Gophers positioned for more success in 2013

Though the U will have a new starter in goal, it has the returning talent to remain among the nation's elite.

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Coach Don Lucia’s Gophers ended a three-year NCAA tournament drought by advancing to the Frozen Four. The bulk of the team is slated to return, although leading goal-scorer Nick Bjugstad could leave for the NHL.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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TAMPA, FLA. - If there is any consolation for Gophers players and fans smarting from Thursday's NCAA semifinal loss to Boston College, it's this: Another Frozen Four trip seems more likely in 2013 than this year's improbable excursion.

The Gophers should be one of the top-ranked teams in the preseason national polls, especially if sophomore center Nick Bjugstad decides to stay another season. Seven seniors will be gone, but only four of them played in Thursday 6-1 loss.

The key departure is senior goalie Kent Patterson. He started all 43 games the Gophers played. His seven shutouts set a team record, and his 2.32 goals-against average was the third best in school history. His replacement probably will be incoming freshman Adam Wilcox, playing now for Tri-City of the USHL. His save percentage is .916, third best in the league, and he has started 18 games in a row for the Storm. Remind you of anyone?

This is the second season in the USHL for Wilcox, of South St. Paul. He is a cousin of former Minnesota Duluth All-America goalie Alex Stalock.

"[Adam] is the main reason we are in the playoff hunt and should make it," Storm coach Josh Hauge said. "Before we acquired him in a trade [in late November], we were pretty much dead in the water. ... [Adam] fights for every puck and never quits. He is very quick side to side."

Mike Shibrowski, Patterson's backup, also will compete for his job as a junior. The Gophers are bringing in two highly touted defensemen, too -- Brady Skjei of Lakeville and Mike Reilly of Chanhassen.

Skjei, 6-2 and 200 pounds, is playing for the under-18 national team in Ann Arbor, Mich. He is expected to be a first-round pick in the NHL draft this spring and is on the roster of the U.S. team that will play in the Under-18 World Championships starting Thursday in the Czech Republic. Reilly -- the youngest of three brothers slated to join the Gophers next year who are or were at Penticton of the British Columbia Hockey League this season -- had 83 points.

The Gophers' top six defensemen all could return, including sophomore Nate Schmidt, an All-WCHA second-team pick, so the competition for playing time on the blue line could be fierce.

Up front the Gophers will lose five players, including captain Taylor Matson and Jake Hansen. Matson was a valuable penalty killer and a leader by example. Hansen had 16 goals, including the only one the Gophers scored against BC. Aside from Hansen, the other five departing forwards combined for 16 goals.

Reilly's younger brothers, twins Connor (35-51--86 in the regular season) and Ryan (32-41--73), should help replace that production if Connor recovers well from knee surgery. Other incoming forwards are A.J. Michaelson, who has six goals and 13 assists for Waterloo of the USHL, and perhaps Lakeville South's Justin Kloos, who had 41 goals and 103 points this season and was named Mr. Hockey. The 5-9, 170-pound Kloos might play a season of junior hockey.

Bjugstad appears to be the biggest risk to turn pro. He consistently said he would wait until after the season to talk to the Florida Panthers, who took him in the first round of the 2010 NHL draft, then decide on his future. He led the Gophers, picked to finish sixth in the WCHA, with 25 goals.

The Gophers also have had players unexpectedly turn pro early, such as defensemen Stu Bickel in 2008 and Nick Leddy in 2010.

Whatever happens next with the Gophers roster, Matson is convinced the 2011-12 team, with its MacNaughton Cup and Frozen Four berth, laid a strong foundation upon which to build.

"There's tons of people in Minnesota and on this team that can stand a little bit taller and be proud to be a Gopher after this season,'' he said. "I have nothing but great things to say about my teammates and this coaching staff for playing together and being part of something special."

Staff writer Chip Scoggins contributed to this report.

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