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Gopher Hockey Notebook: Minnesota opens against Vermont

A new year means new players and new opportunities. And a quick look back to what's old.

Justin Kloos (25) and Taylor Cammarata (13)
Justin Kloos (25) and Taylor Cammarata (13)
Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Minnesota's lineup for Saturday's regular season opener against Vermont is almost set. Everyone is healthy. The training room has only seen a couple players. With a full week of practice, the Gophers are confident in which six defensemen will be in the lineup and 11 of the 12 forwards that will play against the Catamounts.

Goalie is a different story, though. While there's an idea as to who gets the start, the Minnesota coaching staff is not tipping their hand quite yet.

"We'll have one of them play. We haven't made any decisions yet on what we're going to do with that,"  head coach Don Lucia said Wednesday about which goalie will start the United States Hall of Fame Game. "Whoever we start, that'll be the coaches' decision on who is going to play the first game. After that, it'll be who is going to be able to hold the spot and it will be depending on how they play."

Out of the team's four goaltenders - senior Ryan Coyne, sophomore Nick Lehr, and freshmen Brock Kautz and Eric Schierhorn - it wouldn't be surprising to see either Lehr or Schierhorn get the nod. Lehr is the only one of the group who has played a real college game, having started one and finishing another for former Gopher goalie Adam Wilcox last season. Schierhorn comes in as one of the top goalies in the USHL the last two years with Muskegon along with some international experience playing for Team USA.

(Kautz, for what it's worth, helped lead the Minnesota Wilderness to an NAHL championship.)

Still, no matter who gets the nod in net against the Catamounts will not have a stranglehold.

"That's the hard part with the goaltending position. Until you actually play games, you really don't know. So whoever plays is not going to have too much experience and that's just part of it with our group this year; especially early on we're going to have a lot of guys who haven't played college hockey," said Lucia. "We just got to play."

Lucia will let whomever starts know on Friday.

Kloos centering top line, three freshmen getting initial chance to center

Junior forward Justin Kloos is beginning his year with two players the captain hasn't played with before. This week in practice has been centering Minnesota's top line with Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres draft pick) and freshman Brent Gates, Jr. (Anaheim Ducks).

Fasching and Kloos haven't been together much, if at all, their first two years. Fasching spent much of it with now-departed Kyle Rau while Kloos has mostly played with fellow junior Taylor Cammarata (New York Islanders). The one stretch Kloos played with Rau last season was the one time Fasching did not.

"We've had some good chemistry this first month and I'm looking forward to seeing how we do on Friday and Saturday nights," Kloos said about his new linemates. "(Gates) is extremely young, but hockey-wise he is very mature as far as the little things that go unnoticed, putting him in the right position, the right place, being in the right place at the right time. Obviously as an 18 year-old he's coming in a little weaker and has got to keep working on things like that, but he's been real solid on the left wing with me and Fasching."

It may not stay the way, but for now it sounds like three freshmen - Tyler Sheehy, Tommy Novak and Darian Romanko - are centering after Kloos.

Minnesota has 10 freshmen and a junior transfer in Nick Seeler (Minnesota Wild) so there will be new opportunities. At the same time, it's not often two, let alone three freshmen begin the year at center. Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula in 2010-11 is the most recent example.

(The same new opportunities is true with special teams. Connor Reilly, who had a productive stretch on the top power play unit before getting injured, returns, as does Kloos and Fasching on the power play. Other players such as junior defenseman Jake Bischoff (New York Islanders) are likely getting chances.)

As captain, Kloos is emphasizing the younger players to communicate more on the ice and give a hard effort in the first month as he believes that will set the tone. Senior A.J. Michaelson, meanwhile, is ready to go after six months off following last year's NCAA loss to Minnesota Duluth and is embracing helping lead as the only returning four-year player.

"Being a senior I got to lead as well, just going into every game trying to get the younger guys pumped up a little bit, just bring some energy to the team," he said. "They're very skilled. They can move the puck, they can shoot. It's going to be a fun year to see how they produce."

Lucia noted that finding chemistry is an annual thing. This is no different, saying "early on every year guys are going to have to go in and out of the lineup." Although the top-9 is for the most part set and a group of players for the fourth line (as an aside, I wouldn't be shocked if Michaelson sits Saturday), who starts on whose wing can easily change. If any of the freshmen centers falter, there is someone like Vinni Lettieri out there to take his chance.

No exhibition game

With Vermont being the opener rather than an exhibition game against a Canadian college, it's interesting to see the Gophers start off the season with a game that counts in the standings. There is no chance to slowly bring the freshmen up to speed.

To be fair, Minnesota hasn't had the best experiences with recent exhibitions. Last season the team sat many of its regular players in a 5-4 OT loss to the US U-18 team. The Gophers also got in several scraps against the University of Lethbridge in 2013. 2 players received game misconducts in a game which didn't count.

One positive of not playing an exhibition game means more practice time early in the season.

"It seemed like some of these exhibition games have been kind of lopsided, out-shooting somebody 45-15. I don't know how much that does for you," Lucia said. "You don't get any practice time. I just felt that maybe we would get more benefit out of practice.

"Maybe in hindsight we would have liked to play a game, but that's just the way it worked this year. We're not the only team that didn't play one. I'm not sure how much it really helps or hurts you once you get past the first period Saturday."

Kloos agreed with the sentiment, saying it's been competitive in practice and getting to play another team will be great. With Vermont this weekend he is focusing more on his team rather than the Catamounts, who lost its own exhibition game to Acadia.

"It might be nice just because we're a new team to get that extra practice time and learning systems - who is going to be on the penalty kill, who is going to be on the power play - but I don't think it matters too much missing out on that game," he said. "It's not the end of the world."

Raise the Banners

Prior to Saturday's game, the Gophers will unveil last season's Big Ten regular season and conference tournament championship banners. 2014-15 was the fourth straight season Minnesota has won a regular season conference title.

This is not the only banner raised this weekend. On Friday before playing St. Cloud State, the Gopher women's team will unveil its 2015 national championship banner over at Ridder Arena. Head coach Brad Frost's team won its 3rd national championship in 4 years with a 4-2 win over Harvard. Last weekend Minnesota swept Penn State with 2-0 and 5-0 road victories.

Lucia on joining Twitter

If you missed it over the weekend, Lucia joined Twitter to keep in touch with alums and former players. His first tweet referenced Twitter doppelganger "Fake Don Lucia" and Minnesota's real head coach

"I just wanted to put 'Fake' out of business," he said. "I never followed him, but my kids would send me some things because they got a few chuckles out of it."

Fake Don Lucia isn't going down without a fight, however.



Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --