The puck drops, but what Gophers team will we see?
The Gophers’ 95th season begins at a high tempo. There will be no exhibition game to start the 2015-16 campaign. Instead, Minnesota jumps straight into regular-season play against a very good Eastern team. The Gophers host Vermont on Saturday night at Mariucci Arena in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game. That will also be our first Gophers hockey telecast of the season. The Catamounts are fresh off an ECAC final four appearance last spring and loaded up with veteran talent.
Why a regular-season game instead of the traditional second-tier opponent for an exhibition game?
Gophers head coach Don Lucia: "It’s the first year we haven’t had an exhibition game, so ask me after Saturday whether I think it’s a good idea! I don’t know how much we’ve got out of the exhibition games the last few years. We’ve been practicing a lot and it’s really time to play against another team. We’ll have to be ready right away this year, that’s for sure."
What the Gophers will bring to the table is a much bigger question than it’s been for several seasons.
Here are five make-or-break elements of the new Gophers hockey season:
1. Who’s in goal? No one has asked that question for several years. For the last three, it’s been Adam Wilcox. If he was breathing, he was in the twine. Now that Wilcox has departed for the Tampa Bay Lightning organization (he’s starting the season with the AHL Syracuse Crunch), there’s a significant hole between the Minnesota pipes.
Wilcox left after winning nearly every major accolade in college hockey. He was a Big Ten Player of the Year, Hobey Baker Award finalist and a top five finalist for the inaugural Mike Richter Award. He also posted the two lowest season goals-against averages in Golden Gopher history, won 73 games (most among active NCAA goalies) and the put up the best saves percentage in team history, .932. He backstopped the Gophers to three straight conference crowns and was a major reason for their 2014 NCAA Frozen Four championship game appearance.
Now he’s gone.
Which leaves wide open the question: Who will be the Gophers’ regular starting goalie? Or will there be a goalie rotation? How about goalie-by-committee? Bet against the last two. Will at least one of the four netminders on the roster step up as Wilcox did three Octobers ago? Both senior Ryan Coyne, who toughed it out in a backup role for the last two seasons, and junior Nick Lehr have seen limited minutes. Freshmen Eric Schierhorn and Brock Kotz come in from juniors.
Lucia, who’s beginning his 17th season behind the Minnesota bench, is taking a wait-and-see attitude, hoping someone steps up and takes the starter’s job by storm. He won’t reveal an opening-night starting goalie until just before Saturday night’s lid-lifter.
2. Where will sorely needed leadership come from? This isn’t a team of superstars and many spoiled UM fans are going to have to deal with that. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t a boatload of talent. But this season, more than in many recent campaigns, leadership or lack of it can make or break this team. Lucia appointed junior gunner Justin Kloos captain in what must have been an emotional meeting in the coach’s office in July. Talking to me about it, Kloos sounds like he almost literally jumped out of his skin when he learned that he would wear the "C".
It’s going to be a heavy letter.
For one thing, Kloos will have to maintain or even ramp up his strong offensive game. He’ll also continue his role as a key penalty killer. Then comes the responsibility of leading — and sometimes bawling out — a new squad of talented youngsters, always a challenge with the sometimes unruly young elite of college hockey.
Is Kloos up to the job? He thinks so. So does Lucia, who likens him to Kyle Rau as a great "program guy" who lives and breathes Gophers hockey. I think he’ll do a strong job. Hope I’m right because he’ll have to.
Kloos will be assisted by alternate captains Connor Reilly and Hudson Fasching, two more strong picks for critical leadership roles.
3. What’s in front of the goalie (whoever he is)? This will be a critical issue all season but will really make or break the first six weeks or so. Minnesota has some strong, seasoned defensemen like Mike Brodzinski and Jake Bischoff but it also has a very young corps of blueliners behind them. Happily, they all played significant minutes, either here or in juniors, last season. The Gophers will need them all in order to control the puck, get it out of the zone and allow whomever the goalie or goalies of choice might be to get their footing.
I look for Bischoff to be the key man in this defensive alignment but he and the rest of the "D" can’t operate on their own. Strong defensive play and smart back-checking by the forwards will be even more important this season than in years past.
4. Who’s going to light the lamp? Now we get to actually putting the puck in the opposition’s net. Minnesota has legendarily sported a high-octane offensive. In the 1970s and 80s, fifty legitimate shots on goal per game were not unusual. You won’t see that kind of firepower much in college hockey anymore (at least, not if the home team is being honest with the shot totals) and you definitely won’t see it from this season’s Gophers team. What you will see is what Fasching described to me as a "flat-line team", one that relies on many different players for its offense. That’s great in terms of spreading out both the scoring and the other teams’ defensive woes. Not so great: there’s no obvious go-to guy when goals are hard to find.
5. What will April look like? In Oct. 1978, just before the first broadcast of my second season, Herb Brooks told me — on the air — "We’re going to win the NCAA championship next spring." I was slack-jawed at his audacity but two things were true: I had a lot to learn about Herb Brooks — and he was right!
No one is foolish enough to make a statement like that now. Every player and coach on the team would love another crack at the NCAA title, of course, especially when that fondly desired hardware has been in the so-near-yet-so-far category recently. Obviously, no crystal ball is bright enough to show how the fortunes of this year’s team will fare.
Here’s what I know: Answer the first four questions and number five will suddenly look a lot more confident.
Hope you’ll join former Gophers defenseman Ben Clymer and me for the puck drop against Vermont on Saturday night at 7 p.m. on FOX Sports North!
DOUG McLEOD is beginning his 20th season as play-by-play voice of Golden Gophers hockey (with 17 NHL seasons woven in there somewhere). He has called many of the greatest moments in Minnesota hockey history and is back for another season behind the microphone on FOX Sports North.