We'll start our previews of the 2015-2016 with what is easily the most important position in modern hockey, and especially in college hockey: the goalie. Scoring continues to decline year after year in college hockey, with games now averaging less than 5.5 goals per game. Thirty-two qualifying goalies put up a save percentage of .920 or better in college hockey last season. It's become near impossible to be a good college hockey team without a strong goalie.
In many ways, the Big Ten's lack of success last season was reflected by their lack of success in net. Only one goalie in the league last year--Michigan State's Jack Hildebrand--exceeded that .920 mark. The picture doesn't look much brighter this year. Hildebrand returns while Minnesota brings in a promising freshman, but otherwise, it looks like another long, disappointing season for the Big Ten.
Here is a look at the goaltending situation at each of the six Big Ten schools this upcoming season. 2014-2015 statistics are listed in parenthesis.
Zach Nagelvoort, JR(22 games, .906/2.63), Steve Racine, SR(21 games .908/2.94), Chad Catt, FR
Michigan had the best offense in the country last season, edging out Jack Eichel's Boston University team by .01 goals per game. And yet, they still missed the NCAA Tournament for the third consecutive year. Much of the blame for that fell on the inconsistency they received in goal last season.
Zach Nagelvoort suffered a terrible sophomore slump after a strong freshman season that got him selected in the NHL Draft. It would be easy to blame that regression on a defense that went from bad to worse with the graduation of Mac Bennett, but Nagelvoort also gave up some inexplicably soft goals as well.
That opened up the door to more playing time for Steve Racine. Racine developed a pattern last season of putting together one or two solid games, and just as it seemed he would earn the full-time starting job, he would watch the boulder roll down the hill again with a disastrous game.
The Wolverines shopped around for a new goalie last spring, including looking into bringing in former New Hampshire goalie Casey DeSmith, and ultimately ended up with NAHL veteran Chad Catt. He'll likely get an opportunity to play at some point in the season unless one of Racine and Nagelvoort plays surprisingly well and locks down the starting role, but the odds of him seeing a lot of playing time seems slim.
The best case scenario is a rebound year from Nagelvoort as he seems most likely to provide the consistency that Michigan needs in goal. That would require some significant improvement from the defense playing in front of him though. Michigan's defense last year was extremely mistake-prone and gave up a ton of quality scoring chances. They just don't have the goaltending--some would argue no team does given college hockey's extreme defensive nature--to run-and-gun and try to outscore the opposition in every game.
Jake Hildebrand, SR(35 games, .930/2.18)
How does a team with a rickety offense--ranked 42nd nationally--come within one game of winning an outright regular season conference title? The Big Ten is one half of the answer to that question, to be sure. But the other answer to that is Jake Hildebrand.
Hildebrand was far and away the best goalie in the Big Ten last season and should be again barring a major surprise from some incoming freshmen. He played every available minute for the Spartans last season, even though the Spartans had talented NTDP alum Edwin Minney waiting in the wings. Hildebrand was just too valuable to the Spartans to take off the ice.
The defense in front of him lost senior Ron Boyd and freshman Josh Jacobs, but gain freshmen Zach Osburn and Jerad Rosburg. The net effect is a loss in physicality and defensive play in front of Hildebrand, but perhaps little more mobility and puck possession, which might lessen Hildebrand's workload a bit. Hildebrand is going to have to make a lot of saves though for Michigan State to be competitive again this year.
Eric Schierhorn, FR, Nick Lehr, SO(2 games, .881/3.21)
Minnesota will start fresh in goal with incoming freshman Eric Schierhorn taking over the starting role from outgoing senior Adam Wilcox.
Schierhorn comes in as a '96 birthdate, which will put him among the youngest starting goalies in the country; always a concern at such an important and difficult position. But his strong pedigree in junior hockey suggests he might be ready to make the transition. After holding his head above water as a 17-year-old rookie in the USHL--no easy feat--Schierhorn was outstanding in his second year, posting a .927 save percentage and leading his team to the USHL Clark Cup finals. There are definitely valid reasons to be optimistic about what Schierhorn brings to the Gophers, but it's hard to have too much confidence in a goalie completely unproven at the college level.
The good news, if you can call it that, is that Adam Wilcox's struggles midway through last season means that it won't be as difficult for Schierhorn to fill Wilcox's skates. Wilcox's .912 save percentage doesn't seem that far below average, but he ranked 48th nationally among qualifying goalies in that stat last year. So even if Schierhorn is just average as a freshman, he would still be a slight upgrade from what Minnesota had last season.
The other positive is that the rest of the Big Ten is such a hot mess right now that even if Schierhorn struggles, Minnesota should have no problem staying well above the rest of the pack. Nothing closes a gap in talent like poor goaltending, but ti doesn't look like there is another team in the conference that can stay out of their own way long enough to seriously push Minnesota.
The bad news is that Schierhorn might not have as much help on the blue line this season as Wilcox had last year. The Gophers lost Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly(For the record, Reilly's play in the defensive zone was frequently maligned, but there's no better defense than possessing the puck at the other end of the ice, something Reilly excelled at doing)to the NHL and a dependable piece in outgoing senior Ben Marshall. Sophomore Ryan Collins seems primed to breakout as a stalwart defender, but after that, there's a lot of talent and skill, but little in the way of performance track record.
Christian Frey, JR(24 games,.909/3.03), Matt Tomkins(14 games, .876/3.28)
Christian Frey was a revelation for the Buckeyes in 2013-2014, when he joined the team halfway through the season and immediately separated himself as the clear number one goalie with a stellar .929 save percentage. But he suffered a serious regression in numbers in his first full season last year. Though the Buckeyes returned nearly their entire defense last season, the loss of forwards Ryan Dzingel and Max McCormick, which gave the Buckeyes a dominating top line that was also very defensively responsible, had a huge impact on their possession numbers and their ability to keep the puck out of their own net.
That doesn't bode well for this coming season where the Buckeyes have a lot of new faces--ten freshmen are on the roster--but don't seem to have made any serious upgrades in talent. Frey is a solid goalie, and on the right team, could probably look very good. But he's not the type of player that is going to steal games all by himself on a regular basis, especially when he is facing the quality of shots that Ohio State gave up on a regular basis last season.
Matthew Skoff, SR(18 games, .907/2.81), Eamon McAdam, JR(12 games, .910/3.13)
Penn State had a three-man rotation in goal last season, with Matthew Skoff seeing about half of his team's minutes, while Eamon McAdam and senior PJ Musico split the other 50%. With Musico graudated, it's now a two-man race between Skoff and McAdam. The way the minutes get split between those two could end up being a huge key to Penn State's season.
When McAdam was recruited by Penn State, it certainly wasn't with the intention of him playing a back-up role. He was a strong prospect in the USHL and an NHL Draft pick. There's no doubt that his potential ceiling is much higher than Matthew Skoff's. But it was Skoff that earned the plurality of playing time last season because McAdam just didn't play well enough to be the full-time starter.
With about 3000 minutes under his belt, Skoff has pretty well established himself as a goalie that will put up a consistent .910 save percentage--serviceable, but likely in the bottom third of qualifying goalies nationally. If McAdam can improve on that, that's a huge plus for Penn State. If Skoff is seeing the majority of playing time because that's who they feel gives them the best chance to win, that's likely bad news for Penn State.
On the blue line, Penn State lost Patrick Koudys and Nate Jensen, the last of the players that transferred in to the fledgling program. They'll miss their experience, but there should be a certain advantage to having players this coaching staff recruited, rather than players they took out of necessity.
Matt Jurusik, FR, Gabe Grunwald RS FR, Adam Miller, RS JR
Wisconsin only won four games last season, but, as strange as it might seem, it could have been much worse. For all of last year's fault, the Badgers did have an excellent senior goalie in Joel Rumpel. Rumpel stole one of those four wins with a masterful 47-save shutout win against Michigan Tech and was extremely solid in Wisconsin's other three wins. The Badgers gave up 375 more shots on goal than they took last season(56 of 59 nationally) en route to tie for the worst goal margin in the country. It's scary to think how ugly things could have gotten if Wisconsin didn't have a great goalie.
Wisconsin more than likely doesn't have a great goalie this year.
The Badgers were expecting to replace Rumpel with NTDP goalie Luke Opilka. Even expecting Opilka to come in and match Rumpel's ability would have been a stretch, but at least Opilka had experience playing at the NCAA level in exhibition games and was regarded as one of the best goalies in his age group. It was about as good a situation as one could hope for. But after being drafted by his hometown St. Louis Blues, Opilka ended up signing with the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL.
That left Wisconsin with only two walk-on-type goalies on the roster and scrambling to find a replacement at the last minute. That replacement was NAHL goalie Matt Jurusik. Jurusik had tremendous numbers in the NAHL last season. Jurusik will likely be one of just two goalies born in 1997 to be a regular starting goalie this season, joining North Dakota freshman Matej Tomek. Jurusik finished the year with slightly better numbers in the NAHL than Tomek, but from there, the comparison starts to get ugly.
Tomek was a third round selection in the NHL Draft this past summer, whereas Jurusik was not selected, even though four NAHL goalies were taken in the Draft. Tomek has some stellar international performances under his belt with Slovakia, whereas Jurusik's only international appearance came when he got bombed at the 2014 Ivan Hlinka U18 tournament. Tomek was highly-recruited by a number of top NCAA schools, whereas Jurusik was still available late into this past summer. Tomek will also have the advantage of the most talented blue line in college hockey protecting him, while Jurusik is joining a team that finished 55th nationally in shots allowed per game and lost perhaps their most talented defenseman in Jack Dougherty to major juniors over the summer.
Jurusik is by no means a terrible goalie. But it takes some extreme talent for a goalie to handle playing college hockey at that age, and there's relatively little to suggest he's ready to handle that at this stage.