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Dallas Stars No. 1 draft pick at Minnesota Duluth follows in late teammate’s footsteps

Forward Riley Tufte (27) of the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs and forward Jake Pivonka (20) of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish compete for the puck at Compton Family Ice Arena in South Bend, Ind. Clint Austin / Forum News Service file photo

DULUTH, Minn. -- Minnesota Duluth junior Riley Tufte has plenty to motivate him in Year 3 with the Bulldogs.

The former Blaine High School wing is not only chasing a second national championship at UMD, he’s also entering a pivotal year professionally.

After taking him in the first round of the 2016 NHL Draft, the Dallas Stars are likely to pull out all the stops in an attempt to sign Tufte this offseason.

Yet, Tufte’s chief inspiration continues to be his friend, the late Andrew Carroll, who took his own life in January. The death of the former Bulldogs captain has caused Tufte to examine what made Carroll such an enduring figure who surpassed expectations to reach the next level.

“He did everything he could and he was always going 100 percent,” the 20-year-old Tufte said. “I think that's just kind of changed my mindset to work even harder, and nothing's going to come easy as it was for him.”

Tufte’s goal this season is to never take a night off as his friend did and do everything in life at 100 percent as he hopes to bring back-to-back NCAA titles to UMD. At the same time, he wants to take a major step toward being a professional hockey player.

Tufte took a big jump last year offensively, going from nine goals and seven assists as a freshman to a team-leading 16 goals, plus 13 assists, as a sophomore. He has three goals and one assist through eight games this season for the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs playing alongside senior center Peter Krieger and sophomore wing Nick Swaney.

Heading into this weekend’s NCHC-opening series against Colorado College at Amsoil Arena, UMD coach Scott Sandelin said he’d like to see more offensive output not only from Tufte, but that entire line, which has a combined six goals.

Four of those six goals have come on power plays, including all of Tufte’s goals.

“He’s made progress, there is no question. I think this year, maybe it’s not the start he probably wanted, or we wanted, but it’s a long year. Sometimes the bigger bodies take a while to warm up, so to speak,” Sandelin said of Tufte.

“He needs to have an impact every shift whether it’s physical play, controlling pucks, using his shot, getting to the net. Those are things that are really important to his game. We’ve seen bits and pieces of it, but again it goes back to consistency and it goes back to that whole line being consistent together and doing the things they need to do together to be effective.”

Criticism is nothing new for Tufte, who experienced plenty of it during his first semester at UMD after failing to register a point in his first 16 games or score a goal until his 19th collegiate game.

Back then the criticism came from outside the locker room rather than inside it, mostly from social media.

“I think a lot of people thought I was going to come in and be Superman at the start of the season here, especially with winning Mr. Hockey and becoming a first-round NHL Draft pick, picked 25th overall,” Tufte said of his rookie season. “I knew I was gonna come into Duluth and probably have some struggles right away just because I know high school to college is a big step, especially with how big I am. I had a lot of growth to overcome.”

Tufte is in agreement with Sandelin over what he needs to improve on, which is why he only briefly considered signing this summer with the Stars despite winning an NCAA title and a bronze medal with Team USA at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y.

It’s why Tufte says he’s still very much like that kid at Blaine who spurned junior hockey. He still is in no rush to jump to the next level.

“You're not going to get these years back at UMD, in college, and once you sign you can't go back,” Tufte said. “So you gotta get to make the best of them.”

Tufte said as a junior he’s working on building his confidence. It hasn’t peaked yet, he said.

He’s also continuing to focus on using that 6-foot-6, 230-pound frame more effectively. Tufte said he’s working on taking pucks to the net in the right way and getting his stick in the proper position when parked in front of the net.

Tufte’s linemates, Krieger and Swaney, believe he’s succeeding in those areas. They see every game what a big body like Tufte can do for those around him on the ice.

“Riley is a great player, he’s got that big body and he’s starting to use it more to his advantage,” Swaney said. “Once we get pucks in and on the forecheck, he really shows his game.”

“He draws two guys a lot of times, double teams,” Krieger said. “Guys are trying to get the puck away from him and he’s very good at using his body to protect the puck. That allows me to find soft areas, places that maybe wouldn’t necessarily be open because he’s able to draw two guys to him.”

Tufte knows to get where he wants to be, he needs to continue to strive to do everything like Carroll did at 100 percent. While he’s maybe not quite there yet as an athlete — Carroll would run to high school or the rink even though he had a car — he’s there as a person.

After back-to-back heartbreaking losses at Denver last February, Tufte took time after the Saturday game to meet with a young hockey player from the Denver area. Like Tufte, the child had recently been diagnosed with diabetes and his mother reached out to Tufte, hoping her son could find inspiration from a future NHLer.

Tufte spent so much time with the family, he nearly missed the team bus back to the hotel that night.

“I love talking to young kids about (living and playing with diabetes),” Tufte said. “That's kind of something I want to do maybe after hockey is over, just helping young kids out with dealing with that stuff and dealing with diabetes. I always love talking to those kids and that little guy, especially.”

Sounds like something Carroll might have said during his days as a Bulldog.

“I looked up to him when I was a little kid and just everything he did and how far he took things,” Tufte said. “He was amazing. He had a lot of impact on me and a lot of people. I think a lot of my drive comes because of him because he was just so motivated to the game and just everything he did.”

COLORADO COLLEGE (4-3-1) AT NO. 1 UMD (6-1-1)

What: NCHC series

When: 7:07 p.m. Friday/Saturday

Where: Amsoil Arena

TV: My9

Radio: KDAL 610 AM/103.9 FM

Internet: (video)

Twitter: @mattwellens