven freshmen come to the Gophers after playing junior hockey in the USHL instead of four years of high school hockey. The USHL provides players with tough competition and a considerably larger amount of games.
In comparison, only one of the seven sophomores on the Minnesota roster played in the USHL.
This infusion of talent puts a premium on strong practice showings from players looking to make an impact.
“This is for points right now,” junior Nick Angell said. “Guys want to play and are going to be competing for spots.”

ù The Anaheim Mighty Ducks traded the rights of Gophers junior defenseman Jordan Leopold to the Calgary Flames for forward Andrei Nazarov and a second round pick in the 2001 NHL Draft.
Would-be freshman Josh Olson of Roseau, Minn., who was drafted in the sixth round of the NHL Draft in June, signed with the Florida Panthers organization and will not play for Minnesota.

David La Vaque covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]