MINNEAPOLIS — Of all the challenges that having 12 newcomers on the Minnesota Gophers’ hockey roster can create, there’s one potential problem that the coaches and players might relish.
Senior goalies Brock Kautz and Eric Schierhorn graduated in the spring, a few weeks after junior Mat Robson had cashed in his remaining year of college eligibility to sign a two-year pact with the Minnesota Wild.
Schierhorn and Robson split time all season, with Kautz playing just 27 seconds in the third string role. Their departures leave what amounts to an empty net waiting to be filled for the Gophers this season, with three men eager to earn the job in what many call the most important position in hockey.
“I think we’re going to have a really good problem again with too many good goalies,” said senior defenseman Tyler Nanne recently. “We had that problem last year with our two goalies that were unbelievable and battled it out. I think we’re going to see that a lot this year. We’re going to have two good goalies.”
The candidates — in alphabetical order, to be completely fair — are freshman Justen Close, junior Jack LaFontaine and freshman Jared Moe. All three started school last month, and have been taking their turns stopping pucks in the preseason, and all three bring something unique to their fight for the job.
Close comes to the U of M from Kindersley, Sask., which is a small town on the western Canadian prairie. He played the previous three seasons in Saskatchewan junior hockey, and was named the league’s top goaltender each of the last two seasons.
Coming from a community of fewer than 5,000, Close said he’s suffered from no real culture shock yet, but was dismayed to hear that popular Canadian donut shop Tim Horton’s in Dinkytown had closed just prior to his arrival on campus.
“That’s a Canadian embassy right there. I don’t know what to do if I lose my passport or anything,” Close joked, while adding that his first taste of life in a big city has been fun. “It’s definitely different from where I’m from and from what I know. But I’m embracing it. Lots of good new places to eat and the guys have been great in helping me get into it.”
Familiar former foe
Robson was the first Canadian goalie in the Gophers program in three decades, but the team will now have had three of them in two seasons since LaFontaine transferred to Minnesota after two seasons at Michigan.
And he joked that Robson, who hails from the same suburban Toronto neighborhood and played for the same British Columbia junior team as LaFontaine, is squarely to blame for him ending up in Minneapolis after getting caught in a numbers game with the Wolverines.
LaFontaine, a Carolina Hurricanes draft pick, played 22 games for Michigan over two seasons. But after Hayden Lavigne backstopped the Wolverines to the 2018 Frozen Four, and they brought in former Fargo Force goalie Strauss Mann last year, LaFontaine could see his chances of in-game ice time dwindling and decided to transfer.
“The opportunity wasn’t really going to present itself, so I figured I’d go back to juniors, play 40 games and go from there,” said LaFontaine, who is an English major and hopes to be a grant writer after his playing days are over.
He said the competition among the goalies will surely be intense, but they are all teammates seeking the same end to their season as well.
“We’re obviously competing for a job, but at the end of the day we’re best of friends. I think competition brings out the best in people,” LaFontaine said. “I have the utmost respect for both of those guys, and I think they’re both great goalies. At the end of the day, all three of us and all 27 of us want the same thing: a ring around our finger.”
The closer-to-home candidate in goal for Gophers coach Bob Motzko is Moe, who is from New Prague, Minn., and played prep hockey for Holy Family Catholic for three seasons. After high school, he spent two seasons playing junior hockey in the United States Hockey League before getting to campus.
This past summer his on-ice time was busy, as he was a regular between the pipes in Da Beauty League, facing dozens of shots a night in a place where defense is often optional and breakaways are the rule. Moe, drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 2018 was also seemingly always on hand for pick-up hockey with his future Gophers teammates.
“He works his butt off. In the summer, we always want guys to get out there and play 3-on-3 games, and he’s always the first one in the group message to say yes to skating,” said Gophers junior forward Brannon McManus. “That’s what we love and he tries really hard in those games, which isn’t always easy in a summer skate, so we’re excited for him and we’re excited for this year.”
Been there, stopped that
While the prospect of a new guy in goal can be scary, it was less than a decade ago that Adam Wilcox was thrown into the fray as a freshman in the 2012-13 season, and responded by winning 25 games and a conference title, and left the U of M after three seasons as the program’s top career goalie statistically. After a Da Beauty League game in August, Wilcox offered friendly advice to the trio vying to fill the Gophers’ crease.
“Just have fun and work hard. It’s an intimidating place to go into as a freshman and start, but just trust your game,” he said, fondly recalling that first season, which ended with the Gophers winning the WCHA title. “Have fun, have confidence and weather the storm, whether it’s good or bad. That was one of the best years of my life.”
Goaltending is usually something coaches like to think about as little as necessary. In college and in the NHL, most coaches find one reliable goalie they can stick with to play most nights.
Some coaches, especially in college, are fine going with a tandem where they rotate starters between Friday and Saturday night games. Motzko plans to let the battles in practice determine who will be the starter, and whether he sticks with one man or rotates.
“I’ve always said coaches pick starters in hockey, but No. 1 goalies are made by their performance,” he said. “We’ve watched teams with two goalies, we’ve watched two guys battle it out until there was a No. 1. We don’t know how that plays out, and that’s a great thing about athletics, but we’ve got the guys we think we can build with.”