MINNEAPOLIS — If you liked the 2020-21 Minnesota Gophers, with their 24 wins and their Big Ten playoff title, you will likely enjoy what you see on the ice next fall, when they begin what all hope will be a more normal college hockey season.
Of the roughly 26 players that coach Bob Motzko will carry on the 2021-22 Gophers’ roster, 19 of them were on the team last season, with the potential for a few shifts in the coming months. Most notable in that returning group are Mike Richter Award-winning goalie Jack LaFontaine and three of the team’s top four scorers.
While we do not expect to see an official team roster until the fall, and things could certainly change before then, the Gophers thus far have been sellers, not buyers, in the very active transfer portal. LaFontaine is the only one of the team’s seniors who is returning for the extra year of college that the NCAA is allowing due to the pandemic.
Five members of last season’s Gophers — junior forward Nathan Burke, senior forward Cullen Munson, senior defenseman Sam Rossini, junior defenseman Robbie Stucker and sophomore forward Noah Weber — are currently in the transfer portal and not expected to return.
Burke, who has two years of college eligibility remaining, entered the portal on Wednesday and is seeking a new team after being a healthy scratch 10 times over the past two seasons. He had four goals and seven points last season. Two more former Gophers have already transferred, with senior forward Brannon McManus going to Nebraska Omaha and sophomore goalie Jared Moe hopping the border to play for Wisconsin.
In addition to McManus and Moe leaving, two of last season’s Gophers are already playing for a paycheck, as senior forward Scott Reedy has signed with the San Jose Sharks and junior forward Sampo Ranta recently scored his first professional goal for the Colorado Avalanche’s AHL team.
The new Gophers goaltending corps will be anchored by LaFontaine, who started 29 of 31 games (22-7-0, 1.79, .934) last season. He is expected to be backed up by junior Justen Close and incoming freshman Brennan Boynton, currently with the USHL’s Fargo Force.
The eight-player defensive unit will be very similar to last season: seniors Ben Brinkman and Matt Denman; juniors Jackson LaCombe, Ryan Johnson and Matt Staudacher and sophomores Brock Faber, Carl Fish and Mike Koster.
At forward, the Gophers will be an experienced lot: seniors Blake McLaughlin and Sammy Walker; juniors Bryce Brodzinski, Ben Meyers, Jaxon Nelson, Jack Perbix, Colin Schmidt and Jonny Sorenson; sophomore Mason Nevers along with five incoming freshmen.
The newcomers are led by USA Hockey NTDP forward Chaz Lucius, who has battled a knee injury this season but is projected to be a first round pick in the upcoming NHL draft. He will be joined at the U of M by Tristan Broz, Aaron Huglen, Matthew Knies and Rhett Pitlick.
That leaves Motzko with 14 forwards, and he likes to carry 15, meaning that a transfer portal addition is not unlikely before too long.
While Motzko has never primarily been a “lock it down” defensive-minded coach, it will clearly start on the back end for the 2021-22 Gophers, with the nation’s top goalie returning and no freshmen on defense, meaning that they will put experience on the ice with every shift. They excelled defensively last season, finishing second in the Big Ten in both goals allowed per game (2.06) and penalty kill percentage (85.5%).
In terms of offense, the Gophers were second (behind conference regular season champ Wisconsin) in goals per game (3.77), but the power play (17.7%) was inconsistent, finishing fifth in the Big Ten.
Offensively, they will need to replace the scoring of Ranta, who led the team with 19 goals and 31 points in his final college season. The departures of Reedy (11-17—28), who was a consistent goal-scorer as a junior and senior, and McManus (9-16—25) leave opportunities for the likes of Brodzinski (8-6—14) and Sorenson (5-2—7), both of whom were goal-scorers before college, to take steps forward as upperclassmen.