With the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers beginning their 2011-2012 hockey season October 2nd against the University of British Columbia, there is plenty about this year's squad to preview. Throughout the next three weeks, SB Nation Minnesota will be looking at everything new and old in Dinkytown as Minnesota attempts to make their NCAA tournament since 2008. First on the list are the five new freshmen forwards.
Despite not having a blue-chip forward in the mold of a Thomas Vanek, Phil Kessel or Kyle Okposo like in years past, head coach Don Lucia has brought in some skilled and experienced players. With the Gophers losing their top three goal scorers from last season due to Mike Hoeffel, Jacob Cepis and Jay Barriball graduating, one or two of them should find their way into the top-six and play a significant role.
Seth Ambroz - #17
Right Wing 6'3", 215 lbs
2010-2011 Team: Omaha (USHL) Shoots: Right
The 6'3", 215 lbs New Prague native comes to the Gophers with a chip on his shoulder. Once considered a top-five NHL draft pick in 2011, Ambroz dropped all the way to Columbus in the fifth round despite being ranked thirty-first by Central Scouting. He has spent the last three seasons playing for Omaha of the USHL and scored 46 points (24 goals - 22 assists) last year and after almost playing for Minnesota in 2010-2011 (Ambroz wasn't eligible), he looks to end up being the second or third-line right wing.
As far as his style, Ambroz is a power forward who models his game after Milan Lucic of the Boston Bruins. He has great hands and a more impressive shot that fits in with forwards like Nick Bjugstad. However Ambroz is not as physical as Bjugstad - in fact he shies away from it - and there have been knocks on his skating. With some seeing him as an elite talent and others believing he has hit a plateau, how Seth Ambroz develops as a Gopher will be one of the interesting stories this season.
Travis Boyd - #22
Center/Left Wing 5'11", 185 lbs
2010-2011 Team: USNTDP Under-18 (USHL) Shoots: Right
The youngest player in last year's draft (making the cutoff by one day) and not yet 18; Boyd joins Minnesota after two seasons playing in the US National Development program. There he helped lead multiple American teams to gold medals in international competition. Most notably, Travis scored six points (2G-4A including this beautiful backhanded goal) and was +5 on his way to helping the US Under-18 team win their third consecutive gold medal this past April.
Boyd has spent most of his time playing center but at 5'11", 185 lbs may be used on the wing. Although he has playmaking skills, Boyd's main strength is being able to play in any situation and all three zones. He is able to use his speed and space to his advantage and the Olympic sheet at Mariucci will suit Boyd well. In some senses he is similar to captain Taylor Matson although the Washington Capitals draft pick still has room to grow.
Christian Isackson - #26
Right Wing 6'1", 194 lbs
2010-2011 Team: Sioux Falls (USHL) Shoots: Right
Alongside Minnesota recruits Ryan and Connor Reilly, Isackson spent last season with Sioux Falls of the USHL where the former St. Thomas Academy standout led the Stampede in scoring with 44 points (17G-27A). At 6'1", 194 lbs, Isackson has put on close to twenty pounds in the last year that will come in handy during the tough WCHA grind.
He's strong on his skates and able to protect the puck well although like Ambroz there have been knocks on Isackson's skating ability. He doesn't have speed that other freshmen do but the seventh round pick in 2010 can hustle back and be effective at both ends of the ice With a number of players ahead of him, Isackson looks to be a bottom-six player for the Gophers this season.
Kyle Rau - #7
Left Wing 5'9", 170 lbs
2010-2011 Team: Eden Prairie (HS-MN) Shoots: Left
Last year's Mr. Hockey in Minnesota; Rau begins his Gopher career after one of the best senior years in recent memory. The 5'9", 170 lbs forward decided to return to high school hockey and captained Eden Prairie to the Minnesota Class AA championship - his second such title - while scoring a miraculous title-winning goal. Rau scored 41 goals and 40 assists in 31 games; a "slight drop" from a 42G-43A junior year. That not being enough, he then joined Christian Isackson at Sioux Falls and led the Stampede in playoff scoring with 12 points in 10 games in an unsuccessful Clark Cup bid.
Rau is a very skilled player who uses his speed and awareness to create offense and due to that Minnesota will give Kyle a look in the top-six. He's been able to score at will but the main drawback on him is his small stature as the collegiate level is faster and bigger than high school. What works there does not always work in college. However, despite being ranked 177th by Central Scouting this year, Florida thought highly of Rau and took him 91st overall in the third round.
Sam Warning - #11
Left Wing 5'9", 185 lbs
2010-2011 Team: Cedar Rapids (USHL) Shoots: Left
The only non-Minnesotan (hailing from suburban St. Louis) and undrafted freshman forward, Warning has spent the last two seasons playing for Cedar Rapids of the USHL. Last year he scored 24 goals and 19 assists in 56 games for the RoughRiders and was third on the team with 78 penalty minutes. Warning's path to Minnesota, which he chose over several East Coast schools, is in large part due to being coached by Gophers assistant Grant Potulny at a development camp two seasons ago. In addition, Warning played with three Minnesota players (Isackson, defenseman Ben Marshall and sophomore forward Nick Bjugstad) in the 2009 Ivan Hlinka Tournament.
A smaller player at 5'9", 185 lbs, Warning is not afraid to be physical and skates well. He showed that he could score in the USHL but at the same time one-third of Warning's goals came on the power play. That won't happen this season; especially since Warning was the last forward who came in for 2011 after Max Gardiner decided to leave the program and there is a glut of wingers. If Warning is going to find a spot this season on the bench, it is going to have to be in an energy role.
For more Minnesota hockey coverage, follow Nathan on Twitter @gopherstate