Could Minnesota Gopher Hockey Be Better Next Season Without All Their Stars?

University of Minnesota Athletics

Gopher Hockey lost a lot of talent, leadership and experience with Seth Helgeson graduating and Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, Nate Schmidt, Zach Budish and Mark Alt turning pro. There's no way the 2013-14 team could be better without those guys. Or could they?

The Gophers just lost six players to graduation or the pros, which included no less than three of their top four scorers, three of their top six defensemen, their captain, best player, top scorer, and best defenseman. Without a doubt these are significant losses for the Gopher Hockey program, and it's not going to be easy to replace the production and ice time Minnesota received from junior forwards Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish, junior defensemen Nate Schmidt and Mark Alt, and senior defenseman Seth Helgeson. For certain, there will be a very different look to next year's team, and you know what? That might not be a bad thing.

We talked at length this season about how talented this particular Gopher squad was, with serious skill and speed up and down the roster. Yet besides that eight game stretch from the Christmas tournament through the UND series in mid January when Minnesota destroyed all comers, including #1 BC and #2 Notre Dame, this team never really put it together for more than a game or two. They constantly played at the level of their competition, and when you're almost always the better team on paper, that means you're almost always playing down to their level. The Gophers were able to notch only two conference sweeps this season, their fewest total since the 2008-09 season, and when the playoffs began and it was time to put together four good weekends of hockey, Minnesota couldn't do it. They barely survived Bemidji State in the WCHA first round (2-1 in OT then 4-3), then played maybe their worst game of the season in a 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the Final Five semi's. The following week in the first round of the NCAA's they were thoroughly outplayed by 15 seed Yale and lost 3-2 in OT.

While their last two losses count as upsets, was it really that surprising that Minnesota couldn't put together a good weekend or even a good game when they needed to away from the big ice at Mariucci when they hadn't been able to do it all year? Based on their lack of sweeps this season, perhaps we should have seen this result coming. Here's a list of Gopher teams under Don Lucia with the number of conference sweeps per season, and how the team finished:

2012-13: 2 sweeps - NCAA 1st Rd

2011-12: 7 sweeps - Frozen 4

2010-11: 3 sweeps - WCHA 1st Rd

2009-10: 3 sweeps - WCHA 1st Rd

2008-09: 2 sweeps - WCHA Final Five semis

2007-08: 1 sweeps - NCAA 1st Rd

2006-07: 7 sweeps - NCAA West Reg Final

2005-06: 8 sweeps - NCAA 1st Rd

2004-05: 6 sweeps - Frozen 4

2003-04: 7 sweeps - NCAA Midwest Reg Final

2002-03: 4 sweeps - National Champions

2001-02: 5 sweeps - National Champions

2000-01: 7 sweeps - NCAA 1st Rd

1999-2000: 4 sweeps - WCHA Final Five semis

Ok so you can't make a direct correlation between number of conference opponents swept vs how you finish a season. The two times the Gophers swept four conference opponents in a season they won a National Title... and didn't even make the tournament. The one year they swept 8 they got knocked out in the first round (Holy Cross? Holy Cross) just like they did this year when they only swept 2. Still, looking at that chart you can say two things: three or less means you're not going far in the playoffs, and the results beginning with the 2007-08 season have been disturbing, at best. But that's another conversation for another day in this very, very long offseason.

Despite a star-studded roster, the nation's top offense and power play, a solid D-core and a very good rookie goaltender, the 2012-13 team just couldn't put it together. Playing down to their competition was a factor, but I wonder about style of play too? This was a team built for the big sheet at Mariucci, all skating, creativity and skill. It's a group who excelled when they had room to breakout of their end and get going in transition, a whirlwind of stick-handling, passing and scoring that was a treat to see on display. But when they got on an NHL-sized rink like oh, say, maybe the Final Five and NCAA tourney? A much different story. Hockey is a sport where a less-skilled, well disciplined team can slow down a high scoring opponent (I hate this about hockey, but there seems to be nothing we can do about it. Well nothing besides make every rink Olympic sized and cut the size of goalie equipment in half. Seriously, watch highlights of the 70's and 80's and look at the goalies. Granted they were all like 5'7 back then, but their equipment was also normal sized. Now every goalie is at least 6'2 and wears enough padding to stop a cannon at close range. Add a defensive "system" like Wisconsin plays to all of this and it's amazing there's any scoring at all anymore), and this is especially true both on a smaller rink, and anytime it happened when the Gophers played on one. Just about all of Minnesota's big wins and high scores this year- BC, Notre Dame, UND, Denver, Wisconsin, the Sparty bloodletting to start the season- came either at home, or on a big sheet, like their win at St Cloud or the outdoor rink with a roof that is the World Arena at Colorado College.

Yet when they got on NHL-sized rinks they struggled, hoping the power play would bail them out as they struggled to score 5-on-5. I don't know if that's the system, or just this year's team, but you can see how this can be an issue considering the Final Five, NCAA Regionals, and the Frozen Four are all held at NHL-sized arenas- EVERY YEAR. And that won't change next year with the move to the B1G as the conference tourney will rotate between The X and Joe Louis Arena, two NHL rinks. It's great to have all the speed and skill the Gophers had, but if you struggle away from home and on smaller rinks...and the playoffs are always away from home on smaller rinks...I'm not sayin' I'm just sayin', it could be an issue.

Next year's team won't be as talented as the 2012-13 version, but could they still be better? For whatever reason the chemistry just didn't work with the outgoing group, and while the Gophers will always have talent, there'll be much more to prove and I'd be very surprised is they have the same issues of playing down to their competition again next year. I also doubt this year's team lacked leadership, but there won't be anything wrong with giving some new guys a chance to lead next year and see if they fair better. The style of play issue will be interesting to monitor, as I can see Tom Serratore being a true 3rd line center next season, much like Taylor Mattson was two years ago. There can be an issue of having too many skill guys up front, but I don't know how you solve that considering you'd be crazy to turn away great players every year, especially when you're never sure how many guys could go early to the pros. But a true "grind line" certainly wouldn't hurt, and I love Serratore as the leader in that role.

Oh, and next year's team will get Adam Wilcox back in goal, still just a sophomore, still with the Iron Man helmet, still awesome. Kyle Rau, Tom Condon, Travis Boyd, and Seth Ambroz lead a promising group of forwards, and Ben Marshall, Mike Reilly and Jake Parenteau lead what will be a very young but very solid group of defenseman (should I be worried Brady Skjei will leave for juniors? Because I'm worried). The 2013-14 team won't have the star power or perhaps the top-end skill of the guys who've left like Bjugstad, Haula and Schmidt, and I highly doubt they'll finish the regular season as the #2 team in the country. But I don't think it's crazy to believe that next year's group has the potential to play better and finish better in the postseason than the current team did.

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