Youthful Gophers look to fill scoring void

Mike Mullen

There is no star on this year’s Minnesota men’s hockey team.

Not yet.

“It’s different,” coach Don Lucia said of starting a season without a clear leader. “But I think, like any team, guys are going to step up for us and come to the forefront during the season.”

Among those looking to emerge is forward Gino Guyer. The junior (11 goals, 21 assists, 32 points) is the highest-scoring returning player on a team that lost its top four sources of offense. This season, he said, he expects to see plenty of different names in the Gophers’ scoring column.

“I think this year we’re going to have great balance,” Guyer said. “We might have a lot of guys put up 20-plus points. We lost Thomas Vanek and Keith Ballard, and you can’t replace guys like that.

“But I think we have enough guys to fill the void.”

The absence of proven offense, while massive – 55 percent of last year’s goals came from players not on this year’s squad – is not this team’s only void. Captain Grant Potulny’s graduation leaves the team without a vocal presence.

“(Grant) was the guy who kind of took charge in the locker room,” said forward Ryan Potulny, Grant Potulny’s younger brother. “And we’ll miss that. This year will be more about group leadership, with a few veterans – and maybe even myself – looking to step into that role.”

Perhaps no player will rely more on his teammates to learn quickly than goalie Kellen Briggs. Last year, Briggs set a Minnesota freshman record with 25 wins and held opponents to a 2.62 goals-against average. The Gophers will be without three defensemen who played more than 35 games last year, one of whom is Ballard (who signed with the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes).

Briggs said he isn’t worried.

“I think we have a lot of (defensemen) on this team who’ve been waiting for their chance,” Briggs said. “And I’m completely comfortable with having them. If you can’t be comfortable with the guys playing in front of you, you’re not going to win a lot of games.”

An obvious bright spot for this season’s squad is its freshmen. Veteran players have raved about this year’s incoming class, which makes up 10 of the squad’s 26 roster spots.

“I’ve been so surprised by the speed of our practices,” Ryan Potulny said. “(The freshmen) are ready to play at this level, and they’ve all got fresh legs, which is always a good thing to have.”

If one freshman stands out, it is forward Kris Chucko. Chucko was drafted 24th overall by the Calgary Flames in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft after scoring 87 points – and earning 161 penalty minutes – last year in the British Columbia Hockey League.

“(Toughness) is one of the things that drew us to Kris,” Lucia said. “He’s big, and strong, and wants to get to the front of the net. And he’s going to knock a guy on his rear end from time to time.”

Lucia, whose offseason consists of approximately a dozen summer days in a secluded cabin, said he doesn’t give too much weight to preseason polls and speculation.

“I don’t get caught up in thinking about the whole season before it starts,” Lucia said. “You just kind of live in the moment and don’t look very far ahead. And when you take the season week by week, it just flies by.”