The big questions surrounding Gophers men’s hockey this fall are overshadowing the annual big expectations, a rarity for the storied program entering its 95th season.
This group has just three seniors, compared with 10 freshmen. The junior class has experience, but the sophomores played limited roles a season ago.
The outside uncertainty reminds junior Hudson Fasching of his freshman year on campus, the 2013-14 season that ended in the national championship game.
“We had a big freshmen class and there were a lot of question marks in the lineup,” Fasching said. “It’s the same mentality: We’re trying to build a team.”
The project begins with Saturday night’s season opener when the No. 9 Gophers host Vermont in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game.
There is stark contrast between these Gophers and last season’s. An array of returning superstars backed by their experienced goaltender garnered the No. 1 preseason ranking and national title expectations. Coach Don Lucia cautioned then against the lofty expectations, and by midseason the anointed had dropped out of the national polls.
The Gophers rallied for Big Ten regular-season and conference tournament titles but were ousted in the first round of the NCAA tournament last spring.
“It’s a lot different than last year where everything was almost a little set in stone,” captain Justin Kloos said. “By the end of last year it was time for a change, and that’s what’s going on right now. … We don’t really know what to expect.”
The Gophers, winners of four consecutive conference titles (the first two in the old WCHA, and the past two in the Big Ten), were not picked by conference coaches to three-peat this spring, finishing behind Michigan in the preseason poll. Minnesota-Duluth (No. 2), North Dakota (4) and Minnesota State Mankato (6) are all ranked ahead of the Gophers in the preseason USCHO poll.
There are no established power-play or penalty-kill units. There will be a new goaltender for the first time in three seasons. Kloos will replace graduated standout Kyle Rau as the first-line center. All four lines will feature new combinations with a heavy presence from freshmen. Defensemen will likely play less of an offensive role.
And that’s fine by Lucia.
“There are so many more question marks. … [Finding answers] is the fun part,” said Lucia, entering his 17th season at Minnesota. “Will we have some growing pains at the beginning of the year? I would expect so.
“We have a lot of young guys and [we’re] still trying to learn their numbers. But there’ll be some good competition. I think we’ll be stronger and maybe have a little bit more depth up front than we had a year ago.”
The depth will come from a talented freshmen class that includes forwards Tommy Novak, Tyler Sheehy, Brent Gates Jr. and goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
Schierhorn, the 2014-2015 USHL goaltender of the year playing for Muskegon, is the favorite to replace Adam Wilcox, who left a year early for the pros. Lucia also hinted that three freshman forwards would center lines behind Kloos.
Without All-America pick Mike Reilly and first-round draft pick Brady Skjei on the back end, the blue line leadership shifts to Jake Bischoff and Michael Brodzinski. They are hoping for a big physical impact from Nick Seeler, who sat out last season after transferring from Omaha.
“Communication is going to be huge for us on the back-end this year,” Bischoff said. “It’s been different [this preseason] for sure. Going from just trying to make the lineup to taking on a bigger role is going to be different, but I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
The junior class was one victory away from turning mixed expectations into a national championship two years ago. They want back in that title game, proving that internally at least the big expectations return every fall.
“You plan to throw up a few banners in Mariucci Arena,” Kloos said, “but we really want that big one.”