One of the biggest questions heading into this season for the Gophers men's hockey program is how coach Don Lucia and his staff will manage one of the deepest blue-line groups in the country.
As the cliché goes, it's a good problem to have.
Many expected the Gophers defense to be a weakness last season. Instead, after an opening WCHA weekend in which the Gophers gave up 100 shots and eight goals against Minnesota-Duluth, the young crew evolved into a tremendous backbone, helping limit opponents to 2.3 goals per game, 24.8 shots per game and combining for 111 points offensively.
Led by No. 1 defenseman Nate Schmidt, the Gophers return all six starting defensemen, seven overall, and have to find a way to insert two highly touted freshmen -- Brady Skjei, who many dubbed the best skater in the 2012 NHL draft, and Mike Reilly, who led all British Columbia Hockey League defensemen with 24 goals and 83 points last year for Penticton.
Who plays and who sits?
"That's the million-dollar question," said Gophers associate coach Mike Guentzel, who works exclusively with the defensemen. "There will be good, quality players who aren't playing. But our defense should be the perceived strength of our team. We'll just let it evolve."
The first indication as to what the coaches are thinking will come Saturday, when the Gophers play Lethbridge in an exhibition game to prepare for a home series the following weekend against Michigan State. Lucia said options include redshirting a player, dressing seven defensemen or skating a defenseman as a forward.
The one player cemented in the lineup is Schmidt. As a freshman, he recorded one assist in 13 games and bounced between playing the blue line and up front. In his sophomore season, which coincided with Guentzel's return to the program after three years, Schmidt catapulted to the second-highest-scoring defenseman in the country (41 points in 43 games).
"Everything I heard Nate couldn't do, I never once saw that last year," Guentzel said.
Schmidt also credits Guentzel. "He's the glue to our defensive staff," Schmidt said. "You come back to the bench and he's giving you so much critique in a positive manner and implants these seeds into your head that by the end of the year, all of a sudden you're doing them without even realizing."
Vancouver Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard, coached by Guentzel on the 2002 and 2003 NCAA championship teams, said Guentzel's gift is "understanding everybody's capabilities and then getting those players into roles that suit them. He's such a teacher."
With such a glut of defensemen, identifying those roles will be integral. Locks to play besides Schmidt include junior Mark Alt and senior Seth Helgeson. Guentzel expects Skjei and Reilly to have "tremendous impacts."
Jake Parenteau was Schmidt's regular defense partner last year, and Guentzel is a big fan of Ben Marshall. There's also Justin Holl and Blake Thompson.
"These are big decisions because what I liked about our D last year, I didn't have to worry about matchups, combinations, nothing. Everything kind of flowed together," Guentzel said.
The best Gophers' defense in history is considered to be 2002, when Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin and Ballard manned a blue line with perfect complements Nick Angell, Matt DeMarchi and Judd Stevens.
Well, Guentzel has high expectations for his crew this season. "I don't think anything will ever touch 2002," Guentzel said. "But five or six years down the road when some of these guys are playing pro hockey, maybe they'll say they were one of the two, three best defensive corps in Gophers history."