We're only days away from a brand new Gopher Hockey season. Last year ended on a sour note (loss to the Sioux in the first round of the WCHA playoffs). Gopher fans have gone two full seasons without an NCAA postseason bid. The team finished with a losing record for the first time since the last year of the Doug Wood era. Last year truly was the worst of times for Pride on Ice.
The offseason didn't hold much promise, either. Gone were the team's two leading scorers: Tony Lucia was lost to graduation, and Jordan Schroeder signed with the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. Two more promising youngsters, Freshman defenseman Nick Leddy and Freshman forward Josh Birkholz, left the team, the former to the Chicago Blackhawks and the latter to the WHL following news he would face suspension for a violation of team rules.
So, all of that doesn't sound too good. What do we, the fans, have to look forward to this season?
Over the next several days, I'll look at the 2010-2011 Gophers' Goaltenders, Defensemen and Forwards and offer my own commentary on the team going into the season.
Right now, though, I'll copy a post I wrote but never published at the end of last year: the things to be optimistic about this season-
1) Nick Leddy - He's only a freshman, and he's already the only guy I trust with the puck in our own end. He is so smooth, and I think the word that best describes him is CALM. Also, he takes slapshots at the point, which is something our defensemen have been hesitant to do.
2) Jacob Cepis - I LOVE Cepis! God this kid plays with heart and grit. I honestly cannot remember watching another game where a player's name was mentioned more frequently than Cepis' was [the second WCHA playoff game against the Sioux]. He's all over the place when he's on the ice, and he always seems to make a play when we need it most. He's the littlest guy on the ice whenever he's out there, but he plays like he thinks he's 6'4" and 220 lbs. So excited he's on the team!
3) Zach Budish - he's a little slow, but he makes up for it by being the best player along the boards that we have. He's a great grinder / mucker in the offensive zone, and I think he compliments a Cepis/Schroeder line nicely. I think the offense is going to come, but I'm thrilled with the strides he's made this year.
4) Jay Barriball - he's coming back, and we know he can score. Just what we need.
5) High Schoolers - there's a lot of potential in the recruits we have coming in. I'm a Minnetonka guy, so I saw a lot of Justin Holl and Max Gardiner this year. Holl is Leddy-like in his calmness with the puck in the face of a tough forecheck. Gardiner can put the puck in the net... we'll see about his effort when he gets to the college level. Nick Bjugstad looks like he's a can't-miss guy, and Ben Marshall is a flat out stud and is only a junior in High School. The other kids we have coming in (Isackson, Alt, etc.) look like they can play, too. I think the cupboards are stocked.
6) Junior Hockey guys - Erik Haula, Seth Ambroz, Nate Condon and Nate Schmidt all seem like they'll be solid contributors to this team in the near future.
Obviously the first reason to be optimistic is no longer on the team. However, Cepis is back. Budish will be in the lineup every night this year. Barriball is at 100% again, and should return his scoring punch into the lineup. Bjugstad, Holl and Gardiner will be donning the Maroon and Gold, as will Erik Haula, Nate Condon and Nate Schmidt.
What do you think? What is your feeling about the team this year? Will 2010-2011 be the year that the Gophers return to national prominence, or will this be yet another forgettable year for Pride on Ice? Let me know what you think in the comments below!
Up next, a look at the goaltenders on the roster for 2010-2011.