GOPHERS HOCKEY INSIDER
Six weeks have passed since Bob Motzko and his Gophers men's hockey team had the national championship within their grasp, only to see Quinnipiac rally late in the third period and deliver the dagger 10 seconds into overtime for a 3-2 victory.
The coach has had time to digest that April night in Tampa, deal with the disappointment and anger that followed, and reflect on a season that produced an abundance of highs only to be punctuated by a punch-to-the-gut low.
"It was a crushing ending to an awesome, incredible season," Motzko told the Star Tribune. "We had a terrific group of guys that were awesome to be around. … You're that close. You're that close to it."
Instead of hanging a sixth NCAA championship banner from the rafters at 3M Arena at Mariucci, the Gophers were left with an eighth runner-up finish and a title drought that has reached 20 seasons.
Yes, the opportunity lost still stings for the program and its fan base. Motzko, though, will try to tap into this year's journey with the goal of climbing one more step when the NCAA Frozen Four returns to St. Paul in 2024.
"Any coach is gonna tell you: You hate the losses, but sometimes those losses help you grow," he said. "… Let's hope that those experiences are something we can draw on as we continue to move forward and just give ourselves the best chance to get in there again and see what we can do."
To that end, Motzko and his staff are assembling the roster for the 2023-24 Gophers, one in which they must replace first-team All-America performers Brock Faber and Matthew Knies, along with standout senior defensemen Jackson LaCombe and, most likely, NHL first-rounder Ryan Johnson. Faber and Knies immediately became trusted playoff players for the Wild and Maple Leafs, respectively, while LaCombe made his NHL debut with the Ducks.
Many happy returns
Jimmy Snuggerud, a first-round NHL draft pick and the team's second-leading scorer as a freshman, committed in April to returning for the 2023-24 season. Last week brought more welcome news for the Gophers. First, center Jaxon Nelson announced Tuesday he's returning to play a fifth season. Goalie Justen Close did likewise a day later, and forward Bryce Brodzinski re-upped for his fifth year on Saturday.
The biggest domino to fall, though, came Friday morning when Logan Cooley, the team's leading scorer and a Hobey Baker Award finalist, said he's coming back for his sophomore season rather than signing with the Arizona Coyotes, who selected him third overall in the 2022 NHL draft. He and Snuggerud combined for 43 goals and 67 assists last season.
The Gophers might not be getting the entire 2022-23 band back together, but returning their two lead singers, a couple of guitarists and a drummer is a nice start.
"With all the players that we have back right now, we have the tools we need to win this thing," Snuggerud said.
There's more talent on the way in the form of a strong recruiting class.
The Gophers' top incoming freshman is Oliver Moore, a Mounds View native and former Totino-Grace standout who amassed 31 goals and 44 assists in 61 games for the U.S. National Under-18 team this season. Moore, a speedy 5-8, 188-pound forward, had four goals and five assists in seven games as the U.S. won the Under-18 World Championship on May 8. He is projected as a top-10 pick in the upcoming NHL draft.
Moore has signed his national letter of intent, as have defensemen Sam Rinzel of Chaska and Waterloo of the USHL and Max Rud of St. Cloud and Sioux Falls of the USHL. That trio is expected to join the team this upcoming season.
U.S. Under-18 forward Beckett Hendrickson, whose father, Darby, is a former Gophers standout and current Wild assistant coach, has signed and is a possibility to join the team. Nathan Airey, the goalie of the year in the British Columbia Hockey League for the Cranbrook Bucks, is expected to join the Gophers for the upcoming season.
“Any coach is gonna tell you: You hate the losses, but sometimes those losses help you grow.”
Motzko and his staff have some final touches to complete the roster, but he likes how it's shaping up, especially with the past week's developments.
"I believe we've got a core of young guys that are going to carry us," he said, pointing to the 2022-23 freshman class that combined for 68 goals and 100 assists.
A stacked roster, of course, doesn't guarantee a national championship — "We needed one more goal," Motzko said of the finale in Tampa — but the Gophers certainly are pleased with how the offseason has started.