Ryan Johnson and Jackson LaCombe could be called the Gophers’ marquee freshmen, a pair of offensive-minded defensemen who heard their names called among the first 39 picks in June’s NHL draft.
But there’s a third freshman blue-liner who just might make a name for himself in Dinkytown, a gritty, lunch-pail 19-year-old who describes his role as being a jerk in the defensive zone. “They can do the pretty things, and I’ll do the hard work in the ‘D’ zone,” he said of his fellow freshmen. “I’m totally fine with that.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Matt Staudacher. He wears No. 55, and fans are going to like him. They can get their first in-person, regular-season look at Staudacher and the 11 other newcomers on the Gophers’ roster in the home-opening series against Niagara on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
“We’re juiced up,” Staudacher said. “We’ve been waiting all year for this.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Staudacher did some of his own pretty things in the Gophers’ season-opening split at Colorado College last weekend. While paired with senior captain Tyler Nanne, he assisted on Scott Reedy’s goal that gave Minnesota a 2-1 third-period lead in an eventual 3-2 loss on Friday, then scored the tying goal late in the second period of the Gophers’ 4-3 win on Saturday. All the while, he played the type of defensive game that coach Bob Motzko desired.
“It was an excellent first weekend,” Motzko said. “He didn’t show up on film and didn’t show up in [coaches’] comments on the bench. That meant he was playing. He was calm and he scored a goal. He played a lot and was very steady for us back there.
“We think he’s going to grow into one of those tough, hard-nosed, defensive defensemen that can chip in some offense, too.”
Staudacher, a Grand Blanc, Mich., native, played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault for three years before spending the past two with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the USHL. Minnesota wasn’t on his radar until Motzko and his staff started showing interest in February, and he was quickly hooked, impressed by the coaching staff’s persistence in recruiting him and by the program’s facilities.
“When I stepped foot here, there was no way I was going anywhere else,” said Staudacher, who was considering programs in Michigan and the East Coast. “It was a pretty easy decision for me.”
Motzko saw potential and leadership in Staudacher, along with a recruiting complement to high-end defensemen Johnson and LaCombe.
“We believe so strongly in the USHL and developing defensemen,” he said. “At that point, he was a leader of his team, coaches loved him. We knew we had the two fancy-pantsers coming. … You’ve got to get that grit we talk about. He knows exactly what his job is.”
In his debut on Friday, Staudacher admitted to an adjustment period.
“That first period Friday night was such a fast pace that I wasn’t used to,” he said. “Once you get the first two or three shifts in, it’s just hockey after that.”
As a freshman, Staudacher is learning from veteran defensemen Nanne and Ryan Zuhlsdorf. But he sees Johnson and LaCombe as teachers, too.
“It’s the best of both worlds. I get to watch them, the two skillful players they are, and watch how they compete in practice,” he said. “I get to learn from that every day. I’m in the best place possible.’’