The U are one of three teams from the new B1G hockey conference (wow that feels so incredibly wrong to type) in the College Hockey News Preseason Top 10 coming in sixth. Considering all Minnesota lost from last year's squad, I was a bit surprised to see them ranked so high: 7 of their top players are not returning from a season ago, six of whom were underclassmen who turned pro. Gone are three of their top 4 scorers in Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish, their best defenseman and arguably also their best player in Nate Schmidt, and two of the best defensive defensemen on the squad in Mark Alt and Seth Helgeson. That's a LOT to lose in an offseason, but it shows the depth and young talent returning that CHN thinks they're still a top 6 team.
We'll get more in depth with positional previews in the next few weeks, but a quick overview shows the strength of the team is in goal with Adam Wilcox, who was just freaking brilliant as a true freshman a season ago. Minnesota has a wealth of good skating and puck-moving defensemen in front of him, and a ton of speed and scoring ability up front. However, they also face a lot more questions than the group that returned a year ago. In no particular order: can anyone replace Schmidt as a legitimate #1 defenseman (staring right at you Brady Skjei and Ben Marshall)? How will the lines shake out? Who's getting left out of the top three D pairings (with senior Justin Holl listed as a defenseman on the current roster, that means five returning D-men and three really talented incoming freshmen competing for six spots. I...yeah let's save this for the D preview because I feel like I could go 5,000 words on the D alone)?
And maybe the biggest question- how will this team play on the smaller ice surface? We lamented last season that this program is built for the big ice at Mariucci, and while that's great and they look fan-freaking-tastic on the big sheets, when they have to play on NHL-sized ice it's been a different story. And not a particularily fun story last year. With all of the conference and NCAA playoffs now set to go on NHL surfaces, this team needs to adapt their free-wheeling, wide-open, fire-wagon style of hockey to the dump and chase, grind it out, tougher style needed on the smaller ice. While the D is incredibly talented they're not very physical and most of the defensemen are better right now with the puck than without. That's an issue. The forwards have one of, if not THE best collection of speed and skills in the country, yet they don't have a ton of size outside of wingers Seth Ambroz and true freshman Hudson Fasching. Can they be more physical and adjust their game when they need to? Those are the questions facing your Gophers heading into the season.
As for the rest of the top 10, UMass-Lowell is #1, Maine #2 and the dirty, dirty BADgers are #3 and the highest ranked of current and former WCHA schools (by the way, check the CHN link at the top for no other reason than to see "WCHA" besides the Gophers season record. Enjoy it because we may never see it again). Sconnie finished the season strong and return a bunch, which should bring much joy to the half empty Kohl Center this season. Former arch-rivals the Fighting Whioux are fifth because it's fun to dangle nice things in front of them to build up hope before misery and disappointment slaps in the face by season's end- well, I mean more misery and disappointent than just the fact you have to live in Grand Forks. New conference foe Michigan is 8th, which is interesting considering they underachieved badly last year and lost talent, and have been trending downward for awhile now. But whatever. Finally, almost as strange as the concept of the B1G hockey conference is seeing Minnesota State-Mankato 10th. The Mavs? The Mavs! ONe of the few holdovers from the WCHA should clean up in the shambles that are left of that conference.
Oh, and the Gophers will face three straight teams ranked in CHN's top 10 before conference play begins in #4 Boston College (here 10/25 and 10/27), #7 Notre Dame (in South Bend November 8th and 9th), and #10 Mankato (at Mariucci Nov 15 and 16).