ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Asked about the perennially high expectations of Minnesota Gophers hockey fans earlier this week, coach Bob Motzko said the pressure is really no different than what he faced from Huskies fans during his baker's dozen seasons running the St. Cloud State program.
“At St. Cloud, I had the exact same pressure that I have now, if you want to use the term 'pressure,'” Motzko said, alluding to the notably increased amount of media and other drains on his attention that he deals with in the Twin Cities. “It’s just noisier here.”
That cacophony of expectations on the Gophers got just a little bit louder on Friday, with the release of the preseason Big Ten coaches poll and preseason first and second teams.
For the second consecutive year, Motzko’s Gophers have been pegged as the favorites to win the regular season Big Ten title -- a feat they fell just short of last season. They won the Big Ten tournament in March, on their way to a top seed in the NCAA West Regional.
The pick by the coaches comes after an off-season in which seemingly all the college hockey world’s attention was focused on Michigan, which was picked second. In the late July NHL Draft, four of the first five players selected in round one were Wolverines, and coach Mel Pearson returns an incredible collection of individual talent to Ann Arbor.
With all that in mind, of the six players picked for the preseason all Big Ten first team, four of them were Gophers -- goalie Jack LaFontaine, defenseman Jackson LaCombe and forwards Ben Meyers and Sammy Walker. Michigan defenseman Owen Power -- the first overall pick by Buffalo in the NHL Draft -- and his forward teammate Thomas Bordeleau, who was picked in the second round by San Jose in 2020, rounded out the players picked for the first team.
After the Gophers and Wolverines, defending regular season champ Wisconsin was picked third. The Badgers have notable holes to fill, especially offensively, with the early departure of league MVP and Hobey Baker winner Cole Caufield. Notre Dame added a top-end goalie via the transfer portal and was picked fourth by the coaches. Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State all look to be in rebuilding mode and were slotted for fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively.
The other coaches having confidence in his team won’t change the Gophers’ approach to Motzko’s fourth season running the U of M program.
“I start every year in last place and work from there,” Motzko said. “Everyone’s optimistic at this time. I don’t really play the schedule out in the summer to figure out the ending, which I know is a fun thing to do this time of year when rankings come out, and picking where you’re going to finish.”
Motzko also talked up the challenge the Wolverines -- who have not won a Big Ten regular season title since the league began play in 2013 -- will present.
“There’s no question Michigan is leading the pack right now,” he said. “They got a lot of accolades for all the kids they got drafted in such high spots right now, and ‘tag, they’re it.’ And then it’s the rest of us chasing them. It’s a good spot for us to be.”
Gophers defensemen Brock Faber and Ryan Johnson were named to the preseason second team, while another Gophers blueliner, sophomore Mike Koster, made the honorable mention team. The Gophers open conference play at home on Oct. 29-30 with a two-game set versus Notre Dame.