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Minnesota Hockey 2015 Season Preview: Don Lucia's Gophers Have Questions to Answer

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The newest iteration of the Pride On Ice are a bit of an unknown quantity.

Who's tired of using old stock images? DarkKnight 5 is tired of using old stock images, so this one's REALLY old.
Who's tired of using old stock images? DarkKnight 5 is tired of using old stock images, so this one's REALLY old.
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It's almost hockey season!  Before last season, the expectations were essentially "Natty or Bust" (or to thieve a creative hashtag from @FrothyGopher) "#ThisIsTotallyTheYear."  The expectations for this season are going to be a bit different.  The Big Ten Coaches poll picked Minnesota to finish second behind Michigan, and Minnesota is currently ranked ninth in the USCHO.com poll.

For the first time in [what feels like] forever, the Gophers have major questions to answer.  So let's dive in to them, shall we?

Who replaces Adam Wilcox?

After lighting the world on fire in his sophomore season, Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Adam Wilcox had a bit of a regression season.  He was still very good and posted a 2.42 goals against average and save percentage of .912, but it was regression none-the-less.

Returning sophomore Nick Lehr is the only goalie on the roster who saw game minutes last season. He basically played the equivalent of a game and a half in two appearances, and allowed 3.21 goals per 60 minutes with a save rate of .881.

Senior Ryan Coyne did not play last year, and I'm not sure what his roll will be this year.  He might be a practice goalie again.

In addition, two freshman goalies are also listed on the roster, Brock Kautz (Rochester MN via Minnesota Wilderness) and Eric Schierhorn (Anchorage Alaska via the Muskegon Lumberjacks).  Last season in the USHL Schierhorn posted a save percentage of .927 (2.51 GAA), and in the NAHL Kautz posted a percentage of .906 (2.32 GAA).

I watched zero junior hockey games last year, so the goalie situation is completely up in the air.  Then there's this:

I bet we will see two goalies each weekend through the first couple of months of the season.  Since all four goalies on the roster don't have much collegiate game-level experience, the rotation could be a good approach.  We'll just have to wait and see if someone emerges and locks down the starting role for the home stretch.

Who replaces the upperclassmen?

In case you've forgotten, here's the list of seniors who graduated: Kyle Rau, Travis Boyd, Sam Warning, Seth Ambroz, Ben Marshall, and Christian Isackson.  Here is the list of junior skaters who left school for a pro contract: Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly.

One of the most intriguing players who could make an impact is junior transfer defenseman Nick Seeler (Nebraska-Omaha).  Seeler had 19 points in two season in Omaha, so his roll will likely be to shut down the other team's top six forwards.

As to the other D, Jake Bischoff and Michael Brodzinski are the two most experienced returners.  They'll be asked to fill the void left by Reilly and Skjei departing.  Coach Done Lucia also added a couple new trees in the freshman class, Kurt Simonsen (6'3", 210 lbs, Grand Rapids via the Minnesota Magicians) and Jack Sadek (6' 2", 183, Lakeville via Lakeville North High School). Because I've listed the rest of the defensive roster, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the sophomores: Ryan Collins, Jack Glover, and Steve Johnson.

SBN College Hockey

For the forwards, the junior class will need to lead the way.  Justin Kloos had big year last season, and hopefully he builds himself into a real offensive threat to replace Travis Boyd Kyle Rau.

He'll need help from Hudson Fasching, who has tons of potential, but maybe hasn't translated that potential into results.  He could be set for a breakout year if he learns how to use his size in front of the net and down low in the offensive zone.

Taylor Cammarata will need to fill Kyle Rau's role of creating offense.  It looks like he'll be playing a wing on the second line, and they'll need to score goals as a unit for the Gophers to win games.

The biggest freshman impact could come from Brent Gates Jr.  Indications are that he'll play the wing on first line with Kloos at center and Fashing on the opposite wing.  Those two will draw a lot of attention, meaning Gates could find himself with lots of good scoring opportunities.

Can the freshman make an impact?

We've already discussed several freshman, but we haven't discussed the most important skating position, center.

That's right, three freshman will center the second, third, and fourth lines to start the season.  Centers have a ton of responsibilities.  While I can't say with a straight face that the defensive zone is more important than the offensive zone, I can say that center's roll is equally important in both.  In the D-zone, the center often functions as a third defenseman, and as the primary player on the breakout.  That's a lot to ask of a freshman.  It's a little scary to have to ask that of THREE freshman at the same time.

In all, there are ten freshman on the roster, including eight skaters.  Minnesota will be forced to rely on freshman for point production and for playing solid defensively.  Their success or failure will drive the success or failure of the team as whole.  That's a bit scary.

Will the Big Ten be weak again, and where do the Gophers finish?

Well, the Big Ten coaches seem to think Michigan are the favorites to win the Big Ten regular season championship, and I can't say I'm surprised by the decision.  In the USCHO.com poll, the Wolverines are ranked 13th, but pre-season polls are basically based on last season's results, so it doesn't mean much.  Michigan only has three seniors, but they have a large number of talented juniors.  This is their season to strike.

Michigan State could be scary too.  They have seniors on their roster, including goaltender Jake Hildebrandt, playing in his 16th season for the Spartans.  They also have some juniors who can score in Mackenzie MacEachern and Villiam Haag.  Tom Anastos doesn't impress me (or anyone, I think) as a coach, but he has a built in advantage with a squad full of 23 year-old's in a conference full of underclassmen.

How To Watch Minnesota Shooty Puck

Penn State can't be counted out of the conference race.  Eric Scheid will lead them on offense, but he biggest question might be their goaltending.  They have to solid and experienced goalies in Eamon McAdam and Matthew Skoff, but they'll need to improve if this team is going to have a chance to win the conference and make a run at the NCAA Tourney.

Ohio State probably isn't much of threat to anyone in the conference.  They're loaded with underclassmen similar to the Gophers, and they lost two of their top three goal scorers to graduation.  The good news for the Buckeyes is that leading scorer Anthony Greco is back, as is goalie Christian Frey.

The one thing I'm comfortable saying about Wisconsin is that there's no way they could be as bad as they were last season.  They only have seven upperclassmen, total.  Grant Bessie will be their big threat again this year, but I'm not sure there's enough talent in the freshman and sophomore classes for a big step forward this season.  They might be a year away from returning to relevance.

As for our Gophers, I would expect them to finish in the top half of the conference.  It was a pretty tight race last year, and it will likely be the same through the top three spots in the standings this year.  With the youth on the squad and the experience that Michigan and Michigan State both bring, I just don't see a fifth consecutive conference title in the cards.  Hopefully, they'll play well enough (and the conference will perform well enough in the non-con), where we won't be sweating an NCAA tournament berth during the Big Ten Tournament.

Is there post season magic in this squad?

I'm not certain a third-place finish in the Big Ten will earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tourney.  We may end up hoping that our freshman have progressed enough in the regular season that they can make a serious run through the conference tournament.  If that's the case, hopefully Minnesota finishes at least second in the regular season standings so they only have to win two games in the Big Ten tournament, played in the friendly confines of the Xcel Energy Center.

Once you're in the NCAA tournament, anything can happen, but I general think that experience wins out in those games.  I'm not holding my breath for a deep run in that tournament this year.

What are the expectations for the season?

I know the joke is "Minnesota doesn't rebuild, it reloads," but this year could be as much of a rebuilding year as we've seen in a long time. It's hard to see this young squad passing Michigan and Michigan state in the regular season.

Not helping matters is that Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State are both shaping up to be major players on the national stage.  St. Cloud State won't be a push-over either.

Luckily, the Gophers have six games against those teams before November ends.  Those six games will likely determine the Gophers' NCAA tournament hopes.  Win four, and you're probably in the tournament.  Lose four, and you're probably not going to earn an at-large berth.  That's a scary proposition for a team with a bunch of freshman in their first two months of college action.

I'm guessing (GUESSING) the Gophers finish in the top half of the Big Ten, but will likely need to win the Big Ten Tourney to reach the NCAA tournament.

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