The 2016-17 Gopher Hockey season begins tonight as Minnesota is in Alaska for a series against Alaska-Anchorage and Alaska-Fairbanks this weekend. Its the start to what Minnesota hopes will be a successful campaign—one that nets them a sixth consecutive regular season conference championship, but hopefully a bit more as well. Minnesota of course won the Big Ten Regular Season title last season, but then lost in the Big Ten Championship to Michigan and did not advance to the NCAA Tournament. That won’t be acceptable to Gopher fans this season (not that it was to many a year ago). Minnesota must get back to the NCAA Tournament this season, or else Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle may have a tough decision on his hands.
The one person who may have a direct role in how the Gophers season plays out returns home for the first time in a long time tonight. Gopher sophomore goalie Eric Schierhorn is an Alaska native, and will play in his home state for the first, and possibly only time this weekend. Schierhorn was expected to play a large role for Minnesota last season, and he did not disapoint earning Big Ten Goalie of the Year honors for a season that saw him finish with a 20-17 record and a goals against average of 2.69. Decent numbers, but ones that everyone including Schierhorn himself hope he can improve this season. Schierhorn started all 37 games a year ago for Minnesota, and it appears he will once again need to shoulder the load in net for Minnesota. The Gophers return Nick Lehr and Brock Kautz to back up Schierhorn, but it’s his net for the long haul. Gopher fans all hope he once again is up to the task.
The Gophers return a high amount of fire power from their forwards in 2016-17. Leading the way will be senior captain Justin Kloos. Kloos led the team with 43 points a year ago, and his senior leadership will be something the rest of the team can rely on. Also returning and expected to play a large role in the scoring will be junior Leon Bristedt. The Swede tied for the team lead with 20 goals a season ago with departed Hudson Fasching. Bristedt will be expected to step up and try and fill in the gap caused by the loss of Fasching to the pros. Two sophomores will also be expected to shoulder heavier scoring loads this season. Tyler Sheehy and Tommy Novak finished fourth and fifth in scoring last season for Minnesota, and will need to continue to develop and find new ways to get the puck in the net.
Minnesota also will get the benefit of a few new incoming players up front who they hope will make an immediate impact. The most high profile is transfer Mike Szmatula. Szmatula had to sit out last season, but the former Northeastern Wildcat was a sniper who was second in the nation in freshman scoring his first year, and finished third on the team in points in his sophomore year. He immediately will be on a top-two line for the Gophers and will give them a legitimate scoring threat. The other newcomer Gopher fans have high hopes for is freshman Rem Pitlick. Pitlick who was the leading scoer and MVP in the USHL a season ago really has blossomed in the last few seasons, and comes in as a total bowling ball scorer listed at 5-10 and 205 pounds. Pitlick is a player similar to Kyle Rau, he’s not afraid to get a bit dirty in the corners and in front of the net, and just seems to have that scoring nack to put the puck behind the goalie, something Minnesota really was lacking a season ago.
On defense, Minnesota returns nearly everyone from a season ago. However, they really need a few players to take that next step up and live up to the potential that they seems to have coming into the U. One player who has made that step is assistant captain Jake Bischoff. Bischoff who was one of the four Gopher players named to the Preseason Big Ten Watch list (along with Kloos, Bristedt and Schierhorn) really developed into a strong two-way defenseman a season ago. He will be on the first defensive pairing all season long for Minnesota. The two players who really need to step up and live up to the potential they have are Ryan Collins and Jack Glover. The high NHL draft picks did not have a good 2015-16 season. Both players need to work on defensive lapses and stop maing stupid mistakes. They both have the size to be shut down d-men...they just have to show they have the mental ability to do so.
Steve Johnson and Jack Sadek are two other defensemen who return and will be expected to play every day this season. Johnson showed flashes at times a year ago and Sadek when given the opportunity to play did fairly well. They will be pushed by two newcomers on the blue line though. Both Ryan Zuhlsdorf and Ryan Lindgren come in with great hgh school credentials. Both have played extensively with the US Under-18 team, and Lindgren captained the US squad at the World Junior Tournament last winter. The Gophers hope they can adjust quickly to the college game and earn a consistent spot in the line-up.
The other question that still lingers for Minnesota will be the future of coach Don Lucia. Lucia received a two-year contract extension this week which extends him through the 2018-19 season, what would be his 20th behind the Gophers bench. While this was required for recruiting purposes, the contract does have a reasonable buyout number...$600,000 after this season and just $300,000 after the next. While all Gopher fans hope that Minnesota takes a step forward once again and can advance to the NCAA Tournament—another season where they fall short of those goals and Mark Coyle will have a decision to make.
A Look at the other Big Ten Teams...
Minnesota does shape up as the favorite to once again win the Big Ten. Their toughest rival in the last few seasons, Michigan suffered significant losses to the pro ranks in the off-season. In fact Michigan returns just one of their top seven scorers from a season ago. They still have Zach Nagelvort in net, but goalie has not exactly been a bright spot for the Wolverines in past seasons. However several freshman including Luke Martin will look to push Michigan to the top.
Ohio State is a team that could surprise this season. They return several key players including forwards Nick Schilkey and David Gust, defenseman Drew Brevig, and goaltender Christian Frey.
Penn State is another squad that lost quite a few players from a year ago. However they return their top defensive pairing in Eric Autio and Vince Pedrie. Forward David Goodwin returns as well. The Nittany Lions will need to break in a new goalie though as both of last years duo has left the program. Freshman Peyton Jones has the edge there.
Wisconsin is definitely on the upswing, but may still just be one season away. The new coaching staff of Tony Granato, his brother Don and Mark Osecki is one that Gopher fans will need to get used to dealing with for a while—they are the real deal. Wisconsin does return some scoring punch in Grant Besse and MN Wild draft pick Luke Kunin and they bring in two quality freshmen who will make big impacts in JD Greenway and Max Zimmer. However they will need significantly better goaltending from Matt Jurusik if they want to shock the Big Ten a season early.
Finally, Michigan State will most likely bring up the rear of the Big Ten. Gone is goalie Jake Hildebrandt who kept the Spartans in many a game they didn’t deserve to be over the past few seasons. Senior Villiam Haag returns, and they get an impact freshman they hope in Patrick Khodorenko, but there is not a lot else to be excited for the Green and White.
The table is set for the Gophers to once again win the Big Ten, but its in the non-conference where they really must improve. A 5-10 non-conference record a season ago is what kept them hope at tourney time, and with the Big Ten arguably being a weak conference once again this season, if Minnesota can not find wins in the non-conference schedule, its going to be tough come March to get into the NCAA Tournament without winning the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota will make three out of state non-conference road trips this season, a number that has not been seen in some time. While the Alaska schools don’t stack up talent wise to Minnesota, it always seems like the long flight can take something out of the Gophers. Getting off to a good 2-0 start this weekend would be a good way to get off on the right foot. The other four out of state games will all be against NCAA Tournament contenders. St. Lawrence, Clarkson, Boston College and Northeastern will all be good tasks to see how the Gophers stack up nationally, and a good opportunity to pick up some win comparisons in the pairwise.
However, rightfully or not, how the Gophers are perceived prior to the start of conference play will be how they stack up against their old WCHA foes, both in-state and just across the border. Minnesota gets a home and home series against both St. Cloud State and MSU-Mankato, and will get UMD for the Friday night North Star Classic game. All five games will be critical to how the casual fans see the Gophers...and to potential NCAA hopes come March.
Of course the marquis series of the season will be the return of the 2015-16 NCAA Champion North Dakota Fighting Hawks to Mariucci in November. Tickets have been selling for astronomical amounts, and the arena will be rocking with both Minnesota and UND fans. No one is expecting Minnesota to sweep the Fighting Hawks back to Grand Forks, but if they could, it really could be the turning point for a very successful Gopher season. One all of us Gopher fans hope can come to fruition.
The Gophers kick off the season at 10:00 CST tonight against Alaska Anchorage, and then play at 7:00 CST against Alaska Fairbanks on Sunday. There is no TV for either game, but both will be streamed for a fee on the WCHA website. Both games broadcast locally on radio with Wally and Frank in the Twin Cities on 1500 ESPN.