Jackson LaCombe glided across the ice, the puck fused to his stick, skating loops and zigzags, exuding grace and ease.
He made it look effortless like a lazy practice skate, but this was the Gophers defenseman holding the puck in the offensive zone for what felt like an entire shift in the midst of a chaotic second period Saturday.
Back and forth, around and around, a wraparound shot thrown in somewhere in the middle, LaCombe played keep-away, exhausting the Spartans — and particularly the player tasked with chasing him — into taking a too-many-men penalty.
The freshman said he was just trying to make a play while maintaining possession. But his teammates, coach Bob Motzko and the home crowd knew they were witnessing “a glimpse of the future,” as Motzko put it.
“He went around the zone like two or three times, and the whole crowd started erupting because of it,” said Ryan Zuhlsdorf, LaCombe’s defensive partner. “I was just sitting on the blue [line], watching.”
The Gophers hope LaCombe will give a couple more peeks at how high his ceiling is when the team travels to Notre Dame on Friday and Saturday. The Gophers (13-11-4, 8-6-4-3 Big Ten) sit in a three-way tie for second in the conference, two points back of Penn State. The Fighting Irish are three points behind the Gophers.
LaCombe’s development — as well as the team’s large freshman class as a whole — has been a catalyst for putting the Gophers in position to make the NCAA tournament if they win out the last three series of the regular season or win the Big Ten tournament. And the Eden Prairie native making a smooth transition from Shattuck-St. Mary’s to playing a faster, more physical college game on Olympic ice isn’t surprising, given the 19-year-old’s penchant for quick growth.
As a sophomore in high school, LaCombe was a 5-7, 120-pound forward. He switched to being a defenseman late in that season because of some injuries on his team, and by the time he entered his junior year, he was 5-10, 160 pounds. Now he’s 6-2, 190.
“It was a perfect time,” LaCombe said of his growth spurt. “It definitely helps.”
That, paired with a monster final season at Shattuck where he set a school record for points by a defenseman with 89, including 22 goals, helped him be a high draft pick. The Anaheim Ducks took him 39th overall in the second round this past summer.
LaCombe’s offensive instincts stand out — he has 11 points this season, tied for most among Gophers defensemen — as does his calm demeanor and creativity on the ice, according to assistant coach Garrett Raboin. Defenseman Tyler Nanne called LaCombe one of the best skaters on the team “by a mile,” someone confident enough to rush the puck up into the attack.
But being that this is only his third full season playing defense, LaCombe said he’s still mastering some nuances of the position, such as minding gaps. That’s where partnering with Zuhlsdorf, a senior who is much more of a traditional defenseman, has helped.
“We jelled right away,” Zuhlsdorf said. “We were able to find each other on the ice. It was just seamless. He came in, it was like we didn’t miss a stride. Our connection is so nice. Just being able to talk to him about things on the ice that I notice about his game, he notices about my game. We have really good communication on the ice. And that’s not something I’ve had in a while.”
If Zuhlsdorf is LaCombe’s big brother, Ryan Johnson is his twin. “Mirrored” and “tied at the hip” is how Motzko described the two freshman defensemen who are highly drafted roommates, with Johnson going 31st overall in the first round to the Buffalo Sabres.
The two are the resident protein shake connoisseurs on the team, whipping up new recipes for lucky teammates. That might seem like an inconsequential detail, but it shows how both LaCombe and Johnson are focused on being Gophers instead of NHL stars.
“They’ve got great heart, and they’re all in for this program,” Motzko said. “Whatever’s in the future … you don’t know how fortunate we are that we’ve got players with that status that are two feet in.”
LaCombe said he just thinks of himself as another player who has to earn his spot and work hard every day. His curly, strawberry-blond hair paired with a genuine smile make that easy to believe, even if his eye-opening plays on the ice don’t.
“When they show that, you can’t wait for it,” Motzko said. “How they’re playing right now, they’re at a whole other level now than they were at the start of the year. And yet … they’re just scratching the surface.”