The Gophers men's hockey team is stacked, which is why WCHA coaches have picked it to defend its league title. The Gophers return six of their top seven scorers. And all six starting defensemen from a Frozen Four team are back to be challenged for playing time by two freshman standouts.
But the big question heading into this highly anticipated season is which inexperienced goaltender -- junior Michael Shibrowski or freshman Adam Wilcox -- replaces, Kent Patterson who played all but 20 minutes last season.
An enormous unknown surrounds the game's most important position.
And unlike last year when the Gophers were able to dive into their schedule by pummeling Sacred Heart in consecutive wins by a combined 15-0, Shibrowski and Wilcox will be tested right away this weekend against Michigan State, a future Big Ten rival coming off an NCAA tournament bid.
"The expectation is one of those guys will get to play on a nightly basis," Gophers coach Don Lucia said. "They were recruited here for a reason -- to be able to go in there and not allow us to have to change the way we want to play. We want to play an up-tempo, puck-possession, puck-movement-type of game. At times they're going to have to make a save."
Lucia anticipates rotating Shibrowski, Patterson's backup last season, and Wilcox the first three weekends. Then the Gophers will "head into November and see where we're at," Lucia said.
Patterson, a Colorado Avalanche prospect, won 28 games to snag All-WCHA first-team honors last season. He finished his career with Gophers records for save percentage (.913) and goals-against average (tied at 2.45).
"Losing Kent is a pretty big loss," said captain Zach Budish.
"But we're confident with the goalies we have. It'll be nice to have some competition between them every day in practice not really knowing who's going to play on Friday and Saturday nights."
Shibrowski played briefly at Colorado College, winning his lone collegiate start over Mercyhurst on Feb. 6, 2010. The former Benilde-St. Margaret's goalie returned to junior hockey the following season before joining the Gophers in 2011. He prides himself on positioning and tries to simplify the game by keeping things clean. He would love to follow in Patterson's footsteps.
"There were times last year when things got out of hand and felt chaotic, and Kent was always back there calming things down and keeping control of the game," Shibrowski said.
Wilcox, from South St. Paul, is aggressive playing the puck. Goalie coach Justin Johnson likens him to Tim Thomas, who won a Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins.
Budish jokes that Wilcox is "goofy" and hilarious, while Shibrowski is more serious and "worked his tail off last year in practice and the guys respect that. He's hungry to play."
Johnson agrees, saying: "Their on-ice styles reflect their personalities. Wilcox has more of a cockiness, big-man-on-campus-type style, and Michael is very workmanlike and leaves no stone unturned, whether it's vision training or mental training or physical on-ice, off-ice training."
Last year, Patterson's play early allowed the Gophers to settle into their game. This year, the onus could fall on the skaters to take pressure off the goalies.
"Every once in a while if they steal one, great, but if they've got to steal time after time, then as a fivesome in front of them, we're not doing a good job," associate coach Mike Guentzel said. "We're not worried about the goalies, though. In 2002 when we won [a national] championship, [Adam] Hauser had a ton of experience. In 2003 when we won, [Travis] Weber had no experience. So it can be done either way."