Huskies & Gophers Coaching Changes Bring New Horizons

After 13 years as the bench boss for St. Cloud State University, Bob Motzko is moving on from his alma mater to the National Champion Golden Gophers at the University of Minnesota. Taking his place is Brett Larson, formerly of the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. This move is a big chance for the two programs, one of which is on the rise, and one that is already in their prime. With the season looming and classes picking back up in August, it’s time to look at the move and ask what’s really next for the two programs and their new coaches.

Motzko Heading to the Twin Cities

It is no mystery what the Gophers are getting with the hiring of Motzko. With his tenure in the NCAA and also the success with the US junior team, he’s quite possibly the best coach in the NCAA. Last year he had some of his biggest success with St. Cloud when the team became a dominant force in both the NCHC and entire NCAA. He expects to do the same with Minnesota, but with much different systems.

“We are going to be skilled and we are going to add a whole lot of toughness to the way we play this sport,” Motzko told the Pioneer Press. “I told the team (Wednesday), the first thing we have to do is we have to be humble … and we are going to roll up our sleeves and go to work.”

Last season the Golden Gophers didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament after finishing as the No. 5 seed in the Big Ten conference and being eliminated at the hands of No. 4 Penn State.

The 2018-19 roster has not finalized (nor has practice begun for the team) but assuming the majority of the previous year’s roster carries over, a total of sixteen players will be upperclassmen, something that can serve as a great advantage in the Big Ten conference that’s as competitive as ever. After all, three of the Frozen Four teams were from the Big Ten.

Bob Motzko
Bob Motzko (Photo by Maddie MacFarlane)

The Gophers will, however, be missing one of their top scorers in Casey Mittelstadt who is locked up with a professional contract with the Buffalo Sabres. The freshman scored 30 points (11-19), second best on the team. Rem Pitlick registered the most points on the team with 31 (12-19) and will likely be continuing on as a junior.

With the Gophers’ leading point-getters registering almost 30 fewer points than the league-leader Adam Gaudette, Motzko’s going to have to fix every detail to ensure the team is producing more.

Minnesota had one of the most miserable power play percentages at 15.o percent. However, the team was comfortably controlling the puck the majority of the time on the PP, with a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 54.5%, so the problem stems into not just getting shots and chances, but quality shots and chances. This is also evident by the fact that they were in the middle-of-the-pack for shot attempts in all situations.

Their possession numbers continued to be just adequate with their CF% never peaking beyond 52% in any game situation. In comparison, St. Cloud’s numbers stayed consistently around 54%. Motzko can better Minnesota’s numbers by encouraging his players to pick up more rebounds, force more giveaways, initiate takeaways and clean zone entries. While improving what might appear to be an arbitrary stat might seem ridiculous, the little things that go into bettering the stat will better the performance of the team overall.

“Sometimes toughness isn’t defined by bigger,” Motzko told the Grand Forks Herald. “You’re watching the Stanley Cup playoffs right now and toughness is the willingness to do all the little things and block shots and be disciplined. There are a lot of other ways, outside of being big and physical, that are how I define toughness in hockey. Those are the things we want to adapt into our play.”

And Minnesota knows Motzko will do whatever he can to make sure this team succeeds as it appears this will be the last position he’ll hold. It’s been a long-time coming for the man who got cut from the Gophers twice, and he’s going to make the most of it with the expectation of making the tournament and winning.

Larson Coming to St. Cloud

Just this past April, Brett Larson was an assistant on the National Champion Minnesota-Duluth bench. That title is the second of two he’s earned with the team–one coming in his first stint with the team in 2008-11 and the recent one from 2015-18. Much like Motzko, he’s leaving his alma mater for new horizons just an hour away.

This will be Larson’s first sole head coaching position in the NCAA. The previous highest experience he had was an associate head coach at Ohio State from 2013-2015. In his time at Ohio, the Buckeyes had a combined record of 32-33-8.

Brett Larson
Brett Larson (Photo by Maddie MacFarlane)

Despite Larson having never held a head coaching position of his own, it’s safe to say the systems will remain the same in St. Cloud.

Last year the Huskies were a bonafide speed demon, that outworked and outpaced its opposition en route to their thirteenth NCAA Tournament appearance. The Huskies were eliminated at the hands of the Air Force Falcons in the biggest upset of the tournament, but not for a lack of effort. Motzko said in a press conference after the loss that they just made a few mistakes that wound up costing them in the long run.

So it’s not as if the shortcomings of the team would be a reason to change systems under Larson. And in fact, Larson expressed how he coached Sioux City of the USHL in a very similar fashion to the St. Cloud that was No. 1 in the country.

“I’d say [Sioux City is] similar to Duluth and St. Cloud where I like to play up-tempo with skilled players who compete. When you put together the combination of skill, speed and compete, it’s usually a pretty good formula,” Larson told the SC Times shortly after the program hired him.

You can put the fears of losing the stretch pass, speed and carry the puck in systems to rest. That being said, with the hiring of Larson and most of last year’s roster returning, St. Cloud will be looking to continue their dominant run and hopefully claim the first NCAA Championship in the program’s history.

And that’s, without a doubt, the goal in mind. The Huskies have few hurdles to jump to make the push for the Frozen Four and a title. As already one of the best programs in college hockey, Larson has a lot on his plate.