Rinzel making strides on Gophers blue line as freshman

Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson were standouts on the blue line for the Gophers men's hockey team for three seasons, combining to play 380 games, score 35 goals and amass 176 assists for three NCAA tournament teams, a pair of Frozen Four participants and an NCAA runner-up.

So, when LaCombe's and Johnson's eligibility expired and Faber left after three seasons for the NHL — where each player has a regular role and in Faber's case a starring one — the Gophers were certain to have some growing pains with youngsters filling in. One of those replacements, though, is quickly growing up.

Sam Rinzel, a lanky, 6-4 freshman from Chanhassen, is hitting his stride as the season progresses. He has seven assists in his past three games and was named the Big Ten's third star of the week for his four-assist weekend in a sweep of Robert Morris. He will play a key role for the Gophers as they resume Big Ten play against Ohio State on Friday and Saturday at 3M Arena at Mariucci.

"Everything that was expected, it's coming together," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said of Rinzel. "He showed early that he was a freshman. He just stayed with it, and we've just seen this transformation into a really high-end player. We've watched that here before, and we're watching it happen again with him."

Faber and LaCombe were second-round NHL draft picks, while Johnson was a first-rounder. Rinzel, a first-round pick at No. 25 overall by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2022, is following the lead set by that trio. Blessed with size and skill, he's adding confidence to the equation as he gains experience.

"I'm just figuring out how to use my skating, my size and my tools to put my strengths to use," Rinzel said. "And then obviously, you work on your weaknesses. My defensive game is something that has really grown."

Rinzel improved his defensive skills in late December and early January in the World Junior Championship, playing a shutdown role as Team USA went undefeated on the way to winning the gold medal against the best under-20 players in the world.

"Being able to home in on the defense there and really stick to and find that niche was really big for me and my development," said Rinzel, who had one assist and a plus-3 rating in the tournament.

Motzko believes Rinzel returned from Gothenburg, Sweden, to the Gophers with something just as valuable as the gold medal.

"There's no question he came back with confidence," Motzko said. "Just to be on that stage with that group of players, everything there was a positive for him."

Rinzel caught the attention of the Gophers coaching staff during a Team USA camp in 2021 and committed to the program that summer. His passing and skating skills, plus that 6-4 frame, combined to make him a top prospect.

The offensive game, particularly his passing, has been a strength throughout Rinzel's career. As a junior at Chaska High School in 2021-22, he had nine goals and 29 assists in 27 games. That led to his decision to spend his senior season with Waterloo of the USHL, where he had nine goals and 27 assists in 58 games. Rinzel has kept up that pace with the Gophers, leading the team with 17 assists and ranking fourth with 18 points.

Gophers senior defenseman Mike Koster, who also played at Chaska High, sees Rinzel's development in how he's using his skating skills in a variety of ways.

"Early on this season, he might have forced it a little bit," Koster said. "You can see how great of a skater he is. He doesn't have to be the one bringing the puck up the ice every time. He can move it, get up the ice and be part of the rush. He's been awesome for us."