The Time is Now for Gopher Hockey to Win the National Title

This is likely Nick Bjugstad's last month in a Gopher sweater, and he may not be alone. - Jonathan Daniel

The MacNaughton Cup winners and #2 seed in the WCHA playoffs are also #2 in the Pairwise Rankings and both national polls heading into the playoffs. Considering how many players from their loaded lineup could be lost to the pros after the season, the time is now for Don Lucia and the Gophers to win it all.

The Gophers are seeing the number 2 a lot as they head towards the playoffs this weekend: #2 in the all-important Pairwise rankings, #2 in both national polls, and the #2 seed in the WCHA playoffs. But the number they're likely focused on is #1, as in finishing the season as not just the best team in the WCHA, but in the entire country. Don Lucia said on his radio show last night that they're going to treat the first game of every weekend from here on out as a semi-final game: they need to win that first one to get to the championship game in the next one. It's a great mind set considering they (hopefully) could only have two games this weekend in the opening round against Bemidji, then it would be the semis of the Final Five, then what is essentially a "semi-final" in a regional. IF they beat Bemidji Friday night, it gives them a chance to advance the next night. They win the Final Five semi the next weekend, they'd advance to the Final Five championship game the next. Win the regional semi the following week, and it's on the regional final in the next game. Win that...and it's back to the Frozen Four semi's for the last set of semi final/finals weekends.

We don't want to look too far ahead, and certainly, for those that believe in such things, we don't want to jinx the Golden Gophers, but let's be real here: this season should be about winning the national title. It not only should be, but it needs to be considering how many players the Gophers could potentially lose after the season. Yes, they only have one senior on the roster in defenseman Seth Helgeson, but while it's certainly possible that everybody else will return, it's certainly not probable. Over on SB Nation's Wisconsin Badgers blog Bucky's Fifth Quarter, Andy Johnson wrote a column this morning about the WCHA's potential early departures, and a whopping EIGHT Gophers made his list. He divided it into four categories of Gone, Probably Gone, Possibly Gone and an Outside Chance, and he thinks four of the eight players from the U are Gone (junior C Nick Bjugstad) or Probably Gone (fellow juniors Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish).

Bjugstad, a first round pick of Florida in the 2010 draft, is about as sure a thing to go as there is in the conference. At 6'6 he doesn't have blazing speed but possesses everthing else the NHL would look for in a top two center, and while his season has been a bit up and down, he really has nothing left to prove at the collegiate level. He returned for his junior season because of the pending NHL lockout and also because the Panthers have a logjam of kids ready to go, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Bjugstad breaks camp with the Panthers next fall. Putting Haula, Schmidt and especially Budish in the "Probably Gone" category might seem a bit surprising, but Andy's reasoning is sound:

All three players have the ability to become free agents at the conclusion of the season. Schmidt was not drafted, and Haula and Budish have been drafted at least four seasons ago. Like Justin Schultz, they will also be able to become free agents.

As a puck-moving offensive defenseman that can skate, Schmidt will be highly sought after by NHL clubs. Haula reportedly likes it in Minnesota and very well could sign with the Wild, who drafted him in 2009. Budish has some skill to go along with his NHL body, which makes him a perfect third- or fourth-line role player on the right NHL team down the road.

After his breakout sophomore season last year and another strong showing this year, I'd say Schmidt is as good as gone. I do wish the NHL would revisit the idea that an NHL team can only hold a player's draft rights for four seasons, because it's going to force Haula and Budish's hand here. Haula, like Schmidt, has been very good for the past two seasons, and as Minnesota's leading scorer each of the past two seasons doesn't have much of anything left to prove in college, yet he's very unlikely to crack the Wild's roster next season and is looking at spending the year in Houston in the AHL. Selfishly, I'd say he'd be just as well served being The Man for his senior season at The U with Bjugstad gone, but the Wild aren't going to risk losing him for nothing so consider him a goner too. Budish, thanks to two major knee surgeries, hasn't fulfilled the promise that made him a 2nd round pick of Nashville back in 2009, but as Andy said, he has a chance to play in the NHL as a bottom six forward. Still, one more year wouldn't hurt him, and we'll see how the Preds feel about losing his draft rights after the season. Remember, if a team doesn't want to lose a player's rights they HAVE to sign him to a pro contract.

Andy thinks Nate Condon is a possibility to leave for the Colorado Avalanche's farm system, and he has had a heck of a year. That one would especially sting for 2013-14 considering he's likely a lock for a top six forward spot (or perhaps even top line) and top power play unit. The last category of "Outside Chance" lists three Gopher players in sophomore wing Kyle Rau (another Florida draft pick), freshman defenseman Brady Skjei (a 1st rounder of the NY Rangers in 2012), and junior D man Mark Alt (a 2nd round pick of Carolina in 2010 whose rights were traded to Philly this season). Despite having by far the best collegiate career of those three, I actually think Rau is the least likely to go pro. I definitely think Rau has an NHL future as despite his size (generously listed at 5'7) a kid with those hands, a real knack for always being in the right place at the right time, and a God-given gift to get under opponents' skin and piss people off...yeah the NHL most definitely has room for a guy like that. But not yet. He's slumped a bit in the past six weeks, and can not only still improve his game in a Gopher uniform next season, but could take on a leadership role as well which would only help his development. Maybe the Panthers get worried about him not playing with Bjugstad next year, but considering how loaded Florida's system is and that Rau would be almost guaranteed to spend next season in the AHL, I hope (and that's admittedly a biased opinion) Rau and the Panthers feel it best for him to come back for his junior year.

I heard from someone I trust that despite a less than stellar season, Alt is seriously considering going pro. Despite a glut of quality defenseman, Alt has been in the top six all season, and I would be shocked if, as a senior next year, he wouldn't be in the top six or even top four if he came back. Maybe Alt's physical style at 6'3 and 200+ pounds will translate better to the smaller sheets in the pros than he usually skates on in college, but his offensive game has regressed as he put up 22 points last season, but has no goals and just seven assists in 35 games this year. Maybe he's worried about his production or stalled development, or maybe this is being pushed by Philadelphia, but apparently there's a chance of it happening. I have no such insider information on Skjei, but his lack of development this season (just a goal and two assists and was a healthy scratch two weeks ago) as a prized first round pick worries me. Brady should have ample ice-time and power play opportunity next season to work on his game and develop, but you wonder how jittery the Rangers will be with their player? Lucia has a VERY strong track record of sending defenseman to the pros, including Alex Goligoski, Nick Leddy, Erik Johnson, Paul Martin, Jordan Leopold and Keith Ballard, so that hopefully alleviates NY's concerns. Then again both Johnson and Leddy left after their freshman season, so anything's possible.

So with Minnesota set to lose at least four- and potentially more- players from this year's stacked squad, the time is now for Don Lucia to win his third national title as the Gophers' head coach. This is the most talented team he's had in a long time, capable of doing everything well: They boast the nation's top offense and power play, are top seven nationally in both goals-against and penalty kill, and have been getting good goaltending from freshman Adam Wilcox. As long as they take care of business against Bemidji, Minnesota may just have to win their Final Five semi to secure a #1 seed in the NCAA tourney (a lot depends upon who else in the WCHA wins as North Dakota, Denver, Mankato and St Cloud are all ranked between 5-10 in the lastest Pairwise), and with that, they're set up as well as they could hope to get back to the Frozen Four and win the whole thing.

Surprise titles happen in sports (Tennessee football winning it all the year after Peyton Manning leaves, for example), and the cupboard will be far from bare in Dinkytown next year no matter how many guys leave (Lucia's recruiting has been outstanding with a pipeline of quality kids ready to go for next season), but it's hard to argue next year's club will be as good as the one skating into the playoffs now. It all begins Friday night at Mariucci on FSN with potentially four straight weekends of "win the semi-final to get to the final" hockey, and it looks like Lucia's best chance for a national championship in years, and perhaps for years to come.

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