Believe it or not, Minnesota Gopher hockey season is right around the corner. Just two weeks from tomorrow the Gophers open the 2012-13 campaign with an exhibition game against Canadian University hockey power Lethbridge at Mariucci (ok so there's no such thing as a "Canadian University hockey power" since college hockey in Canada gets about as much attention as men's volleyball does here in Minnesota), and the following weekend they start it up for real as they host future conference foe Michigan State. Gopher hockey is coming, and for those of us who love the team and the game, it can't get here soon enough.
Not a Gopher hockey fan, per se? Perhaps you're a Gopher sports fan and wondered what all the fuss was about? Well you could not have picked a better season to start paying attention. No really. The 2012-13 Gophers SHOULD be the preseason #1 team in the nation (if they're not we'll just blame it on the ol' East Coast Bias), and the formerly self-proclaimed "Yankess of College Hockey" are actually starting to look like it again. And lest you think this team could be a one year wonder, this is a good time to tell you the team has ONE senior. ONE. They're also 99.9% guaranteed to lose one more underclassmen to the pros (and perhaps more depending on how everything goes), but generally, the team you see here will be back next year too largely intact. So this is why I'm saying it's a really exciting time for Gopher hockey, and if you've ever been interested in following them, this is definitely the time.
So let's get you up to speed with 5 good questions about the 2012-13 team...
SO WAIT SERIOUSLY- ONE SENIOR?
Believe it or not, the only returning senior from a team that went to the Frozen Four is defenseman Seth Helgeson, and while the 6'4 Faribault native is a solid defender who likes to play physical (he led the team in penalties last year with 31), he likely won't even crack the top 4 defensemen. That's how good, and experienced, the rest of the d-men are for a group that not only returns everybody from a year ago, but are also adding a couple of really good freshmen. We'll get to them in a moment.
Maybe even more amazing- and scary for the rest of the country- is the team lost just three seniors from last year's team, and while Jake Hansen will be missed for his scoring (5th with 38 points and 4th with 16 goals) and Taylor Mattson for his leadership (last year's captain was an anchor for the third line and penalty kill), there's an overwhelming amount of talent returning up front. The one real question mark is in goal, where Kent Patterson graduated and his impact cannot be overstated, as he started all 38 games last season, winning 28 of them. His 2.32 GAA and .907 save % were both some of the top numbers in the conference, and he seemed to play at his best when they needed him most (I am excusing the Frozen Four loss to BC since the Eagles turned that one into a shooting gallery). His replacement is likely to be a freshman, and while that's concerning, it's may not be that concerning considering how good and experienced the defense, and team, will be in front of him.
WITH (BASICALLY) EVERYBODY BACK- WHO ARE 5 PLAYERS TO WATCH?
1. Nick Bjugstad, C, Jr- Bjugstad's return was a question mark into the summer, but eventually the 6'4 1st round pick of the Florida Panthers decided the pros could wait and he wanted one more chance at a WCHA title and a national championship. After the Panthers selected him 15th overall in the 2010 draft, Bjugstad had a solid freshman season, then went to work in the offseason to improve his skating, shot, strength, and more. The results were a breakout sophomore season as 'Bjuggy" led the team with 25 goals and third in points with 42 and went from a good NHL prospect to elite. He returns as a preseason favorite for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the best player in college hockey, and will once again anchor arguably the top line in the game.
2. Erik Haula, C, Jr- On just about any other team, Haula would be the star and #1 center. With Bjugstad back it gives the Gophs' an embarrassment of riches down the middle as Haula led the team in points with 49 and was second in goals with 20 last year. He was the top scorer in the entire country after the first month of the season, then disappeared a bit, but returned to the scoresheet in February with a vengeance, and his play was definitely a catalyst that put the Gophers all the way to the Frozen Four.
3. Kyle Rau, RW, Soph- In the spring of 2011, Rau led Eden Prairie to a AA high school hockey title and took home the coveted Minnesota Mr Hockey Award. In June, the Florida Panthers made the diminuitve wing a fifth round pick. So in the fall when he got on campus sure, there were some expectations, but then again, how good could a 5'7 160 pound forward be in his first year in the WCHA? Apparently really, really freaking good, as Rau jumped on the first line and never looked back, finishing second in points (43), third in goals (18), and led the team in both power play goals (9) and game-winners (6). By earning 1st team freshman All-American honors with that effort it showed not to judge him by his size, as Rau displayed great hands, an incredible hockey IQ, a penchant to mix it up a bit, and a knack just being in the right place at the right time. I cannot wait to see what he's going to do as a sophomore but #7 is one of those guys who grabs your attention every time he's on the ice.
4. Nate Schmidt, D, Jr- If Bjugstad was the breakout star of last season, then Schmidt was the breakout surprise. Whereas Bjuggy played a lot as a freshman and was well known, Schmidt played in just 13 games in 2010-11 garnering a single assist. Last season he only beat that assist total by 37. Schmidt emerged as the leader of a very young core of defensemen with those whopping 38 assists and 41 total points in 43 games, and perhaps just as impressive led the team in +/- at +24, showing he could play-and play well- in all situations. He'll be counted on again to be a top-pairing defenseman and likely anchor the top power-play unit as well, and if last year's any indication then he's more than up for the challenge.
5. Zach Budish, LW, Jr- The third member of the Gophers' top line, the monstrous power-forward was named team captain for the upcoming season. Budish has had a rocky road both before and during his time at Minnesota, as knee injuries wiped out both his senior season at Edina and almost his entire true sophomore season of 2010-11. Last season was his first year back from the second surgery, and he responded with a pretty solid year with 35 points (sixth on the club) and 12 goals. With another offseason to further strengthen his knee and another season playing alongside Bjugstad and Rau, a 20 goal campaign is not out of the question.
WHO ARE THE IMPACT FRESHMAN?
Because the team is so loaded, it's a little more difficult to predict how many impact freshman we could see this season, but it's certainly not for a lack of talent. Last week College Hockey News rated the Gophers' incoming recruiting class as far and away the best in the WCHA, and one of the best in the country. While everybody coming in looks good, the two guys who are guaranteed to make an impact are goalie Adam Wilcox and defenseman Brady Skjei. The South St Paul native Wilcox is a sixth round pick of Tampa Bay who played the past two seasons in the USHL for Green Bay and Tri-City. CHN describes Wilcox as "an aggressive goaltender who likes to challenge in the paint and can handle the puck well". He played well and played often in his time in the USHL, especially last year for a not-so-good Tri City club, and will get every opportunity to be the starter opening weekend against Michigan State.
Skjei was a first round pick of the Rangers this past June, and will be one of the best skaters in college hockey the moment he steps on the ice. The product of the USNDP has a ton of international experience and at 6'3 he just oozes potential. His size and skating alone make him a candidate for one of Minnesota's top two defensive pairings, but what he needs to work on is his offensive game. With the skating and what looks to be a good set of hands, he's got the tools to be a scary good offensive player, so we'll see how he develops.
Another guy who will also push for a top four d spot is Mike Reilly, who won defenseman of the year playing junior hockey in British Columbia last season where he led the league in goals, assists, and points for all defensemen, and helped lead his Penticton Vees squad to a championship and record-breaking season that saw them rattle off 42 straight wins at one point. Reilly played for both Shattuck's and Holy Angels before going off to Canada last season, and is considered an offensive dynamo.
Mike's older brothers, twins Connor and Ryan, are also debuting with the U this fall, and also were on that juggernaut Penticton team with him. They're both highly skilled forwards who are both true freshman in class only, as both are older than 20 as 1991 birth years and are the kind of freshmen that the Gophers weren't getting that other schools were. These two have a ton of experience already, and still have plenty of eligibity remaining. It was announced yesterday that Connor tore his ACL in an, um, "off ice incident" and will miss the season, but Ryan should push for playing time up front immediately.
AJ Michaelson of Apple Valley and Christian Horn of Benilde-St Margaret's are very skilled, but very young, freshmen hoping to crack the lineup as well. With so much depth and talent coming back, they're really going to have to earn playing time.
WHEN DO THE GOPHERS START PLAYING IN THE BIG TEN?
That would be next year, for the 2013-14 season. If you're a Gopher hockey fan first and foremost, this is a sad thing, as Minnesota is about to lose a lot of great, long time rivals. I understand why the Big Ten wants a hockey conference, as it's more live programming for it's cash cow network, and with Penn State already on board, and perhaps Illinois and Indiana down the road (both have excellent club teams), more B1G teams playing another revenue-generating sport. But it sucks for Gopher hockey fans, and the WCHA as we know it will basically cease to exist after this season as Minnesota and Wisconsin head to the B1G, and everybody else with a half-decent program heads to a new league themselves.
The Gophers are in danger of losing annual rivalries with hated North Dakota (let's hope people- and by people I mean those at the U- come to their senses and keep scheduling
the Sioux every season), as well as all the Minnesota schools they've played over the years, especially UMD and St Cloud. Lou Nanne continues to trumpet the idea of an annual all-Minnesota Christmas tourney involving the U, Duluth, St Cloud, Mankato, and Bemidji, and I hope the idea gains traction. It makes too much sense not to happen, but often times that's why it won't. As it is, this season takes on extra meaning as the last for a great league and great hockey rivalries, some of which date back to the birth of the league in 1951 for founding members Minnesota, North Dakota, Denver, and Colorado College. Whoever wins the MacNaughton Cup as the conference regular season champs (as the U did last year) and the Broadmoor Trophy for winning the Final Five conference playoffs will carry special meaning as the last year of significance for the WCHA.
WHERE ARE GOOD PLACES TO GET GOPHER PUCK NEWS AND INFO?
If you're new to Gopher hockey you absolutely, positively must visit Gopher Puck Live, or GPL for short. Ryan Cardinal and company do a fantastic job covering the team, and their fan forums are great for all kinds of Gophers and college hockey information. Nate Wells also does an excellent job for SB Nation Minnesota. Another good SBN blog is Western College Hockey. Not sure who the dude is who runs it but he's knowledgable, passionate, and is Minnesota-based so you'll get good WCHA coverage, as well as Minnesota high school hockey.
For traditional media, Roman Augustoviz's Goal Gopher blog on the Star Tribune is about as good as it gets for the mainstream media (it masquerades as the "Roman Empire" when it's not hockey season. I see what you did there, Roman. Very clever). 1500 E!SPN is your home for college hockey on the radio and they do a decent job on their website, and FSN is, of course, your TV home and do a good job on their website too. Get to know your alternate FSN channels with your cable company or satellite provider as many a Gopher hockey game will get bumped to the alternates in favor of Wild hockey (well maybe not this year) or even- gasp!- Timberwolves basketball.
And, obviously, the official Gopher athletics site is great for loads and loads of news and info.