ST. PAUL, Minn. — Kyle Rau has never been a man of many words. The Gophers junior forward speaks softly, letting his hockey skills do the talking.
Clearly, Big Ten coaches have heard him loud and clear. Rau was named to the 2013-14 Big Ten preseason watch list and was the conference’s only player to be named unanimously.
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It’s an honor that, not surprisingly, didn’t elicit many words from the soft-spoken Rau.
“I haven’t thought about that one,” Rau said Thursday at the Big Ten’s media day. “It’s kind of cool, I guess. I don’t even know how that works.”
Looking at Rau’s numbers from a year ago, it’s no surprise that other teams in the newly-formed Big Ten will have their eyes on the Gophers junior. He finished third on the team last year with 15 goals (including seven game-winning goals) and second in total points with 40. Of Minnesota’s top five scorers from last season, Rau is the only one returning. The other four — Erik Haula (51 points), Nick Bjugstad (36), Zach Budish (36) and Nate Schmidt (32) — all left for the NHL after their junior seasons.
That leaves Rau, a co-captain along with senior Nate Condon, as Minnesota’s top offensive threat. Head coach Don Lucia said Thursday that the Gophers might move Rau from wing to center, the position he played at Eden Prairie High School.
“That was always his natural position,” Lucia said. “I think we need Kyle to score. He’s our leading returning scorer, and we need the puck on his stick as much as we possibly can. That is one of the reasons why we’re really strong and considering moving him back to center, so he has more touches.”
While Minnesota indeed loses four of its top five scorers from last season’s team that was one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament, the Gophers were still picked to finish second in the Big Ten, as voted on by the conference’s coaches. Senior-laden Wisconsin was the preseason favorite, but Minnesota believes it has enough talent returning — including a handful of incoming players — to compete in the inaugural Big Ten Conference.
“I think our guys are excited about it,” Lucia said. “We’ll be young this year. We’ll have seven incoming freshmen that we’re going to ask to play a pretty significant role.”
The Gophers will pin some of their hopes on another strong season from sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox. He entered his freshman season as part of a two-man platoon in net but quickly established himself as Minnesota’s every-game starter. He went 25-8-5 in 39 games (38 starts) and posted a 1.88 goals-against average.
While Minnesota will lean on Rau for offense, it will also rely on Wilcox and the group of defensemen in front of him to keep opposing teams off the board.
“I think Adam Wilcox had a great year in net for us last year,” Lucia said. “We’re a little thin with only seven (defensemen) right now. But as long as we don’t get injuries, we think the seven certainly are all good players and will compete with each other for playing time.”
There’s no question that the sting from last year’s season-ending loss in the NCAA tournament still stings the Gophers. After a 24-7-5 finish to the regular season, Minnesota wound up as a No. 2 seed in the tournament and lost 3-2 to third-seeded Yale in the first round.
The fact that the Bulldogs eventually went on to win the national championship didn’t help soften the blow for the Gophers, who five months later were still trying to put the loss behind them.
“You don’t forget about that loss,” Condon said. “At the same time you’ve got to move on. It’s a new season. It’s something that you can forget about pretty easily when you get going.”
Minnesota is eager to hit the ice again but will have to wait until its exhibition game on Oct. 5 against Lethbridge. The Gophers will get their first taste of Big Ten hockey on Nov. 29, when Minnesota officially begins the Big Ten era with a game against rival Wisconsin.
While the rivalries of the WCHA are now a thing of the past, the Gophers coaches and players say they’re looking forward to starting a new chapter of college hockey in the Big Ten.
“We’re used to it now,” Rau said of the newness of the Big Ten. “We knew last year was going to be our last year. We’re really excited to move on and play in some new rinks.”