Next season shapes up for Gophers hockey

A historically offensive-minded team will need to switch gears and rely on its defense to compete in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association next year.

by Brian Deutsch

When the New York Islanders selected Gophers incoming defenseman Aaron Ness with its second round pick this weekend at the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, people immediately began to wonder how Ness’ development would work out.

It’s no secret the two programs are not exactly on the best of terms after former Minnesota forward Kyle Okposo jumped to New York in midseason and Islanders General Manager Garth Snow questioned the coaching of Don Lucia .

Ness was a predicted first-round pick but had to wait until day two for his name to be called.

The former Roseau High School player didn’t mind much, saying he was disappointed but that what mattered was what you did “after the draft.”

After the draft is exactly where things get interesting as Ness made no secret of his goal to play in the NHL whenever the Isles organization says he is ready.

But a bigger question came to mind after as the rest of the draft played out – what will the Gophers look like next year with Ness in uniform?

It’s one of the biggest mysteries in college hockey right now, and nobody has a good answer.

Inside College Hockey doesn’t even list the Gophers as one of the top 10 teams in the nation; however, they do list Minnesota as a dark horse for next year’s Frozen Four.

Perhaps that is because next year’s squad will be so different from Minnesota teams in the recent past.

A historically offensive-minded team will need to switch gears and rely on its defense to compete in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association next year.

With Blake Wheeler’s early defection after last season, Minnesota loses four of its top five scorers from last season.

That leaves forward Jay Barriball as the team’s top returner with 21 points while forward Mike Hoeffel will also be back for at least one more year. Hoeffel will bring his nine goals from last season too – the most among returners.

Forward Ryan Stoa, who missed basically all of last year with a knee injury, should add some firepower to the Minnesota offense, but the fate of the Gophers may lie in the nation’s top recruiting class.

Twelve new faces will join the Minnesota squad next season, and while the Gophers shouldn’t be hampered by a low number of forwards as they were last year – the defense may be next year’s bread and butter.

One bright light at the end of the tunnel last season was freshman goaltender Alex Kangas, who shined in the playoffs.

“Certainly it starts with your goaltender, he’s been brilliant,” Gophers coach Don Lucia told the Daily during last year’s Final Five. “The one constant has been our goaltender, he’s kind of put the team on his back and willed us to win.”

The Rochester native also set new single-season records for Minnesota with his 1.98 goals against average and a save percentage of .930.

It’s hard to think of another player that will play as crucial of a role for his team next year as Kangas will.

The keeper should get some relief from the blueliners as offensive defensemen will return from their yearlong hiatus from Mariucci Arena.

Two years ago, Minnesota was a hot bed for scoring defensemen like Alex Goligoski, Erik Johnson and Mike Vanelli.

But all three were gone before the 2007-2008 season – leaving an extremely young defensive squad that included three freshmen.

And while the defense improved greatly toward the end of last season, no single player really stood out as a scoring threat.

That should change next season when Ness, who put up 72 points in 31 games last season for Roseau before being named Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey , arrives along with defensemen Sam Lofquist, Brandon Martell and Grant Scott.

With the influx of players coming and leaving this offseason, a lot of questions still lay unanswered about Minnesota – mostly how will the Gophers perform in a conference that lost a lot of talent from last season?

We’ve only got four months of waiting and debating before we find out.