Beyond Their Years
Sophomores Shine for St. Cloud State
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Last season, St. Cloud State memorably made its first Frozen Four appearance in program history — an experience that, despite all the anticipation, resulted in a sluggish national semifinal appearance that saw the Huskies yield three goals in the first 12 minutes of the game against Quinnipiac.
Five freshman forwards played in that game, and now, as sophomores, they have already combined for 91 points and have led the Huskies to the current No. 8 position in the Pairwise rankings, certainly in prime position to challenge for an NCHC title and eventually for another run to the Frozen Four.
“I think the big thing is that they had a terrific freshman year, and they were able to navigate that sophomore slump,” said St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko of Jonny Brodzinski, David Morley, Joey Benik, Kalle Kossila and Jimmy Murray.
“I think it hit them just a little bit, but they got through that very quickly, and they were able to establish themselves against to their work ethic and their commitment to practice and to detail, and that’s allowed them to mature as leaders in our program.”
Brodzinski has led the way for the St. Cloud sophomores, tied with senior Nic Dowd for the team lead in goals (11) and leading the team in points (21) heading into this weekend’s showdown with No. 1 Minnesota.
Said Motzko of Brodzinski, “He just got back on the work train, and his compete level is at an outstanding level. When he’s working and competing, he gets chances, and he doesn’t need many chances to score. But he’s got to come every night with his knees bent, and work himself into positions and work away from the puck. And when he does that, he’s going to score goals. He’s one of those tremendously gifted goal scorers.”
Indeed, Brodzinski enters this weekend’s North Star College Cup with a five-game point streak. The Ham Lake, Minn., native ranks second in the NCHC in goals and fourth in points this season, and when the Huskies take on the Gophers on Friday night, he’ll be facing his younger brother Michael, a freshman defenseman for Minnesota.
Brodzinski has had a penchant of late to score particularly timely goals — for instance, a pair of third period goals in a game at Denver earlier this month that extended a 4-2 lead to 6-2 and effectively put the Pioneers away. On the first goal, Brodzinski beat goaltender Sam Brittain with a no-look turnaround shot from the slot.
“It was a big moment,” recalls Motzko, in his ninth season with the Huskies. “You’re on the road, you want to extend the lead, and Jonny’s able to do that. That’s what he’ll do. He doesn’t need many looks. He knows where to put the puck. The next night, he gets 10 shots on goal and scores a goal. He’s working for his chances right now.”
Fellow sophomore Joey Benik has been similarly successful this season, although after suffering an upper-body injury in the aforementioned Denver game, Benik will be out until likely early to mid February. The injury is unfortunate for Benik, who burst onto the scene late in his freshman season a year ago after sitting out the first half of the season with a broken leg – an injury he suffered in the first practice of the year.
Prior to his latest injury, Benik had amassed five goals and eight assists, including points in three straight games.
“It’s just unfortunate because in the last five or six games, you could tell he’s finding his game,” said Motzko. “The injury comes at such a bad time for him because we really felt he was just getting to the top of his game. It’s unfortunate. Hopefully it’s just a short time. He’s got tremendous offensive instincts. Like all great hockey players, it’s confidence, and you’ve got to work to find that level of confidence in your game, and he was just finding that.”
Like Benik, fellow sophomore David Morley is no stranger to devastating, season-altering injuries. Morley redshirted his freshman season with lingering concussion symptoms. Last year, Morley returned to score 20 points, but Motzko notes even more dramatic improvement as a sophomore.
Morley leads St. Cloud with 14 assists thus far in the 2013-14 campaign.
Said Motzko, “The big story on David was the fact that he couldn’t train for almost a year and a half. When you can’t train as an athlete, he physically wasn’t at a point where he could play at a high level. The critical thing for him is that when the season was over last year, he was healthy, he trained, he had a great offseason, and he was a completely different player to start this year. He was fresh mentally, he was strong, and it’s showing. He’s becoming now one of top players.
“It’s showing on offense, and it’s showing on compete level in games. He’s a guy who came from a real dark place with his injury.”
Certainly, Brodzinski, Benik, and Morley have all lived up to the potential that their freshman seasons promised. Rounding out the five sophomores for St. Cloud are Kalle Kossila and Jimmy Murray, and Motzko is looking for more from them as the season now enters the stretch run.
“We think Jimmy Murray’s got another level to hit,” said Motzko. “Jimmy was in the top 10 in scoring I believe in the USHL. We think there’s more offense to come from Jimmy. And Kossila – a guy who we moved to center this year. He wants to be at center. He’s really adjusting to it. He’s been defending against the other team’s top lines, and he’s been doing a terrific job. But, as he becomes more comfortable, he’s going to become a much better offensive player as well. I think as he moves into his upper class years, he has the opportunity to become a high end player in college hockey.”
In all, these five sophomores are among the top six scorers for St. Cloud so far this season — helping leading the way for the Huskies who are hungry for a return trip to the Frozen Four.
And after all, it may have been last year’s Frozen Four appearance — and the memories of the national semifinal loss to Quinnipiac — that has helped the St. Cloud sophomores to mature and develop so quickly.
Said Motzko, “You do get a bounce — the program, the players in the program — after the success of last year, some confidence, and some belief in what they’re doing. There was for sure some carryover, but this is a new year and new identities and new roles. I’m sure that’s helped them take some more prominent roles on our team.”