The Gophers unofficially open their season Saturday night at Mariucci with an exhibition game against Lethbridge (yep, they're a bunch of hosers from Canada), with their first official games coming next weekend in the "Ice Breaker" tournament. There's a LOT of change surrounding the Golden Gopher hockey program as we gear up for the 2013-14 season. And let's be honest, most of it isn't good. Much of the losses will be in tradition- gone is the traditional conference (WCHA), conference trophies (MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor), conference tourney (Final Five), rivals (Whioux, DU, CC have been wiped from the schedule entirely for the foreseeable future), and the schedule (Friday and Saturday nights will no longer be exclusively game nights).
The Gophers also won't be returning six valuable players from a season ago, including five juniors who left early for the pros: leading scorer Erik Haula (16-35-51), leading goal scorer Nick Bjugstad (21-15-36), team MVP and top defenseman Nate Schmidt (9-23-32), captain Zach Budish (14-22-36), steady defenseman Mark Alt (0-7-7, +18, led team with 50 blocked shots), and their lone departing senior was their biggest and toughest physical presence in defenseman Seth Helgeson (led the team with 62 penalty minutes).
So yes, there will be a lot of change to deal with for the Gophers and their fans, but we need to remember there's also a lot of things NOT changing- and those are definitely all good things:
* PRIDE ON ICE: The Golden Gophers are, have been, and will continue to be the premiere college hockey program in the state and one of the best in the country. Minnesota is ranked 5th in the initial USA Today/USA Hockey national poll. They'll continue to do so in those gorgeous Maroon and Gold sweaters, while playing in one of the best rinks and home environments in all of college hockey at Mariucci Arena.
* ALL OF THE COACHES: Don Lucia, Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny are back as coaches. John Hill, once again, is not.
* ALL OF THE MINNESOTA SCHOOLS: The Gophers are on the road at Bemidji St in mid-October, have back-to-back weekend series at home with Mankato and Duluth in mid-November, and open the brand spankin' new North Star
College Cup (we can remove the word college from it, right? This makes sense to everyone?) at the X with St Cloud State in late January. Speaking of which, the only positive change from Overlord Delany forcing the Gophs' into the B1G and UND and the rest of the NCHC selfishly leaving the WCHA, is the invention of the North Star College Cup. We don't have much, but at least we have that.
WE STILL PLAY THE BADGERS FOUR TIMES: While Minnesota loses many great annual conference rivalries, this one stays. And for this season, the Gophers are apparently underdogs as Wisconsin has been ranked higher in every poll published by anyone ever. So there's that.
* THE GOPHERS DON'T REBUILD, THEY RELOAD: When most schools lose six key players including four of their five top scorers, and five of whom would have been seniors this year, that would leave a serious dent in their lineup. For Gopher Hockey, it just means bringing in five impact freshman, four of whom are NHL draft picks (the fifth? Only Minnesota's Mr Hockey from 2012), and going back to work with a roster chalk full of awesome. Kyle Rau and Nate Condon are back and co-captains, and Rau will be on every Player of the Year watch list in existence.
* ADAM WILCOX IS BACK! Which finally brings us to the goaltender preview. Heading into last season the Gophers had a LOADED team and were preseason #1 (trying not to think about how in the hell they didn't win it all last year? HOW IN THE HELL DID THEY NOT WIN IT ALL LAST YEAR?!?!?? Sorry, was trying not to do that...) with basically EVERYBODY back. The only question mark was in goal, as Kent Patterson had departed after a sterling career in Maroon and Gold, leaving the Gophers with two very unproven commodities in the true freshman Wilcox and junior Mike Shibrowski. The idea was to let the goalies compete and let them choose who would start, which took all of seven and a half periods. The two split the opening weekend against Michigan State (both blowouts), then Shibrowski got the nod up in the UP against Michigan Tech. After letting in four goals on 10 shots barely seven minutes into the second period, Shibrowski was yanked and while Wilcox would let in one more, he started the next night, and every game the rest of the way.
Wilcox was simply ridiculous with a .921 save percentage and set a school record with a 1.88 Goals Against Average in 39 games. He also picked up three shutouts, and was named WCHA third-team. He returns for his sophomore year as one of the best goalies in the country, and goes from an unknown quantity to one of Minnesota's best and important players this season. I have zero doubts he'll be up to the challenge.
Shibrowski isn't a bad goalie by any stretch, and should he be called upon, he should provide Minnesota with a solid netminder. The Benilde-St Margaret's alum and former Coloarado College transfer picked up plenty of accolades in high school and was named his USHL squad's team MVP. Expect Wilcox to be your starter, but Shibrowski is a good backup goalie.
The third goalie on the roster is sophomore Ryan Coyne from Plymouth. Coyne is fairly unproven, as he played a bit in the NAHL before coming to the Gophers, but was great in high school, where he was a two-year starter for Maple Grove, and was named Star Tribune 1st team All-Metro in 2010-11.
So while this coming season will bring a lot of change (and most of it not of the good kind- CURSE YOU DELANY!!!), there's still plenty of tradition, experience and awesome for the Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey program in 2013-14.