The University of Minnesota announced a pair of roster moves on Monday for the second half of the season.
The first is that freshman defenseman Nate Knoepke will be leaving the team to play for the Sioux City Musketeers of the USHL. Knoepke was a highly-sought recruit when he committed to the Gophers as a 15-year-old, due to his combination of size and excellent mobility. But after two years at the NTDP, was never quite able to make the jump and put those tools to effective use, and ended up going unselected in last summer’s NHL Draft. Knoepke only saw action in two games in the first half of the season, despite there being plenty of opportunities for playing time on a somewhat underwhelming unit.
Returning to Sioux City will allow him to get some more game experience. There’s a possibility Knoepke could return to the Gophers at some point in the future, but more likely will end up at another college program.
In Knoepke’s place, Minnesota will bring in Muskegon(USHL) defenseman Clayton Phillips. Phillips committed to the Gophers in the fall of 2015, and was expected to enroll at Minnesota next fall.
Phillips was a third round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Penguins—current Minnesota assistant coach Scott Bell was Pittsburgh’s regional scout last year—last summer. Known as an offensive defenseman, Phillips could potentially address a major need for the Gophers.
Though the Gophers currently sit at 9th overall in the Pairwise Rankings, it has been far from a glamorous first half of the season. They currently sit with a record of 10-9-1, and despite starting the season as heavy favorites, appear to finally be free of the burden of pretending that winning a Big Ten regular season title is a thing.
The problems in the first half largely stemmed from a lack of offensive production. They currently rank 42nd nationally in offense, scoring just 2.65 goals per game. Beyond that, Minnesota’s power play ranks 45th in the nation, succeeding just 14.9% of the time. Scoring production from defesemen is middle-of-the-pack nationally, which in context isn’t terrible since they’re scoring fewer goals than most other teams anyway, but they really lack the type of true playmaker from the blue line that can quarterback a power play and charge their offense.
Whether Phillips will be able to be that guy as a true freshman making the big jump to college hockey at the midway point of the season remains to be seen. But with the option at hand, it makes sense for Minnesota to try it, especially considering the possibility that, as a third round NHL draft pick, the Gophers may not have gotten a full four years from Phillips anyway.