The men's Gopher hockey team is facing a familiar situation: they're loaded with talent, just finished a mostly successful season that ended up more disappointing than anything else, and at least three of their first-line players must make a big decision. Already we've learned their top defenseman will not return for his senior year.
A lot of us are scratching our heads, wondering how a team this stacked can finish with nine losses and six draws, and fail to win a game in the WCHA Final Five or the NCAA tournament. So now what? Is there a way to break this trend, short of finding a new coach (I'm not convinced Lucia is the problem)?
I think there is.
The Gophers have no problem landing some of the strongest prospects every year. We regularly sign the Mr. Hockey award winner (Grant Besse notwithstanding), snag those couple high-end, out-of-state recruits who don't want to stay near home, and maybe get a kid from Shattuck. The home team at Mariucci is never short of premier talent.
One thing we haven't seen at Ski-U-Mah in quite a while, though, is a tremendous senior class.
Of all the talent that comes in the door, most of it stays only two or three years. That means we rarely have a superstar who has the maturity and experience needed to bring home the top prize. The championship teams of late stand out from others because they had a number of star seniors who could both perform and lead in crucial moments. Jordan Leopold, of course, is the obvious example. But there's evidence on other teams too; BC, UMD, and DU all had a strong group of seniors the years they won it all. In fact, even the Frozen Four Gopher team from last year was better (i.e. more consistent) than this year's team, despite having less talent on paper.
Strong seniors bring something to the team that can't be found in underclassmen. They're hungry. Really good players who stay in college, stay to win. They usually have a deep-seeded love for their school; the lure of money and fame is not enough to get them to give up any chances to represent their beloved institution. Their play and compete level are consistent. They respond to each circumstance with whatever it calls for, whether that's focus, aggression, euphoria, or anger. And this passion and model behavior spreads to the rest of the team. That's why even a few senior leaders can bring out the best in younger teammates.
There are exceptions, of course, and nothing guarantees a championship. And I'm not implying that every kid who leaves early is a selfish prima donna. Still, we need to start finding those players who have dreamed since their peewee days of skating for the Gophers. The ones whose bedrooms look like Goldy's Locker Room. Kids who will not be satisfied until another banner hangs in Mariucci. I believe that only then can we reasonably expect to finish every year feeling good about what was accomplished. We won't win every year; maybe only two or three every decade. But a trend toward graduation will lead to good things.