What's Wrong with Minnesota Gophers Hockey?

In the past three seasons, the Minnesota Gophers hockey program have finished no better than fifth in the WCHA standings, and have just one NCAA tourney appearance, getting bounced in the first round in 2007-08. Halfway through the 2010-11 season, they're barely above .500 overall, and are clinging to fifth in the conference once again. This has been the longest stretch of mediocrity for Gopher hockey since everyone's favorite Glen Sonmor/Ken Yackel, Sr. Era in the early 1970's. Sonmor took over for some guy named John Marriucci (apparently he was a pretty big deal. They named a rink after him or something) and finished 8th, 5th, and 5th in his first three WCHA seasons. He then won the WCHA regular season title in 1969/70 before another 5th place finish (and a 14-17-2 record) in '70/71 and a 1-7 start the next season got him canned and replaced by Yackel. The team would finish 10th that year, prompting the hire of a former Gopher player and Minnesotan named Herb Brooks in 1972. After a 6th place finish his first season, Brooks would go on to become a hockey coaching legend in not just the state, but the country.

So that was the last time Gopher hockey went three years or more with no top four finishes in the WCHA. Head Coach Don Lucia is the second Gopher coach (along with Sonmor) to survive three straight seasons with no top-four finishes in the WCHA, and there's a strong possibility he'll be the first to ever make it four this season.

Now, I'm not here to call for the head of Coach Lucia. He's forgotten more about hockey than I'll ever know, and as a two-time national champion at the U, the man can obviously coach. But clearly, the past three seasons, and now potentially a fourth, the program has fallen well below the standards that Gopher hockey fans have come to expect. What we're here to analyze is why things have gone wrong under such a good coach, and any possible solutions. As Gopher fans, we and coach Lucia have something in common- we all want to see the Gopher hockey program return to glory.

Today in part I we explore a shift that's affecting all of college hockey, as well as player development at the U...

College hockey is experiencing a pretty substantial shift, similar to what happened in college hoops in the mid 1990's: more and more top American players either are only staying a year or two in college, or are avoiding the college game altogether. It used to be you could count on top recruits and drafted players staying three or four seasons, but because of the new collective bargaining agreement the NHL made in 2005 which implented a salary cap, more teams are pulling their young guys out of college and into the pros sooner because it's more cost effective. Gone are the days of NHL super teams that can pay top dollar for as many players as they want. With the cap in place, you can only have so many big money players, and your reserve roles need to be filled by up-and-comers who make a low or minimum salary. You can find those guys in the minors, or you can bring some of your top young prospects out early to try and make the team.

Minnesota had one of the first cases with forward Kyle Okposo, who was drafted 7th overall by the New York Islanders in the 2006 draft. Okposo scored 40 points as a freshman at Minnesota in 2006-07, but played only 18 games as a sophomore before the Islanders signed him before Christmas of 2007. The news was a shocker to the college hockey world, as teams generally never pull a player from his college team midseason. That was bad enough, and the reason given made it worse: according to a Strib story published Dec. 20, 2007 when Okposo turned pro, Islanders GM Garth Snow claimed he pulled the youngster out of the Gopher program because he didn't think Lucia was developing him well enough.

"Quite frankly, we weren't happy with the program there," Snow said in a telephone interview. "They have a responsibility to coach, to make Kyle a better player, and they were not doing that."

There have been some other reports since then that NHL brass don't think Lucia develops his players well enough for the next level. In an excellent and thorough piece this past summer written for Let's Play Hockey, Kevin Kurtt chronicles the state of the program and looks at all of the early departures the Gophers have suffered under Lucia (31 have left the program early, with 19 of them turning pro). In it, Kurtt references a Strib article from 2009 that quotes then chief scout of the Minnesota Wild saying similar disparaging things about Lucia's program and the way he develops kids for the pros.

Yet despite what some NHL folks may or may not think, as Kurtt notes in his story, it certainly hasn't hurt Lucia's recruiting. It's obvious high school-aged players with NHL aspirations have zero concerns about Lucia's coaching and development, as there's been more than 40 guys who have played for The Don and been drafted by the NHL. Just this past fall, Lucia landed another monster recruiting class, which included six kids who were taken in the 2010 entry draft, including three taken in the first two rounds, and he has more lined up for his 2011 class and beyond.

Of course, this puts the program in a "catch 22" situation: the more drafted players he recruits, the more likely they are to turn pro early. It leaves the Gophs in situations like this season where they're forced to compete with a pretty young team. Talented, sure, but look around college hockey, and the most successful teams are usually the most veteran groups. #2 UND, who Minnesota just played, are a great example, as they have an all-senior first line and a veteran defensive corps, with some younger kids to compliment the older guys. Take another look at some of those top programs on sites like College Hockey News who list whether players have been drafted, and you'll notice fewer drafted players, and certainly few high draft picks, on the rosters of the best teams.

These programs have adapted to another part of the seismic shift in college hockey where more and more American kids are skipping the college experience altogether (and in some cases, their last year or two of high school) and playing junior hockey, either in Canada in one of the CHL leagues (WHL, OHL, or QMJHL), or in the States in the USHL. Players who go to major junior in Canada (the CHL) are automatically ineligible as the NCAA considers them paid players (they actually get paid very, very little, but hey it's yet another ridiculous NCAA rule). USHL kids are still qualified to play NCAA hockey, and this is where we've seen the best programs of the past few years letting players play out their teens in junior before bringing them to the college game. Sure you don't get the experience of following a kid right out of high school, but more seasoned, older players certainly make a difference.

The Don certainly understands this, as he was quoted in a Goal Gopher blog post this week:

(Lucia) still wants to recruit the high-end talent but believes the one-and-done players probably hurt you more than they help. He said he is trying to get a blend, including players who will stay four years.

He also talked extensively in a CHN interview this past summer about the changes the college game is going through, and how he plans to adapt to it. From his comments there he understands schools that made the Frozen Four last year like RIT and Bemidji State were "a bunch of 22- and 23-year olds. They were grizzled vets. They aren't going to play in the NHL. We've got to find a way to have that." It sounds like, however, that Lucia would still prefer to recruit kids that are going to stay all four years, and get some kids he can mold and graduate throughout their time at Minnesota. I'm guessing most Gopher fans would prefer it this way too, but in today's changing landscape, is it practical? Can Lucia find the "blend" he talks about? The past couple of seasons, he has encouraged some recruits to play juniors out of high school (Lucia is obviously in a tough spot here. I would say nowhere is high school hockey more important than in Minnesota, and considering his roster is almost entirely made of Minnesotans, he has to be VERY careful if he's going to tell a kid to go play junior instead of staying in high school) for a year or two before joining the Gophers, while, as mentioned earlier, still bringing in a slough of high-profile recruits.

There IS one thing helping to work against the exodus of top American kids playing juniors, and that is that more kids are playing hockey in non-traditional markets than ever before. in 2010 for the first time ever three kids from the state of California were drafted in the first round of the NHL draft, and we're also seeing players drafted from Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Texas. Southern California, with so much wealth and suburbia (as any hockey player or parent knows, it's more expensive than ever to play the game. Therefore it's no such coincedence that the best high school teams in the Metro are usually from wealthy suburbs like Edina, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Woodbury), is becoming a hockey hotbed for talent, and we're seeing players from there go to top college hockey programs, as well as the WHL in Canada.

Which brings us to idea of the "All-Minnesota" Gophers. As an outsider, I've never liked this idea. I mean, I get it- as Minnesotans you'd love to have all of the best players from the state of Minnesota playing for the Gophers and winning WCHA and National Titles. The Gophers won two national titles under Lucia with a roster made up almost entirely of Minnesotans: Grant Potulny (from Grand Forks) was the only non-Minnesotan on the 2002 team. On the 2003 team Potulny, Peter Kennedy (a dirty Canadian. How did they let a Canuck on the team?), and some guy named Thomas Vanek from Austria were the only non-Minnesotans.

So clearly the idea HAS worked. The question is, with more Americans from outside the state playing the game than ever before, and with more top prospects leaving college early- or not attending school at all- can it still work in today's college hockey environment? We'll tackle that question in Part II.

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