Early on the top three forward lines have mostly fallen into place, Don Lucia said.
The men’s hockey team kicks off 2016-17 late Friday night (Saturday morning if you’re reading this on the East Coast) against Alaska-Anchorage. After a day off Minnesota will play the Alaska Nanooks at 7 p.m. CT. Both games can be streamed online at WCHA.TV for $8.99 apiece. Those not paying for amazing Anchorage local commercials can also listen to ESPN 1500 in the Twin Cities and 1500ESPN.com around the world.
Minnesota returns eight of its top-nine forwards from a season ago. With such competition and both Mike Szmatula, a transfer coming in after scoring 29 points at Northeastern, and USHL Player of the Year Rem Pitlick, the difficulties of finding spots for everyone could be a problem.
“The way it is now ten guys have separated themselves. All ten can’t be in the top nine so we’ll have to allow that to play itself out,” said Lucia.
To begin the year Justin Kloos is centering Taylor Cammarata and Szmatula on the top line. Tyler Sheehy and Tommy Novak are with Connor Reilly. The third line is comprised of Vinni Lettieri, Leon Bristedt and Pitlick.
(Finishing off the forward lines is sophomore Darian Romanko centering the fourth line with fellow classmates Brent Gates Jr., Ryan Norman and Jack Ramsey. Freshmen Joey Marooney and Luke Notermann find themselves likely spending the early part of the season scratched.)
All three lines share some chemistry. Kloos and Cammarata are longtime linemates going back to juniors who ended the season together. Lettieri and Bristedt did as well. Sheehy and Novak played together in juniors while Reilly spent parts of last season with both players, finishing with Sheehy.
That said, the lines are nowhere near set in stone. Lucia is not afraid to tinker early if someone is not contributing or fitting on a line.
“Based on what we’ve seen there’s still spots. We’ll rotate some guys in some different lineup areas, but there’s a lot of returning guys,” said Lucia. “The freshmen and sophomores, they have to make more of an impact too.”
The big news of the day is Lucia and the University of Minnesota finalizing a two-year contract extension through 2018-19.
I wrote a season preview for the St. Paul Pioneer Press focusing upon sophomore goaltender Eric Schierhorn. In case you missed it earlier in the week, Gopher commit Casey Mittelstadt (Eden Prairie) begins his draft eligible season projected to be a first round pick by NHL Central Scouting.
Jack Glover out for Alaska series
Minnesota enters the season healthy with one exception. Junior defenseman Jack Glover underwent offseason shoulder surgery and will miss this weekend’s series as a precaution. He did practice Wednesday without a no-contact jersey and is expected back for next Friday’s exhibition against the United State U-18 team.
“The doctors wanted to make sure that he had two full weeks of practice under contact before he played,” said Lucia.
Glover’s status gives Lucia a better chance to look at a pair of freshmen making their Gopher debut in Ryan Lindgren and Ryan Zuhlsdorf.
Reilly confident and healthy
Optimism shows up in spades during the preseason. Redshirt senior Connor Reilly enters the season a year and a half removed from major knee surgery (his third) confident after being able to have a full offseason.
“Last year was a big challenge mentally, one of the hardest years I’ve had. I was just critical of myself whenever I leaved the rink,” he said. “I can honestly say this is probably the first time in three years that my brain and my body are working together.”
Reilly, who has been open about his struggles, finished last season with 20 points. He was able to start skating two weeks after the season ended, as opposed to having rehab and build up strength and skating during the offseason.
This summer flew by quickly, he said.
“I feel great skating. I have got no knee pain,” said Reilly. “All of a sudden I have a clear head playing and that’s honestly the biggest thing because my knee feels good all of a sudden my hands and shot feel good. I actually want the puck on my stick.”
Locker Room Renovations
Minnesota renovated its locker room area over the summer as part of a $5 million project, much to the delight of the players.
“It’s incredible. It’s amazing. It’s definitely something special and shows a lot of tradition that we have here. You feel lucky to be a part of the program when you walk in there,” said Jake Bischoff.
The renovation puts everything downstairs. Previously different areas were spread across Mariucci Arena. Besides a locker room with all the bells and whistles, there’s a lounge where Bischoff said the players would come in on Sundays to watch Vikings games and bond. It’s a more collective space.
One side effect of the new locker room is that the visiting team now has to enter through the zamboni entrance to get to the bench. That’s par for the course in the Big Ten where every other building has the visitors enter through a separate entrance from their locker room (or in the case of Yost a black curtain masquerading as one).
Unlike everyone ever on “Property Brothers,” several players decided to wait until the project was over to be blown away.
“I didn’t take a peek all summer just because I wanted a surprise. It blew away my expectations. First day walking in there it wasn’t real life. I thought it would take a day or two to hit me,” said Reilly, not having to be told by Johnathan that he couldn’t be back until it was time for the big reveal. (Okay maybe I said more about how I spent my own summer.)
“We literally went from the outhouse to the penthouse.”
Stecklein, alums named to US Four Nations Cup Team
Fresh off a season-opening series sweep of Lindenwood the Gopher women head to Bemidji for a tough early season series against the Beavers. Bemidji State’s suffocating defense has been one of the bigger challenges for Minnesota’s offense recently.
Off the ice, Minnesota defender and redshirt senior captain Lee Stecklein was one of three current collegians named to Team USA for the Four Nations Cup in Vierumaki, Finland. (BC’s Megan Keller and Wisconsin forward Annie Pankowski are the others.) She is joined by four alums: Megan Bozek, Hannah Brandt, Amanda Kessel and Anne Schleper. It’s a return to the national team for both Brandt and Kessel, who hasn’t worn a USA sweater since the 2014 Olympics.
The tournament runs from November 1-5, meaning Stecklein will miss Minnesota’s series against Minnesota State. There’s a chance she gets joined by sophomore Sarah Potomak, who represented Team Canada in the 2015 Four Nations, as the Canadians have yet to announce its roster.
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 -- Follow @gopherstate