Help coming for Gophers at forward

Incoming freshman Jake Hansen will join the Gophers after a stint in Sioux Falls.

Brian Deutsch

For most of the season, the Minnesota men’s hockey team has been drained at the forward position due to injuries and a lone exodus.

Next year, help is on the way in the form of incoming freshman forward Jake Hansen.

The White Bear Lake native will return home next year after playing a season and a half with the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League.

“I know that (going to Minnesota) is the next step, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I still have to finish this year,” Hansen said. “But I do hope to have some success when I get there.”

Gophers assistant coach John Hill is also hopeful Hansen and the rest of next year’s incoming freshmen class can have a smooth transition when they get here next season.

“I think Jake is someone we foresee and we hope will eventually be a top six forward and a guy who will play on our power play,” Hill said. “Having said that, you have to earn it, but he certainly has all the skills and ability.”

And he’s given Minnesota a lot to be happy about – Hansen’s 29 goals are second only to Chicago’s Andy Miele for the league-high.

And getting that game-sealing goal that Minnesota coach Don Lucia stresses the importance of? Hansen leads the USHL with five game-winning goals.

“Obviously, he’s had a very good year in the USHL, and hopefully he’ll have an easy transition with us next year,” Lucia said.

The Stampede (37-10-4) are second in the USHL West Division – 18 points behind front-running Omaha and just four points ahead of fourth-place Sioux City.

“We’re just so on and off,” Hansen said last month. “I think lately we’ve been putting it together, but it feels like every time we get on a good roll ñ we’ll have a game where we just can’t put it away or we just play bad.”

The Stampede saw similar struggles last year but flared up late in the season after Hansen joined the squad.

After completing his junior year at White Bear Lake in 2006-2007, when the forward tallied 71 points (28 goals, 43 assists) in just 25 games, Hansen was named to the All-Metro team and earned an honorable mention for the All-State team.

After his high school season ended, the 68th overall pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft notched an additional 10 points (four goals, six assists) in Sioux Fall’s last 22 games as the Stampede went on to win its first Clark Cup in team history.

But Hansen’s numbers aren’t the only thing the Gophers coaching staff like about the forward.

Aside from being what Hill calls a “natural goal-scorer with outstanding stick skills, a habit of getting open in the offensive zone and a quick release,” Hansen is learning from a product of the program in University alum Kevin Hartzell.

The Stampede’s third-year coach played for the Gophers from 1979-1982 and won a national championship with Herb Brooks in 1979.

“We don’t start coaching (recruits) until they get here. What we do is have a good dialogue with their coaches because they are with them now,” Hill said. “We know that Kevin is going to be a straight shooter with us, he’s always going to tell us the truth.”

Minnesota currently has four former Sioux Falls players on roster, but the Stampede send talent on to other Western Collegiate Hockey Association teams.

Three of Hansen’s current teammates will play for Minnesota-Duluth next year, including league points leader Jack Connolly (63).

“All the guys that were being recruited by WCHA schools are going in next year,” Hansen said. “It’s going to be fun playing those guys.”

With a lot of eyes around the state on Hansen and the next crop of Gophers, it’s not surprising that the forward has been keeping tabs on the team this year, and Minnesota’s struggles don’t have Hansen worried one bit.

“I know it’s been a disappointment for those guys. They’ve got a good group of guys,” Hansen said. “It hurt losing Stoa and Okposo and losing all those defensemen after last year. They’ve got a young team but a talented team ñ you never know what can happen in the playoffs.”

And judging by the Stampede’s success in last year’s USHL playoffs, Hansen would know about finding success down the stretch.