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Gophers Hockey: Five Storylines To Follow In 2013-2014

Minnesota enters a new season with plenty of changes.

University of Minnesota sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei
University of Minnesota sophomore defenseman Brady Skjei
Minnesota Athletics

Nine seconds.

It took a total of nine seconds from the start of overtime for Yale to celebrate on the Grand Rapids ice last March against Minnesota with a 3-2 win. Just like that. In an instant a season with promise faded away. In an instant the offseason began.

And then it continued at a snail's pace.

Thankfully the looooooooooooonnnnnnnnng wait is almost over. We're just one day away from the Gophers kicking off the 2013-14 season against Mercyhurst in the Ice Breaker. All those offseason workouts, all those memories fueling, all those times staying at home to write in preparation.

(The last one is just me? Yeah, I may have wasted those six months.)

All jokes aside about not making friends, this year is different. And not just because of college hockey realignment meaning a third straight MacNaughton Cup will not be in cards. Yes, Big Ten hockey is finally coming, but this is a new season for Minnesota nonetheless.

If you want to see a player-by-player rundown, Jeffrick over at The Daily Gopher has done a great job doing just that with the Goalies, Defensemen and Forwards. I highly recommend reading it along with my freshman breakdown from Saturday's exhibition.

So in lieu of treading over the same territory, here are 5 things I'm watching throughout the Gopher's season.

Kyle Rau and Nate Condon (The Captains)

"Those who stay will be champions."

Or that's the thought at least. The number of early departures that flooded in following the Yale loss hangs over this year's team like a cloud. It affects many of these points in one way or another. While none are around, to not talk about it would be like taking a vegetarian to a steak house. It's in bad taste and it'll come up anyways.

To recap, no one was hit more by undergrad losses in the offseason than Minnesota. The Gophers lost more players (five juniors) early than any team in recent history. Nick Bjugstad signed with the Florida Panthers and Nate Schmidt was first team All-WCHA defenseman last season now with the Washington Capitals. Erik Haula, who barely missed being a top-ten Hobey finalist last year, battled for a top-six spot with the Minnesota Wild (he was ultimately sent to the AHL) after leading the Gophers with 51 points.

Zach Budish (Nashville Predators) and Mark Alt (Philadelphia Flyers) also left school early.

Others stayed. Oddly, Minnesota still has more seniors than last year when Seth Helgeson participated in the fastest (and saddest) Senior Night ever seen. There are five this year. The leadership sees 11 upperclassmen, including co-captains Nate Condon and Kyle Rau, and with the entire leadership group from 2012-13 departed this is going to be their team.

"I don't care, whatever sport, you need to have your juniors and seniors, you still have to have your elite player and continue to recruit your elite player, but you have to have that mix because it is difficult for an 18 or 19-year-old still physically with a 22 or 23 or 24-year-old," Lucia said last month.

Condon and Rau, who is the team's returning scorer with 40 points (15G-25A) last season, have different styles. Rau, in a new position (Center) this season, is being counted on to score and isn't afraid to get dirty. Condon, meanwhile, plays the "good cop" role and is a calming force. Each is needed and both balance each other out well. Both give Minnesota what it needs. It won't be easy, but both are ready for ready for the challenge.

Can Adam Wilcox avoid the sophomore slump?

The biggest question mark last season was who would replace departed goalie Kent Patterson. Turned out it shouldn't have been. After beginning the year splitting the job with Michael Shibrowski, Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay) took the reins between the pipes and never gave them back.

The South Saint Paul, MN native played in 39 of Minnesota's 40 games last season; including starting the final 37. Wilcox was sixth in the nation with 1.88 GAA (a school record), second with 25 wins and recorded 3 shutouts. Minnesota's possession skills last season certainly helped him as a freshman. The team was outshot only 3 times last season (going 0-3-0). That's a number likely to rise this year. At the same time, Wilcox was the backbone defensively and stood on his head for the Gophers more than once. If it weren't for Stephon Williams of Minnesota State, Wilcox would have been the best freshman goalie in the conference.

A repeat performance this season would go a long way.

Brady Skjei Putting the "D" in Defense

Minnesota returns five defensemen from last year. That includes Justin Holl, who spent all of last season playing forward but will be back on the blue line. Still, the Gophers lost the team's #1 defenseman (Schmidt) and two 6'3, 200lbs+ players in Alt and Helgeson.

Schmidt's WCHA-leading 32 points for a defenseman is easier to replace on this year's team. Minnesota has its share of offensive defensemen with Ben Marshall, Mike Reilly and freshman Michael Brodzinski. The three are capable of sharing the load left in Schmidt's absence, with one or two looking to break out.

Of course, that's not guarantee. At the same time, however, the Gophers have the tougher job replacing the job the defensive defenseman did. Minnesota's offense may have led the nation in goals last season, but the team was also third in goals allowed (2 per game) and had the eighth-best penalty kill (86%). That has to be replaced.

It's also one reason why losing Alt hurts. Alt was never productive offensive (and he may have fallen more times than any other defenseman) yet he spent the last two seasons protecting Ben Marshall and Mike Reilly defensively when they would pinch. The Gophers don't have that this year - the closest to him is 6'3", 206 lbs Brady Skjei.

Skjei, the 2012 first round pick of the, spent much of last season paired with Schmidt. He had ups and downs as a freshman (being scratched late in the year) yet showed signs of promise. Although how the defensive unit performs might be more important than the offense, Skjei is singled out because I feel he is barometer. Where he goes, the defense goes.

(Also goes without saying that besides Skjei, the Gophers could do with having Reilly, Marshall or any of the junior forwards that aren't Rau stepping up this season with a career year.)

Freshmen (The Replacements)

I won't go too much into the freshmen - again read the player-by-player breakdown - but they will be counted on more this season. There's a good chance five freshmen forwards will play nightly while one or two will suit on the blue line. Quite a few bring a scoring touch from the USHL. Taylor Cammarata and Justin Kloos were 1-2 in scoring last season while Gabe Guertler (currently suspended indefinitely) and Vinni Lettieri each finished in the top 16.

And that doesn't include Hudson Fasching, who will start the season on the top line.

Despite success at the junior level, college hockey is an adjustment. Not just offensively. Players are faster, bigger and there is more room to cover on both ends of the ice. There will be some time for the freshmen to do exactly that, but less than in past years. While the upperclassmen can help, it is going to be on them in the long run.

"I help the guys on the bench, with the system and the breakouts," Rau said after Saturday's game when asked about the freshmen. "I'm just doing what I can to help them and not be overbearing."

The Unknowns

In some ways Minnesota is the biggest loser when it comes to the Big Ten. There is no other college hockey market like the Twin Cities and the Gophers give up a lot by leaving the WCHA. Thankfully, the team retains much of it - Minnesota still plays the other 4 in-state schools (albeit while losing North Dakota) and continues to keep its television foothold - but there are plenty of unknowns when it comes to the Big Ten.

Some involve new opponents. Some involve the structure of the Big Ten and its effect on the Pairwise rankings. With only six schools, the Big Ten is beginning a 20 game conference schedule in late November. How will that affect the Gophers?

Another unknown is how Minnesota will respond with fewer Olympic rinks. Half the teams in the WCHA had Olympic rinks. Only Minnesota and Wisconsin have them in the Big Ten. That means the Gophers, who were just 5-4 when playing on NHL ice last season, will spend more time on them this season. Currently 15 games (not including more than one B1G Tournament or any potential NCAA Tournament games) are slated to be played in 200x85 rinks.

On the other hand, teams will be less prepared when they enter Mariucci's lake-sized ice sheet. It's a point Condon brought up last month at Media Day, saying, "Maybe it will be different for teams to come into our rink and play us from that standpoint."

But a big unknown is internal. Lucia doubles this season as Team USA's head coach for the World Juniors in Malmo, Sweden. His duties mean he will be gone for the Mariucci Classic and will be spending the first part of the season split across the two. It's something Lucia is more than capable of doing - UNO head coach Dean Blais has been in the position twice in recent years - yet it is also one more new thing piled on a growing list.

Can the Gophers contend for a Big Ten title and Frozen Four berth? Unlike last season, this year's team isn't coming in as a favorite. There are a few question marks. At the same time, there are pieces in place. Minnesota is closer to being a tournament team than having to rebuild. Once a team is in the NCAA Tournament then anything can happen.

Same goes with the regular season. That's what makes it so exciting to watch.