More than you need. Is it a blessing or a curse? Such is the dilemma Minnesota Gopher Hockey head coach Don Lucia faces this year with his defensive corps and goalies. For the defense he has more talented, experienced players than he has room for. With his goaltenders, it's two talented players with a combined 20 minutes of Division 1 hockey experience.
Funny that it was the exact opposite a year ago, as senior goaltender Kent Patterson returned having played- and played well- in every minute of every game since he took over the starting gig in late October of 2011. The defensemen in front of him were an entirely young and unproven bunch, and was a big reason the Gophers were picked to finish middle of the pack in the WCHA. Sure there was some talent there, but how could they win big games with such a young and inexperienced group?
You know how things went. New/old defense coach Mike Guentzel did maybe the best coaching job of his career turning this group from major question mark to major strength seemingly almost overnight. Sophomore Nate Schmidt had a breakout season finishing tops on the team in +/- at +24 and assists with 38 and fourth in points with 41, and rest of the group galvanized around him as the Gophers allowed by far the fewest goals in WCHA conference play with just 57 in 28 games, an average of just 2.04 per game. Patterson was once again his usual brilliant self, starting all 43 games and playing all but 20 minutes and 44 seconds, and was named first team all-WCHA with 28 total wins, and a 2.06 GAA and .918 save % in conference play. With the defense a plus instead of a minus and Patterson in net it helped the Gophers go all the way to the Frozen Four.
This season the Gophers have the weight of expectation back on their shoulders as either the preseason #1 or #2 team (depending upon which poll you favor), and unlike last year, the big question mark for the season is in goal, not on defense. As of this writing Lucia hadn't announced a starter for the Michigan State series, meaning we should expect to see his top two guys play in the opening weekend, and keep playing until he finds a hot hand or the definite starter.
Michael Shibrowski is a junior, and he has all the returning experience in net, even if it was just 20 minutes of it. At 22, Shibrowski has had a long, winding career: he played his prep hockey at Benilde St Margaret's, played the first half of the 2009-10 season with Owatanna of the NAHL then jumped to Colorado College for the second semester. He went back to juniors in 2010-11, this time in the USHL with Des Moines where he played well and won team MVP, then joined the Gophers as a backup last season. While we didn't learn much from the 7-0 exhibition stomping of Lethbridge last weekend, Shibrowksi did start the game, and if I had to wager a guess, he's the most likely to start Friday night against Michigan State.
Pushing Shibrowski for the starting gig is freshman Adam Wilcox, and while he may have no D1 experience under his belt, the 2011 sixth round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning has played plenty of hockey the past two seasons in the USHL. He skipped his senior season with South St Paul in 2010-11 to play in the USHL for defending champion Green Bay, where he split time with 2nd team all-USHL netminder Ryan McKay. Wilcox played well when called upon going 16-6 in 24 regular season games with a .922 save percentage and 2.20 GAA, but McKay played the bulk of the playoff minutes as the Gamblers went back to the finals. Wilcox was expected to be the full-time starter for 2011-12, but McKay put off playing college hockey for Miami of Ohio and chose to return to Green Bay for one more run and to be the starter once again (he ended up being named the USHL Co-Goalie of the Year for 2011-12, and will play for Miami this fall).
Once McKay decided to return, Green Bay decided to give Wilcox a chance to play elsewhere dealing him to the Tri-City Storm early in the season. The Storm were a much worse team than Green Bay, but they gave him an opportunity to start and their poruous defense gave Wilcox plenty of opportunity to face shots and improve his game as he played in 34 games. He comes to the Gophers with plenty of talent, and with an almost infinitely better defense in front of him, the idea is that he won't have to stand on his head to keep Minnesota in games like Patterson had to two years ago or like Wilcox did for Tri-City last year. Wilcox comes in with more pure talent than Shibrowksi, but we'll see if that translates into being a better collegiate goalie this season.
Whomever plays goal for Minnesota this season will have a wealth of talent and experience playing in front of him, as the Gophers not only return their top six defensemen from a year ago, but are also adding two of the most talented freshmen blue-liners the program has seen in awhile. Schmidt is the unquestioned leader of the group, but apparently still has something to prove to the WCHA media, who did not vote him pre-season first team all-WCHA (he finished third in votes with 7 behind Denver's Joey LaLeggia who had 20 votes and Nick Jensen of St Cloud who had 9). He'll be on the top pairing, quarterback the power play, and should see plenty of time on the PK as well.
The question for the defense this season isn't just who plays alongside Schmidt, but who rounds out the top six guys. We mentioned off the top about having more than you need, and it looks like Lucia and Guentzel have eight good candidates for only six spots, with Schmidt as their only lock. Per Eric Vegoe over at GPL, the exhibition win over Lethbridge showed there's still plenty to be decided:
The defensive pairings were Jake Parenteau and Justin Holl, Seth Helgeson and Ben Marshall, Mike Reilly and Mark Alt, and Brady Skjei and Nate Schmidt. Lucia had three different power play units for the game with Nate Schmidt, Mike Reilly, and Brady Skjei all taking turns as PP quarterbacks. The units looked crisp and are going to make it difficult on the coach to cull the group into two units.
Just looking at those pairings, the guess is Lucia put his three most reliable defensemen- Schmidt, Alt, and Holl- with the three most inexperienced guys, leaving two experienced bubble guys in Helgeson and Marshall. That's just a guess and it'll be very interesting to see how he doles out playing time and minutes this weekend. If Schmidt is the lone absolute lock, then it's probably safe to say junior Jake Parenteau is the most likely to be on the outside looking in. Solid and steady but not spectacular, he appeared in 39 of 43 games last year and registered just eight points and only two penalty minutes. However, he picked a really nice time to get his only goal of the season- and second of his career- with a big one in the NCAA regional win over BU.
His partner in the exhibition, Justin Holl, hails from the rough streets of Tonka Bay, and is a defensive-defenseman and a second round pick of Chicago in the 2010 draft (my favorite thing about his player bio is that he lists wiffle ball as a hobby. Wiffle ball is awesome). With a healthy amount of offensive defensemen on the roster, I'd be surprised to see a steady defensive guy like Holl fall outside the top six. I don't think he joins Schmidt on the top pairing, but I'd say he's pretty likely to get a spot somewhere in the top six, and should be a fixture on the PK.
Despite being the only senior, Seth Helgeson is at risk to not crack the top six. A fourth round pick of New Jersey back in 2009, the 6'4 210 pounder loves to play physical, as he led the Gophers in penalties (31) and penalty minutes (70) a year ago, and I'm sure if they published the numbers, he would have been one of the top guys in hits too. Still, Helgeson isn't exactly fleet of foot, and despite being tied for the team lead in goals by a defenseman last year with five, he's not a great passer or offensive player. However, the Gophs certainly have to like his toughness and mean streak, and that's always needed in the tough WCHA season. Again, just a guess, but I'd say he's a third pairing D man at best this year.
The other returning player who's in danger of falling out of the top six is sophomore Ben Marshall. Touted as an offensive defenseman coming in as a freshman a year ago, Marshall proved to be better than advertised in his own end with a +13, and finished second in blocked shots with 50. But the offensive game stagnated as Schmidt took over the power play QB role early in the season, and Marshall finished fifth in scoring for defensemen with just four goals and 13 points. While it'd be ridiculously premature to say his offensive game can't develop and flourish at The U, his problem is going to be getting the opportunity: not only does Schmidt return, but the two incoming freshmen are said to have potentially elite offensive games. He himself has the potential to be a well-rounded WCHA defenseman, and we'll see if he can earn the playing time needed to prove it.
The last, and certainly not the least, of the returning D-men fighting for a top six spot is junior Mark Alt. A Minnesota Mr Hockey finalist as a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall and a second round pick of Carolina back in 2010, Alt was the second best defenseman on the team last year by just about any measure. Playing in all 43 games he was second amongst Gopher defensemen in points (22), assists (17), blocked shots (51), and +/- (+18), and was tied for first with five goals. At 6'3 and 205 he's got the size coaches love and is a better-than-you-think skater. If his offensive game continues to develop as it did last season, he'll be one of the best defensemen in the conference.
Which leaves us with the two freshmen, Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly, and if you follow hockey at all then you've likely heard about Skjei already. The first round pick of the New York Rangers comes in highly decorated and highly touted after two successful seasons with the US National Development Team in Ann Arbor, MI where he received not only extensive experience in the USHL but also in international competition as the USNDP's two teams doubles as Team USA's U17 and U18 teams. Skjei is big at 6'3 and almost 200 pounds, and a ridiculously good skater. Scouts and hockey people have spoken so glowingly about his skating, I'm half expecting to see sickness and starvation in Minneapolis cured just from him skating at Mariucci. It's been rumored women could be impregnated just at the site of him gliding around the ice. Apparently, it's that good. The reason a 6'3 defensemen with orgasmic skating ability wasn't a top 10 pick is because his offensive game needs work. It's not bad by any means, but there's still some work to do, and if the exhibition game is any indicator then Lucia will give him every opportunity to develop it as he not only skated with Schmidt on the top pairing but also rotated in as a power play quarterback.
Reilly may not have Skjei's hype, but he could be a more impactful player in his first season. A fourth round pick of Columbus in the 2011 draft, Reilly might not have Skjei's size at 6'0 and 174 or his baby-making stride, but his offensive game for a defenseman looks truly elite. The Shattuck St Mary's product played for Penticton last year in a very good junior league in the BCJHL and absolutely destroyed it. Along with twin older brothers and fellow Gopher freshmen Connor and Ryan, as well as Coach Lucia's son Mario, Reilly was instrumental in guiding the Vees to a record-breaking season which included the league title and a 42 game winning streak. He was named the BCHL Defenseman of the Year after leading all D-men in goals (24), assists (59) and points (83) in just 60 games, and looks poised to contribute this season as a top four defenseman who should see plenty of time on the power play.
If I had to guess, and again it's just a guess, your top four will be Schmidt, Alt, and the two freshman, with Holl and Marshall as the third pairing. It's not often you want two true freshmen amoung your most trusted defensemen, but this would be the rare case where if they're getting those kinds of minutes, they'll have certainly earned it.