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Hockey season around the corner

September 29, 2008

by Aaron Schultz

While I write this column the Minnesota Twins are in a crucial series against the Chicago White Sox and the NFL season is starting to heat up.

Still, I can’t help but look a little ahead to one of my very favorite pastimes – hockey in Minnesota.

We are just two weeks away from meaningful hockey games being played by the Minnesota Wild, and just another week after that, the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ hockey team gets its season started.

It seems hard to believe with the temperature outside hovering in the high 70s that hockey could be that close, but it is, and I can’t be more excited.

From my days of playing youth hockey in Hutchinson, to remembering the North Stars in the playoffs and the Gophers falling to Harvard in the NCAA championship game, to today, I have always been a huge hockey fan.

Every year, about this time, I always think back and wish that I would have played hockey in my formidable years.

But that was not to be since Lester Prairie didn’t offer hockey, and at that early age I had no interest in moving away from my friends.

Although, I do remember my parents saying that if I had really wanted to move to a town that offered hockey, they would have.

Instead, I hung up my skates at the early age of 8, and put on a singlet and headgear for a fruitful wrestling career.

However, that is neither here nor there, as I want to talk about the present, and what should be an exciting, albeit unpredictable year for my favorite two hockey teams.

I’ll start with my newest love, the Minnesota Wild since their regular season comes to us a little faster – Saturday, Oct. 11 to be exact, when they will host the Boston Bruins.

This year the Wild will be going through a bit of a transition, and it could become a huge transition depending on what happens in the next week or so.

The biggest name, and only true star, the Wild have is Marion Gaborik, and he is entering the final year of his contract.

Boy, doesn’t this sound familiar to Minnesota sports’ fans – a superstar that might get traded because our small market favorite team might not be able to sign him?

However, unlike when the Twins traded Johan Santana because they wouldn’t pay him, should the Wild loose Gaborik, it would be for an entirely different reason.

By all reports, the Wild are willing to make Gaborik one of the highest paid players in the NHL.

The problem appears to be – does Gaborik really want to sign a long-term contract to stay in Minnesota?

A lot of speculation has Gaborik looking to play for a more wide-open team that would give him a better opportunity to rack up the points.

Either way, this should get decided rather quickly, as the Wild have no interest in heading into the season with Gaborik in the final year of his contract, and with the ability to leave after the season via free agency, leaving the Wild with no compensation.

So, should the Wild be unable to sign Gaborik to a long-term deal prior to the season, look for them to get into serious trade talks.

Should the Wild sign Gaborik, I expect them to compete for a playoff spot, and maybe more if one or two of the youngsters step up their game and play up to their potential.

However, should the Wild end up trading Gaborik, I would be less than thrilled. But, I’d have to wait on judgment until I saw what they would get in return.

Yep, it should be an interesting couple of weeks leading up to the new Wild season, but whichever way it turns out, I will just be excited that hockey season is again with us.

Now, my true passion, as many of you who have read my columns over the year know, is Gopher hockey.

The Gophers are coming off a very average regular season, but made a great run in the playoffs, which hopefully carries some momentum into this year.

The two biggest keys for the Gophers this season will be Alex Kangas and how much the freshman can add to the offense.

Kangas was a highly touted freshman goaltender last year, and by the time the WCHA playoffs rolled around, was one of, if not the best goalie in the league.

Should Kangas continue to improve this year, the Gophers should expect to have their first shutdown goalkeeper since the days of Rob Stauber.

Even during the years the Gophers were winning national titles, and dominating teams up and down their schedule, it never was because of goaltending.

In those days the Gophers simply outscored their opponents.

If Kangas can continue to develop, the Gophers shouldn’t need to score five goals a game to win.

Now, this brings us to the other key to the season – freshman scoring.

Last year was one of the least offensive talented teams the Gophers have had under coach Don Lucia.

How does the Dapper Don respond? Only by bringing in 12 freshman, many thought to be very strong scorers.

The Gophers are going to need most of these freshman to come in and contribute in a big way as there are only two seniors on the roster – defensemen RJ Anderson and forward Justin Bostrom, and neither are big scorers.

Still, Lucia and the Gophers won’t be able to rely on freshmen alone to carry the scoring load, and that is where a handful of returners come in, starting with junior Jay Barriball.

Barriball had a huge offensive year as a freshmen, but was near invisible, at times, as a sophomore.

The Gophers are going to need Barriball to return to his freshmen level of scoring for them to make a serious run this year.

Two others who will need to come through for the Gophers are junior Ryan Stoa and sophomore Patrick White.

Stoa missed nearly the entire season last year to an injury, and will be counted upon for big things this year, while White should have those freshman growing pains out of the way, and will have to step up at the offensive end, and show the skills that made him one of the top recruits in the country coming out of Grand Rapids High School.

Yes, there are a lot of ifs for the Gophers in 2008-09, but I still have a funny feeling that when March rolls around, they will be right in the mix for a NCAA championship.

In the preseason polls, the Gophers are ranked ninth in the latest one I came across, and I believe that is fair.

And to be honest, I don’t see them lighting the ice on fire early on with all those freshmen. But come the second half of the season, watch out for those mighty Gophers.

The Gophers open their season Friday, Oct. 10 with an exhibition game against the University of British Columbia, and then kick off its regular season the following weekend (Oct. 17 and 18) with a home-and-home series against the St. Cloud State University Huskies.

Husky fans, you should feel lucky that you get to catch the Gophers so early, because we all know that once the maroon and gold train gets rolling, you’ll have no chance at staying with it.

Oh, by the way St. Cloud hockey fans, how did the NCAA tournament go for you this past spring?

That’s right, you’re still looking for that first tournament victory.

Well, hang in there, maybe you’ll go back down to Division II. Then, you’d have a shot.

Ah, what a wonderful time of the year!

Go Twins!

Sitting at my desk Friday morning at work, I am kicking myself for missing a golden opportunity Thursday night.

I had a chance to attend the Twins’ game against the Chicago White Sox, and had to pass due to some previous obligations.

However, I was still able to watch it, and what a game it was.

Just thinking about it the following day gives me goose bumps.

The Twins came-from-behind to beat the White Sox 7-6, sweeping the series, and taking over first place in the American League Central.

Wow, I didn’t think I could get as excited as I am over a regular season baseball game anymore, but Thursday was an unbelievable game.

Go Twins!