Future is Bright, and Now, for Minnesota State
by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
MANKATO, Minn. Freshmen on a college campus are not typically known for their maturity and intelligence. But in the case of Minnesota State, head coach Troy Jutting can't stop raving about the abundance of both his first-year players have.
Led by Jean-Paul Lafontaine, Matt Leitner and Max Gaede up front, along with Zach Palmquist and Brett Stern on the blueline, the future looks very bright in south central Minnesota.
"Not only are they skilled players, but they're very intelligent players," Jutting said. "They understand the defensive part of the game. It allows you to play them in situations where you may not be able to play a normal freshman."
The standings would not show much reason for optimism, with MSU going 3-12-1 while suffering through a lengthy list of injuries. But digging deeper, optimism abounds, for good reason.
Lafontaine and Leitner lead the Mavericks in scoring through 16 games, with Lafontaine among the WCHA leaders in both total goals and freshman scoring.
"I've always been able to shoot the puck, but I've played more with shooters," said Lafontaine, who tallied 33 assists last year with Green Bay of the USHL. "I've been more of the set up guy, but it's nice to be the shooter."
He's on pace to score 18 to 20 goals this season, and if he reaches 20, would be the first Maverick to reach that threshold since 2007-08.
"That's really good for any player in college hockey, let alone a freshman," Jutting said. "I'm not surprised. He shows up in goal's scorers areas and then has the patience and presence to score those goals."
Leitner could be a real find. He was among the leading scorers in the USHL in 2008-09 and in 2009-10 in Fargo, but had to sit out last season in Mankato. The rare veteran of three USHL seasons, he just turned 21 years old in November.
"When you have a linemate like Leitner, you gotta shoot the puck," Lafontaine said. "He sets you up in those areas all the time."
"He has the ability to see plays that most kids don't," Jutting said.
Being a veteran youngster, Leitner said the biggest challenge was getting his legs back after an 18-month layoff. Academic issues kept him away last season, but a year's worth of hard work in the classroom is paying off for him on the ice.
"There's no simulating game speed," Leitner said
Gaede, a third-round pick of the San Jose Sharks, is a bull around the net. Injured on the second shift of his first collegiate game in October, he played in just his seventh and eighth games this weekend at Minnesota. Jutting said confidence and experience will do him wonders.
"He's had chances every single night he's played," Jutting said. "People forget that he was injured for five or six weeks. He's just starting to get his feet under him."
"He's extremely quick, great release on his shot," Leitner said. "Playing with myself and J.P., I think he's going to have a lot of opportunities to score some goals for us."
On the blueline, Palmquist has the look of a Ben Youds/Kurt Davis type of defensemen. Both Davis and Youds graduated this spring, and at one point in their collegiate careers, led the Mavericks in scoring.
"I like to be like that fourth forward, jumping up into the play," Palmquist said. "But I like being a plus-player. I don't like giving up goals and having those minuses on the sheet. I like to take care of things on my end first and know when to jump up."
"His dad is a high school hockey coach," Jutting said. "He's been around hockey his whole life and understands the game extremely well."
Playing in Duluth in November, a perfect storm of injuries and game misconducts left the Mavericks with just four defensemen. Palmquist played 37 shifts each night. As seniors last year, Davis and Youds would routinely be in the 30-minute per night range. This year, Palmquist is already approaching that.
"Definitely enjoy it," Palmquist said. "Losing their top three [defensemen] from last year, I knew the playing time was going to be there and I'm trying to enjoy every moment of it."
Jutting is also high on Stern, a much different type of defenseman. Four inches bigger than the 5-foot-10 Palmquist, Stern is a classic defensive defenseman. He provides a quality yin to Palmquist's offensive yang.
Another forward, Charlie Thauwald, has yet to see consistent time, but has already carved out a niche as a grinder, playing sparingly because of the older forwards MSU has — but eating tough, physical minutes. In a game against Anchorage last weekend, he was credited with four hits in one shift.
And because of a hip injury which will cost him the season, sophomore Chase Grant will join this class next year as a medical redshirt. Grant was perhaps the team's best freshman a year ago.
"They were key players in all of the roles on their junior teams," Jutting said. "They killed penalties, they played on the power play. They all have a lot of post-high school experience in the kinds of situations they need to have played in if you're going to play them in those roles as freshmen.
"As they get used to the college game, they're just going to get better because of how hockey smart they are. They have to keep improving as players, but when you have that intelligence, I think the ceiling could be pretty high for them."