DI Men’s Preview: Minnesota
Gopher stars spurn pro offers, return for a title shot.
Gopher stars spurn pro offers, return for a title shot.
Last spring’s Frozen Four in Philadelphia provided a 48 hour roller coaster of emotion for the Minnesota Golden Gophers men’s hockey team. It all began with an exhilarating semifinal win over North Dakota on Justin Holl’s goal with just 0.6 seconds to play in regulation and concluded with an equally as heartbreaking, yet far more thorough, defeat at the hands of Union College in the NCAA championship game.
“It’s always in the back of our mind and, in a way, it almost feels like we played that last game yesterday,” defenseman Mike Reilly said.
That it was the final game in the college careers of seniors like Holl, captain Nate Condon and Jake Parenteau was already established. The great unknown at the time, however, was would teammates such as Reilly, Kyle Rau, Adam Wilcox and Brady Skjei —all with college eligibility remaining— follow and get a jump start on their inevitable pro careers.
The question was answered over the summer as all four elected to return to pursue the national title that has, so far, eluded them. Reilly, Skjei and Wilcox are back for their junior seasons while Rau will be wearing the ‘M’ on his chest for a fourth year as one of six seniors.
“I think that’s a little bit of Kyle’s MO; he stayed through high school,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of his captain. “He probably had the most difficult decision to make what he was going to ultimately do.”
Reilly weighed the pros and cons in the offseason and said the importance of school and preparing for life after pro hockey helped tip the scales along with the title bid.
“You’ve just got to be able to be ready if you’re going to go,” Reilly said. “I think we made the right decision, you know, wanting to win it all and just kind of define our game a little more and just keep making an impact.”
“We are fortunate that even though four guys had an opportunity to sign professional contracts, they all elected to return,” Lucia said. “I like the kids that we have on our team because they’re pretty goal oriented and focused on doing what they can for the University of Minnesota, and I think that was a big reason why we had the kind of success that we had a year ago.”
Perhaps the happiest of those impacted by the quartet’s decision to return are their Gopher teammates.
“They all play a huge role on our team and knowing that they want to come back and win a title is pretty important,” said senior defenseman Ben Marshall who, along with fellow senior Seth Ambroz, will serve as an alternate captain.
Among the four, the player likely to have the greatest individual impact on Minnesota’s title hopes is goaltender Adam Wilcox who went 26-6-6 as a sophomore with a .932 save percentage which set a new Minnesota single-season record.
“Adam was our backbone the whole year,” Marshall said. “Whether it’s in practice or in a game — or even sewer ball before the game — he’s a competitor and we’re extremely lucky to have him back.
“Adam doesn’t take a day off. Every day he tries to get better, every day he’s a competitor, that’s why he was Big Ten Player of the Year last year.”
Wilcox, a Hobey Baker Award and Mike Richter Award finalist, was also the Big Ten’s inaugural Goaltender of the Year, a First Team All-Big Ten honoree and a Second Team All-American.
“I think usually the team at the end is going to have a pretty good goaltender,” Lucia said. “They make coaches a lot smarter.”
While this season’s freshman class is another talented lot with the likes of Swedish import Leon Bristedt and U.S. National Development Team Program alums Jack Glover and Ryan Collins, this group of rookies won’t likely be relied upon nearly as much as the Gophers’ battle-tested sophomores were last season.
“Like any season I think we’re going to have to rotate some guys early in the year within our lineups to see who should play with who and ultimately who does deserve to play,” Lucia said. “We’ll do some of that rotating the first half of the season, and then you get into January, you hope that your lineups will be a little bit set.”
Lucia was prophetic a year ago when he said Minnesota’s success in 2013-14 would be dependent on team play, particularly in terms of offensive production. To that point, then-freshman Justin Kloos led the Gophers with 16 goals last year but was one of six Minnesota double-digit goal scorers.
With 86-percent of its overall point production returning, a deep team which played for a national championship is even deeper heading into a new season. But Lucia knows it will take more than that to achieve Minnesota’s ultimate goal.
“You need the depth, you need guys pushing each other, and I think when you have that, that’s when you have your best teams,” Lucia said. “But I also think there has to be a buy-in where guys accept their roles, they understand where they’re at, and a team that wants to work hard on a daily basis, and we had those ingredients in place last year.”
Minnesota Golden Gophers
2013-14 Final Ranking: No. 2 (USCHO) / No. 2 (USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine)
2013-14 overall record: 28-7-6
2013-14 Big Ten record: 14-3-3-0
2013-14 Conference Finish: First
2013-14 Postseason Finish: NCAA Frozen Four runner-up to Union
2014-15 predicted finish: First (B1G Preseason Poll)
Tough Skates to Fill: F Nate Condon, D/F Justin Holl, D Jake Parenteau
Impact Returnees: G Adam Wilcox, F Kyle Rau, F Sam Warning, D Mike Reilly, D Brady Skjei
Key Additions: F Leon Bristedt, F Robin Höglund, D Jack Glover, D Ryan Collins, G Nick Lehr.
Why the Gophers will exceed expectations: It’s tough to do better than the No. 1 ranking the preseason prognosticators bestowed upon the Gophers last month. But with upperclassmen making up roughly half of a roster filled with firepower and an elite goalie, Minnesota is poised for another title run.
Why the Gopher will fall short of expectations: The only thing that might hurt this team is, well, getting hurt. Despite Minnesota’s depth, injuries at key positions, particularly goaltender, could spell disaster especially with a tough schedule chock full of teams giving the Gophers their best effort night in and night out.