MINNEAPOLIS — So much for the “play hard, do your best and we will see where we finish” mantra that some coaches adopt as a season begins. The expectations for the Minnesota Gophers heading into coach Bob Motzko’s third campaign behind the bench were raised considerably on Monday.
The Big Ten’s seven hockey coaches see a favorite in the Gophers, who finished atop the annual preseason poll, and will be looking to win the program’s fifth conference crown since the league began play in the 2013-14 season. Minnesota, under previous head coach Don Lucia, won the first four Big Ten titles.
In the poll, the Gophers were followed in second place by Michigan, which has what many consider the best freshman class in the country. Defensive specialists Notre Dame and Ohio State tied for third, Wisconsin was fifth, Michigan State was sixth, and Penn State, which won the conference last season, fell all the way to seventh.
“Just go ahead and look at the Big Ten standings from last year...We could end up in sixth place along with Minnesota, and Michigan State could end up first,” Wolverines coach Mel Pearson said. “The depth and and the quality across teams is so good that it’s hard to pick anyone. Minnesota and us were young last year and we both found our way in the second half of the season and finished strong. Hopefully we won’t start as slow this year, and will be ready to go.”
The Gophers return nine of their top 10 scorers from last season, having lost only defenseman Tyler Nanne to graduation.
The wide-open nature of the conference race — typified by the Nittany Lions’ fall from first to the preseason pick for worst — is what has come to be expected from the Big Ten in its first decade. Last season the Gophers headed into the final regular season game able to clinch a share of the conference title with a win, or fall out of the home ice race with a loss and a few other circumstances.
“I would say there isn’t one team that is starting conference that doesn’t think they’re in a position to have a year where they can compete for the Big Ten title and should be a team that makes it to the (NCAA) tournament,” said Badgers coach Tony Granato, whose team finished seventh last season after being picked for the conference title by some. “All of us feel we have teams and programs that should feel that way going in. So I love our conference and I love where we’re at.”
Gophers junior captain Sammy Walker, who was the Big Ten’s freshman of the year two seasons ago, was picked by the coaches for the preseason first team, which included one player from every team except Notre Dame. Senior forward Brannon McManus and sophomore defenseman Jackson LaCombe were named to the second team, and sophomore forward Ben Meyers, recently named an alternate captain, was pegged for honorable mention.
With 12 newcomers on the team a year ago, the Gophers took some lumps in the first half of the season, winning just twice in one 14-game stretch before the holidays. They matured quickly in the second half, going 11-5-3 and putting themselves on the bubble for a NCAA tournament berth. The Gophers beat Notre Dame in a best-of-three first round Big Ten playoff series, before the remainder of the college hockey season was cancelled on March 12 due to the pandemic.
The last Big Ten team to win a NCAA title was Michigan State in 2007, when the Spartans played in the original incarnation of the CCHA. The Gophers in 2014 and Notre Dame in 2018 both lost in the national championship game. Overall the league’s coaches see the conference getting more respected and competitive on the national stage.
“We continue to get better, we continue to add players that are elite,” Granato said. “So if I look at our conference right now, I look at what Michigan has in their lineup, I look at Minnesota and what Bob has done with his team last year and where they’re at. I see Penn State and Ohio State and two programs that have had phenomenal years. You know Notre Dame is going to be in the mix. I think (Spartans coach) Danton (Cole) has done a great job at Michigan State. So I would say it’s wide open.”