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Gophers Hockey: New goalies, new questions, same goals await Minnesota

Picked to finish second in the Big Ten, this year's Golden Gophers team story has yet to be written with returning players getting new roles and freshmen having opportunities.

Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

"I'd say you've done a lot of good things here. You'll do a lot of good things here. Make sure you do everything possible to get the biggest thing done. We've had a lot of success, my senior class has, but we still are chasing the big one."
-Then-senior Travis Boyd on what he learned playing college hockey at Minnesota and what he would tell himself as a freshman, March 2015

Minnesota's story, in a way, begins with someone who will not be on the ice this weekend.

Prior to the start of Saturday's 2015-16 men's hockey season opener against Vermont, the Gophers will honor the 2014-15 team by raising two banners. One is for the Big Ten regular season championship. The other is for the Big Ten conference tournament championship.

Including a 2014 national runner-up banner stealthily put up without any hint of celebration, as if losing doesn't deserve an honor, these are the fifth and sixth banners earned by Minnesota's coaching staff and six players over their four year college career.

None of the players are back. All graduated. Three more juniors from 2014-15 also departed.

The sole constant of collegiate athletics is that every athlete has a finite time to make an impression. Four years is the norm. Some leave early. Some get injured and stay an extra year, but playing for the University of Minnesota, or any other college, is a familiar-sounding small step in a long life.

"The summer always seems to go by fast. We certainly said goodbye to a tremendous senior class of great kids that truly put their stamp on our program," was how Minnesota head coach Don Lucia opened his first press conference of the new year.

When the banners slowly make their descent into the laurels that is the Mariucci Arena rafters on Saturday, ten freshmen will be present who did not take part in the history.

How they fare on the Mariucci ice beginning at 7:00 p.m. CT Saturday and put their own stamp on the maroon and gold will tell a lot about a team with considerable expectations for 2015-16 both externally and on themselves.

This season's freshmen will have opportunities to make an impact on a team picked to finish second in the Big Ten behind Michigan. While early growing pains and learning curves are expected by everyone, there The Gophers face a tough non-conference schedule in the first half. It begins with Vermont and features three of the top-eight teams in the preseason rankings. For this weekend the team is focusing more upon what it can do rather than its opponent.

Departures mean old line combinations are broken up and several new players will play on special teams, according to Lucia. Three freshmen likely will begin Saturday's United States Hall of Fame Game as centers behind captain Justin Kloos.

"I have pretty high expectations for the team. Honestly, I really like our team. I think we're going to be pretty deep and solid," alternate captain Jake Bischoff said. "Obviously we're young so right away it may take us who knows to get our feet wet and let the freshman get in there to figure out, everyone figure out what role they want to take on. But I really like our team and hopefully we'll be contenders."

Mixed with the new faces is plenty of old, like Bischoff, who get new chances and new opportunities in a new season. The junior defenseman learned lots last year playing on a pairing with now-departed Mike Reilly, who finished the year as the highest-scoring blue liner in college hockey before signing with his Minnesota Wild.

Now Bischoff knows that there are opportunities and new responsibilities to help out the team. He is five pounds heavier and likely to get some power play time, a role that he shined in during his high schools days in Grand Rapids but eluded him his first two seasons with the Gophers.

"With every player you're excited about new opportunities. When we ran the power play (in practice), Bischoff was on," Lucia said. "He hadn't done it much since high school and I was giving him grief that it's riding a bike. He did a nice job."

He's not alone on defense, which besides Reilly loses junior Brady Skjei and senior Ben Marshall. Sophomore Jack Glover, who spent much of the second half as a forward, is 15 pounds heavier than his freshman year. He'll be back on defense. After sitting out last season, transfer Nick Seeler will be able to make an impact on opposing teammates rather than current.

"(Seeler) almost took my head off (last week). I said ‘thanks for not killing me,'" said redshirt junior forward Connor Reilly. "I'm really excited for him."

Two new freshmen defensemen - Jack Sadek and Curtis Simonson - are learning the ropes on the blue line.

"They've been good. I think all our freshmen have been good this year," Bischoff said. "I like the chemistry we have as a team. Just being around the freshmen a lot, I think that is good to get everyone acquainted with one another. Coming into your freshman year on the Gopher hockey team is definitely a head-spinning experience, like ‘wow, what's going on?'"

The same is true in net, where first-year goaltenders Eric Schierhorn and Brock Kautz both come in from juniors to battle sophomore Nick Lehr in the battle to replace Adam Wilcox.

There is no bigger hole to fill than Wilcox, who signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, if only because he so rarely left the ice in his three seasons at Minnesota. He was a constant presence, putting up two of the top seasons in Gopher history. Lehr is the only returning goalie to have regular season playing time. His time totals all of 93:28.

Lucia is planning on rotating goalies early on in order to find Wilcox's replacement among his group. That includes Lehr and Anchorage native Schierhorn, named the USHL Goaltender of the Year last season playing for Muskegon. Schierhorn is working with goalie coach Justin Johnson and adapt to the college game the same way his predecessor did.

"I think there is going to be a learning curve for him. This is the first time in a few years that he's actually had a goalie coach to work with," Lucia said about Schierhorn. "Justin is trying to get him to change some elements of his game and think about things.

"He's such a reactive goalie that he reminds me a little bit of Adam when he was young. He's just so athletic. But once Adam quieted his game down that was when you saw (Wilcox) really take off."

Having a new goaltender takes some time to get used to from a defensive standpoint and from comfortable a goaltending one. Bischoff acknowledges that it will be different without Wilcox, but doesn't plan on adjusting his game. On the other hand, Kloos is staying hands off, letting the goalies get in a groove as they compete.

Up front, only five of the top-nine forwards that finished the season are back. Also back is Connor Reilly, who is 100% healthy again after suffering a season-ending knee injury while sophomore Leon Bristedt and juniors Taylor Cammarata and Vinni Lettieri look to take the next step in their developments with big seasons.

Freshmen forward reinforcements include four players that played center in juniors. Tyler Sheehy and Tom Novak come in having played together for much of last season in juniors. Brent Gates Jr. is starting on a line with juniors Kloos and Hudson Fasching, also healthy after off-season surgery. All will have a lot of defensive responsibility in addition to offense.

"At the end of the day we want to get everyone on the same page so we can hit the ground running," said Reilly.

Communication on ice is also going to be big for Kloos, the team's top returning point producer (13G-19A) behind three departed players, and his team. The Lakeville, MN native remembers what it was like to be a freshman playing with guys like Nate Condon and Tom Serratore and getting out of his comfort zone.

"One thing I think for the old guys it's been pushing those young guys to communicate, he said. "You got to talk. You got to communicate. It's almost uncomfortable when you're a freshman how much you communicate, but that's been an emphasis of the entire team.

"I've tried to help preach with the other captains and leaders on this team to the young guys that you got to talk. Even if it is uncomfortable it will ultimately be really effective on game nights."

Game nights like Saturday; a night that has the first answer to 35 or more questions to the year.

Minnesota enters the season with plenty more in its lineup on the team's latest journey. There is more than any year since the Gophers' four year NCAA Tournament streak started.

Non-conference play matters so much as far as the Pairwise Rankings are concerned. Most of Minnesota's 15 NC games come early in the season, putting added incentive to keep the growing pains at a minimum. Failure to do so, as was the case for the Big Ten last season (the conference only sent one team to the NCAA Tournament thanks to poor non-conference play. Michigan ended the year as one of the better teams in the country, but didn't help its cause early on with non-conference losses.) puts added pressure on the conference portion.

Getting to raise another banner - winning a fifth straight conference regular season title or something else - this time next year would be meaningful because of the questions entering and freshmen learning what is necessary to accomplish their goals before time ends.

It's one the present juniors helped do as freshmen and help their fellow freshmen, but every banner is a different story. If the 2014-15 banners represent anything else, it's consistency and desperation.

The Gophers entered the season as an overwhelming favorite to win a national championship. There were no battles for special teams. Lines were set in pen the day after the season ended. While two banners were won, it wasn't done easily. Minnesota had to come back and play desperate hockey. The team fought its way into the NCAA Tournament before bowing out to Minnesota Duluth in the first round. The six large gold banners at the east end of the rink signifying national championship wins do not have another friend joining them.

There is no third banner being raised Saturday for last season's preseason favorites.

This year with a new iteration of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, those new banners reveal the same goals are awaiting a team turning the page.

"We'll take a second because it's special putting up a new banner at Mariucci. Obviously most of us are going to come back when we're older and be able to look up and say we were part of that team," Kloos said. "Definitely for the guys that were here last year, take that 15 seconds, 20 seconds, to really appreciate what we did last year, but then also realize that nothing is given to us this year and to explain to the new guys that you come here to hang banners.

"We obviously want to hang the big one (as national champions)."

Minnesota (0-0-0, 0-0-0-0 Big Ten) opens the 2015-16 regular season Saturday October 10th at 7:00 p.m. CT against Vermont (0-0-0, 0-0-0 Hockey East) in the U.S. Hall of Fame Game. Fox Sports North Plus will broadcast the game with Doug McLeod and Ben Clymer calling the game. It can be heard on 1500 ESPN with Wally Shaver and Frank Mazzocco on the call.

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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 --