Since we're having winter weather, why not a Gopher hockey post? Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And add vodka. Or something. The Gophers are moving on from last year's disappointing season as they have chosen their captain already for the upcoming 2011-12 season. So let's do the same, by looking at the players they lose from last season's roster, and who is coming back.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
No easy way to say it, but the Gophers lose a lot as they graduate seven seniors, and one junior to the pros. Gone are four of their top five scorers, including their top three scoring forwards in Jacob Cepis (12G-17A-29 PTS), captain Jay Barriball (12-16-28), and Mike Hoeffell (13-11-24). As good as those guys were, a bigger loss will be felt on defense. The Gophs knew they would graduate their top two defensemen in Cade Fairchild (6-18-24) and Kevin Wehrs (3-11-14), but what really stung was when junior Aaron Ness (2-12-14) decided to turn pro and sign with the Islanders. It was hoped Ness would be back to lead a very young group, but as it stands, looks like the young d-men will have to find a way to lead themselves.
The Gophs also lost third line center Patrick White (5-5-10), and starter-turned-backup goalie Alex Kangas (.894 save % and 3.71 GAA in 9 games).
(well except maybe the coaches)
So the past four seasons under head coach Don Lucia has been the worst four year stretch for any single coach in the program's history. That's, like, ever. And yet not only is The Don returning for another run at a WCHA home playoff series, and maybe, just maybe, a trip the Final Five (the NCAA tournament? Come on, that's a FAR too lofty goal! Let's just hope we're the third best team in Minnesota next year), but he may bring back his entire coaching staff (As commenter Skhamlin points out, the assistant coaching contracts expire April 30th. So we'll see if all of the coaches return, or if maybe, just maybe, we avoid more insanity and Lucia makes some staff changes). Yep, when Joel Maturi is in charge, not only is there no accountability for turning the premier program in college hockey into the third or fourth best in Minnesota, but...sorry I blacked out for a minute there in frustration.
Anyway, the only thing that makes sense (besides the belief that Maturi is more interested in friendships than a winning hockey program) is that Maturi has either been told, or has decided on his own, that he's not going to make another head coaching decision until new incoming school president Eric Kaler decides who the athletic director is going to be. IF that's the case, I guess it makes sense that whomever Maturi would hire might not be the guy Kaler or the new AD wants. Still, that means we're pretty much punting the 2011-12 season in hopes The Don regains his coaching form that saw him guide this program to back-to-back national titles almost 10 YEARS AGO, instead of continuing to take this program in the opposite direction, which would be careening out of control off a cliff.
And come on, even if that IS the case, couldn't Maturi at least force Lucia to bring in some new assistants? No? Is that too much to ask? We'll find out come April 30th. As some dude named Einstein once said "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
The returning players after the jump...
No better place to start than here since this is where the reigning team MVP plays. Kent Patterson was nothing short of a revelation, taking Kangas' starting spot after the veteran struggled to start the year, and provided great goaltending the entire season. In the regular season he led the conference in save % (.926) and was second in GAA (2.31) despite being tied for most saves made (689). He saw a lot of shots and stopped an ungodly amount, which is good because with such a young defense in front of him, he's going to have to do it again in 2011-12 for the Gophers to have much of a chance.
Patterson's backup, Jake Kremer, is also returning, but was a practice goalie his entire Gopher career before Kangas got hurt last season. So yeah, Patterson's play AND his health is kinda, sorta important.
Without Ness this is a VERY young defensive core. They're not lacking talent certainly, but playing in the WCHA with mostly freshmen and sophomores could be an adventure. I'm sure Kent Patterson could use other words to describe it, but hey, let's hope these kids grow up in a hurry. Seth Helgeson (1-5-6) becomes the defacto "veteran" defenseman, as there'll be no seniors and he'll be the only junior. He hasn't been a big scorer, but at 6'5 and 220 he's a bear in his own end, was a +7 last year, and likes to mix it up (66 penalty minutes which easily led the team).
The guy who the spotlight will shine brightest on, however, is Mark Alt, another rangy defender at 6'3, but who has much more offensive potential. His scoring numbers from last year don't jump out at you (2-8-10), but he's big, physical, moves the puck well, and has a big shot, and his offense should mature as he's given more ice time and power play time. At least we hope.
The other three returning d-men were also freshmen last year like Alt. Justin Holl (1-6-7) played quite a bit last year, while Nate Schmidt played sparingly (0-1-1 in just 13 games) and Jake Parenteau (no points in 8 games) hardly at all. I'm going to go out on a limb and say some of the incoming freshmen defensemen are going to have to step up in a big way behind the top 3 guys.
While the Gophs lost a ton of scoring and talent up front, I'm not as worried here. Mostly because it seems like an annual tradition where the top forwards leave and someone else steps up to take their place, and they do it pretty well. The real bonus is despite some big losses on the wings, Minnesota returns their top two centers in sophomores-to-be Nick Bjugstad and Eric Haula. Haula is the team's returning scoring leader (6-18-24) and really came on after Christmas. He also led the entire team in +/- last year at +10, so expect to see him play-and play a lot- in all situations. Yet Haula's well-rounded game tends to get overshadowed by Bjugstad, the former Blaine star who was a first round pick of Florida in last year's draft, but never put it all together in his freshman season (8-12-20). Like Haula he did improve as the season went along and could be in for a big sophomore season. He's the total package with size (6'4), skill and a good hockey IQ, and if he plays anywhere close to his potential, it'll be both good and bad for Gopher hockey: good because he's a game-changer and it should mean the Gophers play well. Bad because he'll almost assuredly turn pro with Florida, but that's the way it is in college hockey today.
There's also plenty of good talent to surround the two young centers. Taylor Mattson (10-3-13) will be one of four returning seniors, and was named captain for the 2011-12 season. The other three are Jake Hansen (11-9-20), Nick Larson (5-6-11), and Nico Sacchetti (3-4-7. Oh, and say "Nico Sacchetti" a few times in your best Italian accent. Never gets old. Yes, I'm a dork). Add three more kids who played well as freshmen in Nate Condon (8-9-17), Tom Serratore (2-2-4) and Max Gardiner (1-2-3), and there's plenty of depth up front. Oh, and talent too. Every guy I've mentioned who plays forward (with the exception of Serratore) is an NHL draft pick.
And this doesn't include the guy who, outside of Patterson, might be the most important player the Gophers will have returning next season. That would be power forward Zach Budish, who only played in the first seven games last year before a knee injury ended his season Novemeber 1 (damn mopeds!). It was his second knee injury in three seasons, as he missed his senior year of high school because of one too. IF Budish is back 100%, or anywhere close to it, he'll be an absolute force up front for the Gophers, and will provide a key element the U lacked last year: a big guy up front who can be physical and score. At 6'3 and 221 Budish is the perfect prototype for a power forward, and it would be SO nice to have him hitting people, getting into the difficult areas in front of the net on a regular basis, and hopefully scoring a lot of goals. He was playing with the Gophs top line by the end of his freshman season and likely would have stayed there had he not been hurt last year. You just don't see many guys in college hockey with his blend of size, strength and skill, and if he's ready to go, he could make a "big" difference (Pun totally intended) for Minnesota in 2011-12.