Gophers look to return to glory

Minnesota opens its regular season against UND this weekend.

Gophers look to return to glory

Max Sanders

After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000, the Minnesota menâÄôs hockey team begins the 2009-10 season on the hunt for redemption. With a deep lineup full of veterans and talented freshmen, the Gophers could avenge last season by not only making the tournament but returning to the glory of 2002 and 2003. Key Losses Ryan Stoa , Forward Justin Bostrom , Forward R.J. Anderson , Defense A downside to consistently having top talent is the constant turnover of that talent to the NHL. Only three players from 2008-09 left the Gophers, which helps Minnesota reclaim its once threatening role in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association. By far the biggest loss for the Gophers is Ryan Stoa. An All-American that led the team in goals and points last season , Minnesota will look to some key returnees and some newcomers to help fill the scoring gap left by StoaâÄôs departure. Key Returners Jordan Schroeder , forward Jay Barriball , forward Cade Fairchild , defense Possibly the Stoa of this season, sophomore and Vancouver CanucksâÄô first-round pick Jordan Schroeder will be counted on to lead this season and improve on last yearâÄôs goal total of 13. Gophers head coach Don Lucia has said instead of one player scoring 25 goals that he expects five players to each score five more goals, and Schroeder is definitely going to have to be one of those five players. Lucia said he is also counting on Jay Barriball to increase production in his senior season. Finishing with a respectable 34 points in 2008-09, Barriball will need to score around 15-16 goals âÄî as opposed to the 11 he scored last season âÄî to help lead this Gophers team. A defensive stalwart, Cade Fairchild finished with 33 points last year, good for third in the nation among defensemen. Teaming with freshman Seth Helgeson , Fairchild will look to anchor what is one of MinnesotaâÄôs many strengths: the blue line. Key Freshmen Nick Leddy , Defense Zach Budish , Forward Seth Helgeson , Defense Josh Birkholz , Forward These arenâÄôt just the key freshmen; theyâÄôre the only freshmen. Lucia has said that in years past, Minnesota has often had as many as ten freshmen. While the Gophers have just four this year, each brings a unique aspect to the team. The most recent Minnesota Mr. Hockey award winner , Nick Leddy will often receive looks on the first line and will combine with Seth Helgeson and Cade Fairchild to form one of the top defensive pairings in the nation. A two-sport star at Edina High School, Zach Budish missed all of last yearâÄôs hockey season with a knee injury suffered during the football season. His 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound frame will help create a more physical presence Minnesota sorely lacked last year. Lucia will undoubtedly be counting on Budish to help instill a renewed physicality to this yearâÄôs squad. Like Budish, Helgeson is a physically imposing player that will be counted on to bolster the GophersâÄô physicality along the defensive line. Josh Birkholz played for Fargo Force of the United States Hockey League and finished the season with 36 points on 21 goals. If Birkholz can produce at a similar rate for the Gophers, it will provide depth at the forward position and help ease some of the pressure on Schroeder and Barriball. Goalie Play Junior Alex Kangas enters the year as the starter, but a rocky sophomore campaign did nothing to cement his place between the pipes. If Kangas can continue last seasonâÄôs postseason success, he will quell any talk of a change. If not, expect sophomore Kent Patterson to get a chance to prove himself and possibly supplant Kangas between the net. Interesting Stat: 20 Of the 26 players on MinnesotaâÄôs roster, 20 of them have already been drafted by an NHL team. Elite talent is nothing new to the Gophers, but having so much of it at the same time is. In years past, Minnesota has had one or two elite players. The Gophers enter this season with six or seven that could reach an elite status. Season Expectations While last yearâÄôs Gophers team undoubtedly disappointed, this yearâÄôs squad features one of the nationâÄôs best players in Schroeder, some of the top freshmen in the nation and depth at the forward, defense and goalie positions. That depth gives Minnesota a solid chance to avenge last season and compete for both the WCHA and NCAA Championships. With matchups against North Dakota, Denver and Wisconsin in six of the GophersâÄô first eight games, Minnesota will find out where it stands not just in the WCHA but among the national contenders right from the start. Lucia has stressed the importance of starting strong to try to set the tone for the rest of the season against some of the top echelon teams in the country. The Gophers have their first shot Friday, beginning with an away series against North Dakota.