Gophers led by new faces this season

Minnesota lost a handful of players to the NHL and will start fresh.

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox grabs the puck during a game against Minnesota State on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, at Mariucci Arena.

Ichigo Takikawa, Daily File Photo

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox grabs the puck during a game against Minnesota State on Friday, Nov. 2, 2012, at Mariucci Arena.

Megan Ryan

A lot has changed in a year for the Gophers men’s hockey team.

Minnesota lost five juniors to the NHL and graduated its lone senior. Then before the season even started, freshman Tommy Vannelli left the team, and head coach Don Lucia suspended freshman Gabe Guertler indefinitely for violating team rules.

“It’s a completely new team,” Lucia said.

And to top it off, Minnesota left the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and joined the new Big Ten hockey conference, along with Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State.

But the Gophers will have time to adjust with an exhibition game against Lethbridge on Saturday and about two months of nonconference action against many familiar WCHA teams. The Big Ten season finally kicks off in late November.

Minnesota will need that time to complete the puzzle of a roster it has this year.

Along with the departures, the Gophers welcomed seven incoming freshmen — five forwards and two defenders. They’ll also see the first action of redshirt freshman forward Connor Reilly this year after he tore a ligament in his right knee before the start of last season.

Lucia said his team was further ahead at this point last year, with all the veteran players on the roster. It’s a different story this year with all the new faces, and his lineup is far from solidified.

“I really don’t have a clue who should play with who at this point,” Lucia said, “so we’re going to have to do a lot of moving guys around [in the] early part of this season.”

Against Lethbridge, Lucia has the opportunity to dress more than 20 players. Lucia said the only exceptions will be the suspended Guertler and junior forward Sam Warning, who he’ll rest as a precaution after a minor injury in practice.

Lucia said he will use the Lethbridge game to exercise his roster and will probably rest most of the older players after a period or so.

“This is a great evaluation of our younger guys — guys who we may have to look to expand their roles this upcoming season,” Lucia said. “It’s our one dry run. We don’t get six, seven exhibition games like the NHL.”

This team may be young, but there are still some leaders remaining. Senior forward Nate Condon and junior forward Kyle Rau are captains this season and will anchor the Gophers’ offense.

Senior defenseman Jake Parenteau said while the captains will lead the team, they won’t have all the scoring pressure.

“We don’t have to look for a certain player to score a big goal,” Parenteau said. “We’ve all got to be that guy this year.”

Sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox had a breakout freshman campaign between the pipes, averaging a .921 save percentage and a 1.88 goals-against average.

Lucia said having a solid goalie in the net is comforting.

“He didn’t have to make a lot of saves last year — he’ll probably see a few more pucks this year — but he made the timely save,” Lucia said. “He was very consistent last year, and we’re going to need that same type of performance from him this year.”

Wilcox isn’t letting last season’s successes gloss this season’s expectations.

“Last year was its own story,” he said. “Now I’ve got to open up a new book for this season.”

And last year’s book ended with a bitter ending.

The Gophers tied for first in the WCHA regular season but lost to Colorado College in the conference tournament. Then the team suffered an upset loss to eventual NCAA champion Yale in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Big Ten named sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly as a player to watch in the preseason and picked the Gophers to finish second to Wisconsin. Reilly said he is ready to wash last year’s sour taste from his mouth.

“I was kind of disappointed about last year, obviously as a team, and just how the ending went for me as well,” Reilly said. “I want to step up and try to contribute more. And be [better] at both ends of the ice.”