Success breeds high expectations, which is precisely what Red Wings prospect Ben Marshall and his top-ranked teammates at the University of Minnesota are dealing with after the Gophers dropped the puck on the 2012-13 season last weekend.
Predicted to finish in the middle of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association a season ago, the Gophers surprised the hockey world when they posted a 28-14-1 record and landed in the NCAA Frozen Four in Tampa Bay.
Now, with just one senior on the roster, the young and talented Gophers hope that the momentum, which carried them to Florida, will have some positive carryover this season.
“We had a good year last year and it’s definitely an honor to be ranked that high right now,” said Marshall, a 5-foot-9 defenseman. “But we’re not trying to focus on that so much. We saw what the polls did last year, so we didn’t focus on it then and it doesn’t matter where we’re at right now. We’re just going to play hockey.”
Though the strength of the team stems from the underclassmen, including eight freshmen and eight sophomores, the Gophers are a vastly talented squad led by a defensive group that features the team’s lone senior, Seth Helgeson, a 6-foot-4 blue-liner and a New Jersey Devils’ prospect that was a fourth-round draft pick in 2009.
The defensive corps is obviously young, with four underclassmen; however, they’re loaded with impressive credentials as six of the nine have already been drafted by NHL clubs.
Besides Marshall – whom the Wings selected in the seventh-round in 2010 – the Gophers’ blue line features freshman Brady Skjei, who was the first-round (No. 28 overall) pick of the New York Rangers last June. The Gophers also boost a pair of fourth-rounders in freshman Mike Reilly (Columbus, 2011) and Helgeson (New Jersey, 2009); as well as two second-rounders in juniors Justin Holl (Chicago, 2010) and Mark Alt (Carolina, 2010).
Last season, Marshall was paired with Alt on the blue line. But while Marshall was third on the team with 50 blocked shots, he knows that this year is a new chapter, and he doesn’t plan to rest on past accomplishments.
“It’s going to be stiff competition,” said Mashall, referring to ice-time. “I truly didn’t know what it was going to be like with Brady coming in as a first-round draft pick, he definitely has a lot of skill. Mikey Reilly is another defenseman coming in, and he had a ton of points in his league, so there really aren’t any spots open from last year. We’re all working hard to earn a spot again. The one thing that coach has stressed right now is that he’s happy because he has too many good guys on the blue line.
“Obviously, we’re looking to be a really strong team this year and with that many guys back we’ll have other options and with all of that competition we’ll be pretty solid back there.”
As a freshman, Marshall produced four goals with nine assists, including the first Gophers’ goal in a 5-2 win over North Dakota that sent Minnesota to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time in seven years. Last weekend, the 20-year-old scored a goal in each of the Gophers’ two wins over Michigan State at Mariucci Arena.
But it’s Marshall’s commitment and accountability in the Gophers’ end of the ice that his coaches like to see.
“I think last year our defensive coach loved that part of the game and said, ‘If you do that it will feed off on your teammates,’ ” Marshall said. “I don’t think anyone likes blocking shots, but I don’t mind it at the same time, I like getting in front of plays and helping my teammates.”
It was his similar tenacity that led to Marshall’s biggest setback when he suffered a broken left wrist during his first Red Wings’ development camp.
“It was my first professional camp and I really didn’t know how it made me look at the time,” Marshall said. “It was no one’s fault but mine. I just turned wrong, and I definitely learned from it. Coming from high school hockey the pace was different and I wasn’t really ready for that kind of pace, but you have to keep your head up.”
Now, in his second season with Minnesota – the college team that he dreamed of playing for ever since he was a young boy in Mahtomedi – Marshall is looking to return to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh.
“We’re expecting to be good, but we’re going to play Gophers’ hockey,” he said. “We’ll use last year as a boost for this year and we’re not going to expect anything more than to work hard.”
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