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Minnesota Gopher hockey: What are the expectations for the 2011/12 season?

Soooooo glad to have hockey back. Football in Minnesota is awful right now, and Gopher hoops is still weeks away, but for the first time in way too long, the hockey teams in Minnesota may actually give us something to cheer for. The Wild got off to a great start, and the team we care more about here, your Golden Gopher hockey squad, started with a bang over the weekend as well. The U played an inferior Sacred Heart squad, and while in recent years Don Lucia's teams have played down to their competition far too often, that was not the case at Mariucci last weekend, as in two games the Gophs scored a whopping 15 goals and gave up zero.

That, friends, is taking care of business. Yes, Sacred Heart isn't very good, but the U were a plus 15 in two games against a D1 opponent, and they didn't even play their best hockey. That's to be expected early in the year, and it's why you have tuneups like this and the previous one against UBC to get ready for conference play this weekend. And they'll need to be at their best with a trip to play the defending national champs in Duluth on the docket. But we'll get to that later in the week (For a full team preview, check out Ryan Cardinal's piece over at GPL, which is much more in-depth and, well, better than anything I could come up with).

For today, let's talk expectations. What should the expectations be for this team?

No coach in the history of the program manged four straight disappointing seasons like Don Lucia just had and survived it, yet Lucia is back for year five. Why? How? Because, I imagine, new school president Eric Kaler and AD Joel Maturi want the next coaching hire- if it comes to that- be made by an athletic director who's not in the last year of his contract. Fair enough, but Lucia's job is and should be on the line this year: Since winning back-to-back WCHA titles in 2006 and 2007, Minnesota has finished 7th, 5th, 7th, and 5th. Consistent? Sure, but consistent mediocrity isn't what this program used to aspire to. In the past four years the Gophers are 44-45-19 in the WCHA and 66-61-24 overall, and have missed the NCAA tourney AND the Final Five the past few years. Four years ago that occurring even once would have been unthinkable, yet it's happened twice in a row.

For this season the bar is, and should be, higher. The expectations should be a top-4 finish in the WCHA and an NCAA tourney berth- and I would even argue a first round win. That used to be the norm around here, so have we sunk so low that shouldn't be the expectation again? I didn't think so either. Funny that four or five years ago, the expectations were what they always were- win the WCHA and get to the Frozen Four, and hopefully win a national title.Top four in the conference and an NCAA berth were a given- to the point that we didn't even think or talk about that because it was understood that was not just expected to happen but going to happen. Now, the hope is to return to a level that was once a given around here.

Help has come not just in the form of yet another stellar recruiting class for Lucia, but in a new/old assistant coach. Former Gopher defenseman and assistant Mike Guentzel replaces John Hill as the team's defensive coach, a position he once held for 14 seasons before he and Lucia had, well, a "falling out" of sorts in 2008. The location of the Holy Grail, why people like the band Nickelback, and just what the hell happened between Lucia and Guentzel are three things we'll never know the answer to, but it still doesn't stop us from wondering. Or me at least. Was it some major, fundamental disagreement between the two? Was it Lucia trying to force a coaching role for his best friend Hill that pushed Guentzel out? Or was it somehow all Joel Maturi's fault? Whatever it was, the two have either mended fences enough to make this work, or Lucia knows his job is on the line and knew he needed an excellent defensive coach to keep his job.

The fanbase is certainly excited to have Guentzel back, and he's going to have his work cut out for him this year. It's not that the defense lacks talent, it's just really, really young; No seniors, just one junior, and a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Ditto the forwards, who at the moment have just one senior and zero juniors in their top six, and two or three seniors and no juniors in their top 13 forwards! Usually such a young team wouldn't be a recipe for success in the WCHA, but this is a very skilled group, and if Lucia and Guentzel and the rest of the staff can get them playing well in front of 2011 2nd team all-conference goalie Kent Patterson, this could be Lucia's best team in years. They key will be how well the defensemen perform and could be the difference between a top 6 or 7 finish in the WCHA, or battling for the top four with the best in the conference.

I'm optimistic the Gophers outperform their preseason expectations (the media picked them sixth) and get not just a few rounds into the Final Five, but back into the NCAA tourney for the first time in three long years. A few years ago, that wouldn't have been a good enough goal for Gopher hockey, but it'd be a big step in the right direction for Don Lucia and the program in 2011-12.