Gophers’ defense has huge holes to fill

Gophers goaltender Adam Wilcox left Minnesota as the school's all-time leader in saves percentage (.922) and goals-against average (2.09).

Eric Hartline/Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gopher hockey team has officially entered Rebuilding Mode.

When goalie Adam Wilcox signed a two-year pro contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning this week, all eyes immediately jumped to the Minnesota roster and the question, as always, was the same: "Who’s going to mind the net now?"

Good question.

And then there’s the blue line. Wilcox’s fellow junior Brady Skjei, the only first round draft pick on the Minnesota roster, simultaneously inked a three-year deal with the New York Rangers. Who will fill his dependable skate shoes?

Another good question.

Look, everyone knows that the era of true freshmen and players marching off to the pros clutching four-year diplomas is a thing of the past in Division I hockey. Every coach — and most fans — get that. Still, it comes as a surprise to some fans when so many players jump ship at the same time. That, too, was to be expected after captain Kyle Rau and his fellow seniors made a much-heralded decision to stay at Mariucci Arena for another season and another run at an elusive NCAA championship. That went down in flames in Manchester, N.H., last week. And that’s when the launching pad heated up.

This year’s crop of departures is notable in that it decimates the defense. It’s always been easy enough to find goal scorers at Minnesota but solid defensemen and reliable goaltenders? That’s another matter.

The damage may not be over, either. I still expect defenseman Mike Reilly to grab the brass ring any day now. Hudson Fasching might go, too.

To me, the biggest loss is Wilcox. There are two reasons. First, even though he wobbled at critical moments this season, he has anchored the Gophers’ back end for three seasons. He stepped up as a freshman, dared anyone to knock him out of the starting role, and no one could. Since then, if Wilcox has been able to breathe in and out, he’s been the goalie. In 38 starts during the 2014-15 campaign, the junior won 22 times and posted six shutouts.

Wilcox owns some rattling good career numbers, too. He’s the Gophers’ all-time leader in saves percentage (.922) and goals-against average (2.09). He backstopped the Maroon and Gold to three conference crowns and an NCAA title.

Who’s left to tend the twine? This is the question of the hour, maybe the summer. Maybe well into next season, too. It’s no picnic playing behind someone like Wilcox. Just ask Nick Lehr. He’s the only Gopher to spend any game time in the twine over the recent season — exactly 93:28. Lehr posted a 1-1 record with a .881 saves percentage and a 3.21 goals-against average. The freshman from Roseville notched his first collegiate win Feb. 26 against Michigan State. He played one other game, in relief of Wilcox, and lost.

The only other goalie on the Gopher roster is Ryan Coyne, a former all-conference netminder for the Maple Grove Crimson, who will be a senior in the fall. Coyne has yet to make an appearance, riding the pine for three straight seasons.

Two fresh faces will skate into camp next season, strap on their goalie pads and hope to be the next first-year sensation, a la Wilcox. Eric Schierhorn, who played the last two seasons for the USHL Muskegon Lumberjacks (.923, 2.54), is expected to enroll next fall. Another commit is from Logan Halladay, who split his rookie USHL season between Bloomington and Janesville and has been lauded by scouts for his calm demeanor and strong puck-handling skills.

As Wilcox proved spectacularly, it is definitely possible for a first-year goalie to lace ’em up and skate to glory in Minnesota’s six-by-four-foot battle zone.

Announcing the departure of . . . So far, here’s who’s passed through the Gophers’ springtime departure lounge:

Seth Ambroz (AHL amateur tryout contract)
Travis Boyd (Washington Capitals)
Rau (Florida Panthers)
Skjei (New York Rangers)
Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning)

It’s the price that must be paid in order to craft an elite Division I team, which Minnesota has always been. And oh, yes. There will be more.

DOUG McLEOD is the play-by-play voice of Golden Gopher hockey on Fox Sports North.