Isackson makes sophomore surge

The Pine City, Minn., native didn’t have a goal or assist in 11 games last season.

Sophomore forward Christian Isackson plays against Canisius on Sunday at Mariucci Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa

Sophomore forward Christian Isackson plays against Canisius on Sunday at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Claussen

The media’s first comment to Gophers forward Christian Isackson this fall was an unusual one.

“We never interviewed you last season.”

And for good reason. Isackson played in only 11 games last season and did not record a point. The lone highlight in his online bio for his freshman year was that he won eight of 10 faceoffs against St. Cloud State on Jan. 28, 2012.

“It’s a big culture shock,” Isackson said. “You’re used to being the top guy or whatever, and then you don’t play too much. It was really tough mentally.”

This season, Isackson made headlines immediately with a three-goal performance in Minnesota’s exhibition opener. He has added one goal and three assists in five regular season games.

Isackson attributed his success to his work over the summer.

“I think in the offseason I just worked really hard and got stronger,” Isackson said. “You kind of build confidence with that and change your mental status.”

Head coach Don Lucia said he’s already seen Isackson grow during this season.

“I think he came in a little bit not assertive enough. I don’t think he took it as serious as he needed to take it, and [he] never played at the pace that he needed to play,” Lucia said. “It was never an issue of skill for him. He had the skill — you could see it in practice.”

Much of Isackson’s early success can be attributed to his position. He has spent the majority of his time as the right wing on the first line, which also features Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. Rau ranked second on the team last year with 43 points, and Bjugstad was third with 42.

“That helps a lot, just playing with guys that make you better,” Isackson said. “I try to keep up with them.”

Lucia said that he thinks not playing “lit a fire” under Isackson and propelled him into this season.

“We told him that you’re going to get a great chance to play, it’s going to be up to you,” Lucia said. “He’s taken that from day one, and he’s done a nice job.”

Isackson has drawn comparisons to junior Nate Schmidt, who also had a subpar first year on campus and followed it with a monster sophomore campaign. Schmidt recorded a single point in 13 games during the 2010-11 season but then was fourth on the team with 41 points last year.

“He looked good,” Schmidt said of Isackson earlier this season after the Lethbridge game. “He looked a lot better than he did last year. He took some strides in this summer in the weight room, and it’s obviously paid off for him.”

Isackson said his talks with Schmidt helped him turn it around this year.

Lucia said some freshmen struggle in their first year on campus, but everyone is different.

“It’s a transition when you get to this level,” Lucia said. “Some kids are more ready than others, and it’s not just physical — it can be mental too.”

Isackson’s success this season is much more familiar territory than his struggles last season.

Isackson played high school hockey for Saint Thomas Academy and won a Class A Minnesota State High School tournament championship with the Cadets in 2008. He was also a finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Hockey award in 2009-10. The Buffalo Sabres drafted him in the seventh round of the 2010 NHL Draft.

A lot of college-caliber players tend to leave high school early and play junior hockey, but Isackson said graduation from St. Thomas was high on his priorities list.

“I just decided that I really wanted to graduate from my high school with all my friends,” he said.

After graduation, Isackson played for the Sioux Falls Stampede in the United States Hockey League. He led the team in scoring during the regular season.

“In juniors you learn to play a complete game,” Isackson said. “You have got to emphasize playing defensive-zone, neutral-zone and offensive-zone game play and just finding a balance in your game.”