The Gophers' defensive corps is made up of five underclassmen, a pair of juniors and a lone senior — Jack Sadek.
Sadek, a seventh-round NHL draft pick, has had his best statistical season with a young cast of line mates surrounding him.
"When he's dialed in, he's exactly what we need," said head coach Bob Motzko. "He cares. He's here for the right reason. He's not playing for anything past the season."
Sadek leads the Gopher defensemen in points with 12, including three goals and nine assists. It is his career high, and he still has four weekends of regular season hockey left. Sadek averaged one penalty per game during the first 10 games of the season, but since has taken only five in the past 17 games.
The Lakeville, Minnesota native said he and the two juniors had to take on larger leadership roles as upperclassmen this season — especially with a roster that features five underclassmen on defense.
"[We] kind of take those freshmen in ... under our wing and get their feet wet," Sadek said. "I think they're doing well now, and I feel like their confidence is growing. So, just got to keep playing with them and playing with trust [in] them."
The three freshmen, Robbie Stucker, Ben Brinkman and Matt Denman, combine for 11 total points. Sophomore defenseman Clayton Phillips trails Sadek with eight points, though he has not tallied a point since Nov. 30. The Gophers have none of the Big Ten's top 10 scoring defensemen, while every other team in the conference has at least one player on the list. The Gophers have given up an average of 37 shots per game in the past 11 games, and have allowed 20 goals in the last five.
"He's very good at leading by example, and I think [the underclassmen] have kind of taken to that, and that's why you see us kind of taking a step here," said goalie Mat Robson.
Minnesota currently ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten with a 8-7-3 conference record. They will most likely need to win the Big Ten tournament if they want to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Sadek came to the Gophers hoping to become stronger and more experienced for professional play. He went to one NCAA tournament with the Gophers in 2017, and helped them to Big Ten regular season championships in 2016 and 2017.
"Just getting bigger, stronger, getting better for the next level. And, obviously, win some championships here, which we did. And just hopefully make life-long friends which has been great," Sadek said of his goals going into college. "I think I just passed my most points per year, so that's big for me, a big confidence booster."
Like many current Gophers hockey players, Sadek has family members who also played Division-I hockey. His cousin Brady Skjei played defense for the Gophers from 2012-15 and is now playing NHL hockey with the New York Rangers. Sadek's sister Dani played for Ohio State from 2014-18. Both his father and grandfather played football at Minnesota. Sadek will be graduating from the University of Minnesota in the spring, after four years with the team.
"It's kind of bittersweet having two months left, so you just got to live it up as you can," Sadek said.