The puck will drop on the 2019-20 Big Ten season this weekend as all seven teams begin non-conference play.
The Big Ten’s seven conference teams enter the campaign with a broad spectrum of expectations. Powerhouses including Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Penn State are jumping at another crack for a national championship after recent strings of success.
Meanwhile, Michigan and Minnesota are hoping to stabilize after a few rollercoaster seasons of mixed success with new talent and changing cultures. Following up the pack are Michigan State and Wisconsin, which have been basement dwellers for a couple of years.
Regardless of expectations, each team is facing their own questions in 2019-20 — and some are easier to answer than others.
Michigan: Can the new prospects lead the way?
The Wolverines’ locker room door might as well be replaced with a revolving one, as high-end NHL prospects walk out nearly as soon as they walk in. That’s far from a knock on the program, which has developed the likes of former first-round draft picks Dylan Larkin, Kyle Connor, Zach Werenski, and Quinn Hughes in recent years.
Now, with three new NHL blue-chips joining the team in Cam York, John Beecher, and Eric Ciccolini, the team has been somewhat replenished with the same tier of skill expected from any NHL prospect. The trio could be the difference in a bounce-back in Ann Arbor.
Michigan State: Will the depth see development?
The Spartans have just three winning seasons since 2007-08 and haven’t won more than 12 games since 2014-15. A valley in top-tier recruiting has forced players to play above their overall projected roles, and now a top line is in desperate need of support.
Patrick Khodorenko and Mitch Lewandowski will be without 2018-19 NCAA leading scorer Taro Hirose, and if the Spartans plan on being competitive, they’ll need the rest of the team to help carry the offense.
Minnesota: Can the offense bring the…offense?
Gone are the top three scorers, gone are five of the top eight scorers, and with them all, a combined 54 goals. Those 54 goals made up 46 percent of the team’s total from last season (118 goals). Add in the depth departures and the Gophers are losing a total of 52 percent of their goals from 2018-19.
The upside is the promising freshman campaigns from Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin, in addition to six other freshmen-turned-sophomores eager for more responsibility. Minutes will be up for grabs; now it’s time for those prepped with the offense to earn them.
Notre Dame: Is this the year?
After just two seasons in the Big Ten, the Irish have amassed a 51-24-5 overall record. They’ve claimed two conference tournaments and extended a two-year NCAA Tournament streak into four. Success only feels so good when it doesn’t bring the ultimate goal, one the Irish are primed for in 2019-20.
Regardless of turnover, Jeff Jackson’s team is deep, disciplined, and hungry for the program’s first NCAA championship. Many of the Irish players learned what it took in 2018, falling to Minnesota-Duluth 2-1 in the final game. Following what the program would call a short postseason this past year, the Irish are aiming for another shot at the title.
Ohio State: Can Tommy Nappier handle the workload?
Ignoring the loss of two of the team’s top three scorers — including leading scorer Mason Jobst — and three of the seven to hit the 20-point plateau, the offense isn’t the biggest question facing the Buckeyes.
As a freshman, goalie Tommy Nappier went 4-0 with a 1.33 goals against average, .956 save percentage, and one shutout. Last season, he went 12-4-3 with a 1.86 GAA, .934 SV%, and four shutouts. Now, the junior is likely to be one of the biggest workhorses in the NCAA and should crack 2,000 minutes; how he holds up will determine the Buckeyes’ NCAA Tournament hopes.
Penn State: Can they defend like they can deke?
The high-flying Nittany Lions scored 21 more goals (177 total) than the next-highest team last season. Impeccable depth with all but two of their top 10 scorers returning will help them repeat the electric goal output.
But the ice was hardly tilted for the Lions, who also surrendered the third-most goals (139 total) of any team last season. Of the top 20 teams for scoring margin last year, only one other team allowed more than 100 goals against. For a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations, they’ll need to recall the old adage “defense wins championships.”
Wisconsin: Can the recruits come through?
Tony Granato led the Badgers to a 20-15-1 record in 2016-17, his first year as head coach of his alma mater. Since then, a pair of 14-win seasons has dragged his overall collegiate record to 48-52-10. Recruiting for a new coach usually takes a few years and hints of success to turn a program around.
Now entering his fourth year, Granato’s fingerprints should be all over the roster and his recruits should help get the storied program back on track. A lot of this season should hinge on the underclassmen, notably freshmen Cole Caulfield and Alex Turcotte, but also sophomore defenseman K’Andre Miller.
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