It took just three short years for head coach Don Lucia to lead the University of Minnesota to the pinnacle of college hockey. And as the 2002-03 season nears, the Golden Gophers are ready to reload and defend their national title.
"I'm not worried about our players or coaches being satisfied," Lucia said. "Winning the national title last season in St. Paul will probably be the greatest experience any of us will ever have in the sport of hockey, but even by last May, I could tell our players were already looking ahead to this season."
To make a return trip to the Frozen Four this season, the Golden Gophers will have the unenviable task of replacing the nation's top player in Jordan Leopold, the nation's top scorer in John Pohl, the nation's second-leading goal scorer in Jeff Taffe and a four-year starter in goal in Adam Hauser. While a seemingly impossible task for most programs, the quality and depth of talent accumulated by Lucia in his short stint at Minnesota keeps the expectations very high for the upcoming season.
"We certainly lost a great deal in terms of leadership," Lucia commented. "The question is who is going to move into those leadership roles and who is going to step up offensively? We expect a number of players to increase their point totals from a year ago, because they will see much more ice time."
The Golden Gophers have plenty of candidates to help offset the loss of offensive firepower provided by Pohl (27-52--79) and Taffe (34-24--58). Junior forward Troy Riddle (16-31--47) is Minnesota's leading returning scorer and has the third-most points of any returning player in the WCHA. Frozen Four heroes Matt Koalska (10-23--33) and Grant Potulny (15-19--34) will also be expected to lead the team, both on and off the ice. After being arguably the best player on the ice in the NCAA Championship game last year, Koalska will be a bigger presence on the power play. With 24 of his 37 career goals coming on the power-play, Potulny will continue to cause havoc in front of the net.
"Troy and Matt will be our top two forwards this season," Lucia said. "They will both play a larger role on our specialty teams and that increase in ice time should translate into increased production. Grant is our captain and has done a tremendous job of leading this team. He's not a flashy player, but he gets the big goals for us."
Entering his sophomore campaign, Barry Tallackson (13-10--23) had a number of highlight-reel goals last season, and after being selected in the second round of this year's NHL Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils, he should emerge as one of the WCHA's top young forwards. Senior Nick Anthony (9-9--18) was limited last season due to injury, but his return to the lineup provided a noticeable spark as the regular season wound down.
"Barry has to score for us," Lucia said. "We lost a couple of great scorers in the offseason, so we need players like Barry to pick up some of those numbers. When Nick returned to our lineup last season, he proved how valuable he is to this team. He is going to be one of our leaders on the penalty kill."
The Golden Gophers will have ample depth at the forward position. Junior Jon Waibel (5-4--9) has been in the lineup every game for the past two seasons, while fellow junior Dan Welch (4-7--11) returned to the team midway through last season and has the potential to be one of the team's top scorers. Sophomores Jake Fleming (3-9--12), Mike Erickson (1-2--3), Garrett Smaagaard (1-2--3), Brett MacKinnon (1-3--4) and Jerrid Reinholz and senior Chad Roberg (0-0--0) will all be in the mix for spots in the lineup. Fleming saw action in 43 games and collected a pair of shorthanded goals on the penalty-kill, while Erickson, a third-round pick in the NHL Entry Draft by the Minnesota Wild, returns after missing all but nine games last year with a broken foot.
A quartet of newcomers joins the squad with a considerable amount of fanfare. Thomas Vanek, a physically-imposing forward, steps onto campus as arguably the top recruit in college hockey. The first-team All-USHL performer led the league in scoring and as a native of Austria, is the first European to ever wear the Maroon and Gold. A pair of high school teammates, Gino Guyer and Andy Sertich formed one of the state's top scoring tandems. Guyer was named Mr. Hockey in the State of Minnesota. Tyler Hirsch comes to Minnesota from the highly-successful junior program at Shattuck St. Mary's in Faribault, Minn.
"We're excited about the talent we have coming in," Lucia said. "Thomas and Gino will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact. Andy and Tyler both possess strong stick skills and will battle for playing time. All of our freshman have shown the ability to score."
Minnesota returns five of its top seven defensemen, but must find a way to replace the best player in college hockey last season. With names like Paul Martin, Keith Ballard and Matt DeMarchi leading the way, the Golden Gopher blueliners still figure to rank among the best in the nation.
"The torch has been passed to Paul and Keith," Lucia commented. "Jordan was the leader of this team a year ago, both on and off the ice. While his presence will certainly be missed, what he was able to teach our returning players will benefit us. Matt played great for us towards the end of last season and we look for him to have an expanded leadership role."
Martin (8-30--38) has followed a path similar to Leopold's career. As an WCHA All-Rookie Team member as a freshman and then a second-team All-WCHA selection as a sophomore, Martin is poised to become one of the top defensemen in the country. Ballard (10-13--23) was the 11th pick overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft by the Buffalo Sabres and after an impressive freshman campaign, will be a candidate for postseason honors. As the lone senior on the blueline, DeMarchi (3-8--11) will continue to be Minnesota's intimidator. On pace to become the school's all-time leader in penalty minutes, DeMarchi played the best hockey of his career down the stretch last season. Junior Joey Martin (0-4--4) and sophomore Judd Stevens (1-15--16) also return, looking to build on their experiences last year. As the Golden Gophers' biggest physical presence, Martin saw his playing time increase during the second half of the season as he platooned with Stevens. His season was cut short by injury which kept him out of the last 10 games. Stevens played in 41 games as a rookie and finished with a goal and 15 assists.
Newcomers Peter Kennedy, Chris Harrington and P.J. Atherton bring impressive credentials to Gold Country, and with the departure of Leopold and Nick Angell, will have an opportunity to play immediately. A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, Kennedy was the Central Junior Hockey League's Rookie of the Year. Harrington was a second-team All-USHL selection last season, while Atherton was selected in the sixth round of the NHL Entry Draft after spending last season with Cedar Rapids in the USHL.
"I think we have a good mix of defensemen," Lucia said. "We have players that are capable of jumping up into the play and scoring for us, as well as, guys that are going to give us a very physical presence in our own zone. I believe once we get our lineup set, our defensive corps will be one of the best in the nation."
For the first time since 1997-98, the Golden Gophers will be without the services of Adam Hauser, the WCHA's all-time leader in wins and games played. Hauser finished his career with 83 victories and an amazing 151 games played. This season, sophomores Travis Weber and Justin Johnson enter the 2002-03 campaign with a combined nine victories and 16 games played.
Both goaltenders displayed flashes of brilliance during their freshmen seasons, but fell victim to inconsistency. Weber finished the year with a 6-2-0 record with a 3.29 goals-against-average and .870 saves percentage. The Hibbing, Minn., native dominated in wins over North Dakota, Denver and Providence, but failed to finish games against Michigan Tech and Colorado College. Johnson made his presence felt early on with a shutout of Colgate in his first collegiate game. He finished the season with a 3-0-0 record and a 3.08 goals-against-average and .892 saves percentage.
"We're going to have to start over in goal this season," Lucia said. "Despite losing a player as experienced as Adam, we have two goalies that possess a tremendous amount of talent. They just lack experience. Both will get an opportunity early on to step forward."
Providing depth at goaltender will be walk-on Dustin Smieja. Smieja is a St. Paul Johnson graduate and lettered two seasons between the pipes.
Once again, the Golden Gophers will face teams from the top conferences in the nation. Minnesota will return to the Xcel Energy Center and open the season in the Hall of Fame Game against Ohio State. The Golden Gophers then travel east to face New Hampshire, a team that reached the Frozen Four semifinals a year ago. In addition, Minnesota will also face Alabama-Huntsville from College Hockey America at Mariucci Arena. The Golden Gophers will meet CCHA powers, Michigan and Michigan State, in the College Hockey Showcase in November and will close out its non-conference slate with the Dodge Holiday Classic. This year's field includes Boston College, Bowling Green and Yale.
"I think the schedule is going to be very challenging," Lucia said. "With traditional powers such as New Hampshire, Michigan, Michigan State and Boston College, we are going to go up against some of the best teams from around the country. That's in addition to a full set of games against the toughest league in Division I hockey."
Lucia has returned the Golden Gophers to the top of college hockey and as he looks forward to his fourth season, he has Minnesota poised for another championship run in 2002-03. With a blend of veterans that know what it takes to reach the ultimate goal and potentially the nation's top recruiting class, the Golden Gophers are prepared to defend their NCAA Championship.
"Our goals are very similar to last season," Lucia offered. "With the expanded tournament and a regional at Mariucci Arena, we want to be playing at home at the end of March for an opportunity to make it to Buffalo, N.Y., and the Frozen Four in April. We may take some lumps early on in the year, but I feel if this team can get the leadership and chemistry like we did last season, it could be another very special season."
Written by Men's Hockey Contact John Romo