Gophers begin new season without Briggs

by Chris Lempesis

For Minnesota’s men’s hockey team, the 2005-2006 season ended in a way no one could have expected.

The Gophers dropped a shocking 4-3 overtime decision to an unheralded Holy Cross squad in the NCAA West Regional Semifinal in Grand Forks, N.D.

But October brings with it a new college hockey season and, for Minnesota, a chance to finally start putting the NCAA Tournament embarrassment behind them.

The 86th edition of Gophers hockey kicks off Friday night with the U.S Hockey Hall of Fame Game against Maine at 7:07 p.m. at the Xcel Energy Center.

Here’re five things to look for in 2006-2007:

Youth movement
The graduation of five players, coupled with four more jumping ship early to the NHL, left Minnesota (27-9-5 overall last season) with a considerable hole on its roster.

The Gophers will have nine freshmen on their 25-player roster, which might cause the team to struggle early on as the youngsters adjust to the rigors of playing on the next level.

But, once this group gets adjusted, it could be a major strength for Minnesota as there is some top-flight talent in the group of newcomers, like forward Kyle Okposo and defenseman David Fischer, both first-round picks in last summer’s NHL Entry Draft.

Of course, the player with the potential to make the biggest impact is defenseman Erik Johnson.

Johnson, the No. 1 overall selection of the St. Louis Blues in last summer’s draft, clocks in at 6-feet, 4-inches and 222 pounds, and has a mean streak and laser slap shot to go with those impressive physical statistics.

“I think we’ll be counted to do some things, but freshmen are freshmen,” Johnson said of the newcomers. “We’ll have to get used to things and get used to the college game and I’m sure after a couple games we’ll get into it and make pretty big contributions.”

While it’s unknown who will make the biggest impact among the freshmen, one thing’s for sure: The group is big.

All but one of the newcomers, forward Jay Barriball, is at least

6 feet tall.

Return of Hirsch
One player who could help smooth things out along the way is senior forward Tyler Hirsch.

Hirsch returns to the team after sitting out all but two games last season with a medical redshirt (personal reasons).

Hirsch, known for his playmaking abilities, was Minnesota’s leading scorer in his last full year, 2004-2005, with 11 goals and 33 assists (44 points).

With such a young group of forwards, Hirsch’s play will be critical to the team’s success.

A team without stars
As good as he is, though, Hirsch isn’t really a star – something that’s indicative of the Gophers this season.

The defections of forwards Ryan Potulny, Danny Irmen and Phil Kessel to the NHL left Minnesota essentially without one big marquee name.

“I don’t see superstars (on this team),” coach Don Lucia said at the Sept. 28 media day.

Again, that could either hurt or harm the Gophers.

The three players listed above accounted for a total of nearly 43 percent of the team’s goals last season, meaning at least a couple

of players will have to step up to fill that void. If no one does, Minnesota will have to rely on something other than its high-powered offense to win games.

But it could help the team by forcing the entire group to up its play in order to light the lamp.

“I think in the long run (having no superstars helps) if guys buy into that idea that it’s going to be everybody having to produce,” Hirsch said. “But that’s something that builds over time. That’s not something that just happens right away.”

Completely new at center
In addition to finding out who will fill the scoring void, the Gophers have adjust to a new group of centers.

As of now, it’s the foursome of sophomores Blake Wheeler and Ryan Stoa and freshmen Mike Carman and Jim O’Brien that will be taking over for Potulny, Kessel, Gino Guyer (graduated) and junior Evan Kaufmann (moved to wing).

Last year’s centers were a big reason for the team’s success, so the pressure will be on this group to equal that level of play in 2006-2007.

Briggs vs. Frazee II
With all these changes, it’s easy to forget Minnesota brings both its goaltenders from last season back.

Senior Kellen Briggs and sophomore Jeff Frazee will once again vie for time in the Gophers’ net this season, with Briggs (21-6-3, 2.55 GAA, .904 save percentage) being the No. 1 goalie to start. This is despite the fact Briggs has been suspended for the first three games due to an unspecified rules violation.

“He’s, to me, our number one goaltender as we head in,” Lucia said. “And it’s his job to continue to be the number one goalie in his performance.”

That doesn’t mean Frazee (6-3-2, 2.36 G.A.A., .910 save percentage) doesn’t have a say in how much he sees the ice.

Lucia said how Frazee performs when he gets to play will determine “whether we alternate or Kellen plays 80 percent of the games this year.”

One thing working in Frazee’s favor is the fact that he’s 20 pounds lighter than last season, something he said has made him quicker and given him more endurance.

Briggs suspended
It was announced Thursday that Briggs will be suspended three games for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Briggs will sit out Friday’s game with Maine and next weekend’s series with Wayne State.

Lucia wouldn’t go into specifics on the suspension but did say it was something the team had known about for a while.

“I think we all make mistakes and it’s something he and the rest of our team can learn from,” Lucia said.

Just last week Briggs was named one of the team’s assistant captains for the season, the first goalie to receive the honor since Brad Shelstad in 1973-1974.

Lucia said that didn’t make him any more disappointed in Briggs, however.

“Kellen’s a good kid and he made a mistake – it didn’t happen this week or anything like that,” he said. “I think we all believe in Kellen and Kellen’s got a pretty spotless record since he’s been here.”

Lucia also said Frazee will fill in for Briggs in all three games but that Briggs might share time with junior Brent Solei in Sunday night’s exhibition game against Lethbridge at Mariucci Arena.