Freshmen big in numbers, but, more importantly, big in size

Chris Lempesis

A look at the Minnesota men’s hockey team’s roster shows a large group of freshmen, nine in all.

And a look at those freshmen in person shows it’s not just the group’s number that’s big.

Eight of the nine freshmen are at least 6 feet tall – 5-foot 9-inch forward Jay Barriball being the only exception – and that size should help the group adjust to playing in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, arguably the nation’s toughest collegiate hockey conference.

“I think it’s really going to help our team out,” said 6-foot 3-inch, 210-pound freshman forward Ryan Flynn.

“It’s going to be a little different makeup to the team this year, because last year there were a lot of smaller guys on the team. And it’s going to bring a new identity to the team.”

The size will certainly give Minnesota a new look this season, but coach Don Lucia said adding size to the team through recruiting wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Rather, he said the team was looking for good talent and this is just the way things ended up.

How the team got the players isn’t important. What is important is that the Gophers should notice the difference made by these bigger players at both ends of the ice.

Defensively, 6-foot 4-inch, 222-pound freshman blueliner Erik Johnson said the size will help the Gophers in “getting their noses dirty” in battles for pucks in the corners. Johnson also said it should help the defense get the pucks and get them up to the forwards more quickly so Minnesota can set up its transition game.

The added size of the freshmen should benefit the team when that transition game reaches its destination: the opposition’s end of the rink.

An increased ability to get to and hold their own in front of the net could help the Gophers as far as screens, rebounds and tips go. When the team was on its 20-1-1 tear last season, that was a huge part of the offense.

“Big-bodied, we can go crash,” 6-foot 2-inch, 189-pound freshman forward Jim O’Brien said of the freshman forwards.

Of course, there are some drawbacks to having bigger players, particularly the fact that, generally, they’re not as fast. And Minnesota is a team that, more often than not, is known for its speed.

Flynn admitted that adjusting to the speed of the collegiate game might be a bit trickier early on for the bigger freshmen.

Lucia, however, said he felt a little differently, saying he wasn’t worried about a drop-off in speed with the bigger freshmen.

“I think the (new) guys we have get around the rink pretty good,” Lucia said. “There’s a few guys that need to work on their skating a little bit, but that’s what they’re here for, is to become better skaters, too.”

If the speed of the bigger freshmen can equal the other attributes they could bring, this group – which includes three 2006 first-round NHL Draft picks in Johnson, forward Kyle Okposo and defenseman David Fischer – could be even more dangerous than expected.

Which is good for Minnesota because, to hear Lucia tell it, there will be some pressure on them this year.

“A lot’s going to be placed on them early,” Lucia said, “to really step forward and contribute because of the turnover we had last year.”