Freshmen expected to play an early part

With the loss of key defensemen from last year, the Gophers will have to fill the void.

by Brian Deutsch

The Minnesota men’s hockey season opener is less than two weeks away and quite a lot has happened since the last time the team laced up their skates.

In fact, some of those skates are now gliding down the ice of NHL arenas as the team lost forward Jim O’Brien, along with defensemen Alex Goligoski and Erik Johnson, to the league.

“Some might look at (filling the void) as pressure, but for the young guys like myself and Mike (Howe) and Derek (Peltier), it’s an opportunity for the guys that stuck around to get some more minutes that they weren’t getting in the past,” junior forward Blake Wheeler said. “I think it’s a tribute to our program that we are able to lose three or four guys year in and year out and have some freshmen come in and contribute.”

The Gophers also lost forward Tyler Hirsch – who was recently cut by the Wild – in midseason last year, and defenseman Mike Vannelli and goalie Kellen Briggs to graduation.

Vannelli and Goligoski led the defense and were tied for third most points on the team – 39 each.

Meanwhile in Briggs, the Gophers lost the conference’s all-time leader in wins, goals-against average, save percentage and shutouts.

Taking over in between the pipes will be junior Jeff Frazee. Frazee split time in net with Briggs last season.

Frazee reportedly spent the summer getting into better shape, which has coach Don Lucia excited about his only net-minder with true experience in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association.

“(Jeff) is starting to mature,” Lucia said. “The bottom line for Jeff is that he’s starting to understand the importance of the work capacity and conditioning level and how that will help him perform better as a goaltender.”

But Lucia also informed reporters yesterday that freshman Alex Kangas will see substantial time in goal while senior Brent Solei will also see the ice at some point.

Kangas is one of seven incoming freshmen who will be on a short learning curve this season as Minnesota tries to defend its WCHA Regular Season and Final Five Championships.

Stu Bickel, Cade Fairchild and Kevin Wehrs will try to fill the void left in the defense along with returning blue-liners senior Derek Peltier, junior R. J. Anderson and two freshmen, David Fischer and Brian Schack.

“We’re a team of transition on the defense end of things,” Lucia said.

Peltier was recently voted the team’s captain – almost unanimously – according to Lucia, and the defenseman will gain a lot of experience this season.

“My big thing is to try and lead by example, try to go out every night and execute my game and let those guys follow in my footsteps,” the captain said. “Coach Guentzel is obviously a great coach and he’s going to be working with (the defense) pretty much every day. I think the three freshmen are going to learn a lot fast and they’ll contribute pretty fast too.”

On the other end of the spectrum, three incoming forwards, Drew Fisher, Mike Hoeffel and Patrick White, will join a plentiful stock of scorers returning from last season.

The Gophers’ offense lost only O’Brien from last year’s NCAA Regional’s team and return 12 forwards, including Minnesota’s top-two scorers.

Sophomore Jay Barriball led the program with 43 total points while Kyle Okposo, also a sophomore this season, was second with 40.

Even with Barriball and Okposo returning, the Gophers are still predicted to finish second in the WCHA this season behind North Dakota, which knocked the Gophers out of the NCAA tournament last year and returns with four of its top-five scorers.