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Gopher Hockey: Five 2016-17 Storylines To Follow

Vinni Lettieri (Matt Christians) Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

Look, the sun rises.

Once again the start of another season is upon us. “It’s a new team and you start the process all over again,” was how Minnesota head coach Don Lucia described the dawn of the year.

Previously I wrote a feature called “5 Big Ten Storylines To Follow In 2016-17” which touched on various storylines throughout the Big Ten.

For the Minnesota folks that follow me, I wanted to do something more Gopher-specific.

Here are five storylines on the ice I will be following along the course over the season. Thankfully Lucia’s contract situation solved itself yesterday so one lingering question was answered, even if whether the continued malaise among the Mariucci faithful remains unansked.

Will the Gophers improve in non-conference play?

Minnesota always enters the year with high expectations from its fanbase. It comes with the territory. If not NCAAs or bust, it’s Frozen Four or bust, or national championship or bust. This season is no different as the Gophers have the expectation of once again winning the Big Ten and making the NCAA Tournament.

To get back to the latter after missing the NCAA Tournament a year ago, it needs to improve in non-conference play where Minnesota struggled a year ago and cost themselves a berth with a few blown leads against top non-conference teams late at home. It won’t be easy with the schedule - the non-conference portion features 7 different ranked teams, including #1 North Dakota - but if the Gophers can win more than the 5 games it did a year ago it’ll be in a better position once the conference portion begins.

Continuity: Do Mike Szmatula and Rem Pitlick replace Hudson Fasching’s scoring? Do special teams improve?

Returning eight of the top ten scorers in a league where offense reigns supreme (led by Leon Bristedt’s 20) is one of Minnesota’s biggest strengths.

The Gophers are a team which to be successful will need to roll three productive forward lines and rely upon its depth. There are no elite goal scorers like Nick Bjugstads or Thomas Vaneks in the lineup. While Hudson Fasching’s 20 goals will need to be replaced, a pair of players have the opportunity in Northeastern transfer Mike Szmatula, who had 13 goals in 2014-15, and USHL Player of the Year Rem Pitlick, who had 46 goals.

I’m also interested in whether continuity helps special teams play. The penalty kill in particular struggled with consistency at times before finding its footing for stretches. Improving from a season where Minnesota was on average one of the worst penalty kills (sub 80% in both conference and non-conference, finishing 56th out of 60 teams with 77.6%) is a tangible step.

Can Ryan Collins bounce back from a second half where Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head?

At the end of the first half then-sophomore Ryan Collins played a role in a 3-2 victory over Michigan and got to see his billet family before heading off to Boston for the US WJC camp. Then the wheels fell off.

Collins was one of the final cuts on the eve of the tournament. He came back and struggled defensively, making gaffes and bouncing in and out of the lineup culminating with a stretch of being healthy scratched four times in a five game stretch.

Sometimes the best thing mentally is to take some time and hit the reset button. With the benefit of an offseason to get back, will the 6’6” defenseman look more like his freshman and sophomore self?

How do the freshmen D fit in?

A pair of Ryans join Collins on the blue line in Ryan Lindgren and Ryan Zuhlsdorf. There are some things to be excited about both whether it’s Lindgren’s two-way play or Zuhlsdorf’s offensive playmaking ability.

Being a freshman defenseman can be difficult so I’m interested in seeing how the duo fit with the experienced blue line. What will their role be? Can they be brought along slowly as other players (i.e. Jack Sadek, Jake Bischoff his first two years) have been? Can they contribute?

Who steps up?

Every season someone unexpected usually seems to put the pieces together to be a major contributor.

This one can go into one of two different ways. The first sees one of the sophomore forwards like a Tommy Novak or Tyler Sheehy or Brent Gates Jr. to find their scoring touch in the second year. There is room to grow. As a group of six forwards they only scored 25 goals. 12 of those were from Sheehy. (Jack Ramsey and Darian Romanko are both looking for their first.)

The other option sees a senior who hasn’t been “the guy” step up and become one of the leaders. Someone like Vinni Lettieri or Taylor Cammarata or Jake Bischoff. These are players that have shown sparks of being capable to break through barriers but haven’t been able to consistently.

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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 --