MINNEAPOLIS — Amid the eclectic mix of former and current Minnesota Gophers hanging out in the well-appointed players’ lounge deep inside their home rink, future Gophers defenseman Jackson LaCombe found a quiet corner to talk about what may come next.
It was a Monday afternoon, with a noisy youth hockey camp going on at the arena, and his plans for the rest of the week — to say nothing of the rest of this 18-year-old’s hockey career — were quickly coming into focus for LaCombe. On Wednesday, he had a flight to Vancouver planned. On Friday or Saturday, he expects to hear his name called in one of the early rounds of the NHL Draft. And in the fall he will first put on the maroon-and-gold Gophers hockey jersey.
LaCombe, an offensive defenseman listed at 6-foot-2 and 178 pounds, watched as an emotionally invested fan in March as his boyhood friends and teammates from Eden Prairie made an unexpected run to the state high school title game, losing to Edina in overtime. He was a spectator after playing AAA-level hockey for the renowned Shattuck-St. Mary’s program in Fairbault, Minn., for the past four hockey seasons.
While he admits some envy of his friends playing on high school hockey’s biggest stage at Xcel Energy Center, LaCombe feels playing at the private school was the right move.
“I got a little taste of AAA hockey in seventh grade when I went to play in L.A. That was really cool and I kind of became a fan of that style of game and that path,” said LaCombe, who attended the NHL’s pre-draft combine in Buffalo, N.Y., earlier in June and admitted he was somewhat awed by the caliber of players. “It was a really good place for development, so it was an easy choice.”
Moving to defense
His other big on-ice choice came two years ago, when he switched from forward to defense. It was a good move, development-wise, and LaCombe heads into this weekend’s draft ranked 36th among North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting.
“I definitely like the offensive side of the game, joining the rush and running the blue line on the power play,” he said.
LaCombe’s stock has risen dramatically in the past year, despite some areas of his game where he and coaches admit are still improving. LaCombe did numerous interviews with teams at the combine, and has gotten plenty of phone calls in the lead-up to the draft.
“His defending still needs work because he hasn’t played the position for that long, but he can do it all,” said Ben Umhoefer, LaCombe’s coach at Shattuck. “He’s a fun player to watch.”
When the Gophers coaches scouted LaCombe, his size and skill were evident, as he often controlled the Shattuck offense from the blue line, both on the power play and 5-on-5. But LaCombe’s speed and maneuvering on the rink are what set him apart.
“The first thing is he’s just got tremendous skating ability, and that’s been one of the real common denominators over the years. Whether you’re a young player coming in or you’ve got a little experience, the players that really have that extra special gear, the game comes quicker to them,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. “So I think that’s the aspect with Jackson that has us most excited. We can use him in a lot of situations right out of the gate.
"He’s just got tremendous skating ability. With that, the rest of his game comes in line quickly.”
Coming to a team needing to replace 11 departed Gophers, and to a roster where the lack of a true puck-moving defenseman was clearly a shortcoming in Motzko’s first season, one senses that even as a rookie, LaCombe will have an opportunity early to fill that role.
“He’s going to be given every chance to take off, and I don’t think he’s going to disappoint us at all,” Motzko said.