This is the second part of "What's Wrong with Minnesota Gophers Hockey?" Last week Part I focused on the changing landscape of college hockey, as well as the development of Gopher players. (Oh, and a very big happy birthday to Wayne Gretzky, who turns 50 today. The Great One is, and always will be, the greatest who ever played, and he should be celebrated by hockey fans everywhere.)
There are at least five things Minnesotans can count on each and every year: a beautiful fall season, long and cold winters, pot holes, the Vikings to break your heart in new, creative, excrutiating and seemingly unimaginable ways, and a Minnesota Gopher hockey team that is distinctly Minnesotan. Outside of perhaps only the University of Texas Longhorns football team (on average 92% of the players for UT hail from the Lone Star State), nowhere else in collegiate sports will you find a team that is better represented by its own state than the Minnesota Gophers hockey team. Since the beginning of time (or when the game was invented by those hosers in CANADA and exported to these United States sometime later), the team that plays hockey for the U has been primarily, if not entirely, made up of Minnesotans. The fans of Gopher hockey take pride in the fact that not only are they cheering for a team in Minnesota, but a team that's MADE in Minnesota. And clearly, that's a huge, huge deal for the passionate hockey fans in the Land of (well over) 10,000 Lakes.
When the Minnesota Gophers won the hockey national championship in 2001-02, the Gophers had only one non-Minnesotan on the roster (there's usually between 25-30 players listed on a roster per season). When they won again the following season, they had just three players who were non-Minnesotan. Look back on their most successful teams and you'll see a roster chalk full of kids who grew up skating on rinks, ponds, and lakes right here in this fine state.
As an outsider, I've always appreciated this about Gopher hockey, and I certainly understand the appeal. Most Gopher fans are also high school hockey fans, and they enjoy watching kids come up through the Minnesota high school ranks, and then onto the big sheet at Mariucci to star for the Gophers. Many fans have had season tickets for generations, and it's been part of the heritage to see Minnesotans starring for Minnesota. But with the recent downswing for the program, I have to ask: is an All-Minnesotan Gopher hockey squad still viable in the changing landscape of college hockey? As we discussed last week, with more drafted players leaving school early, and with an expanding base of talent coming from previously untapped areas in the southern United States, can a team of almost entirely Minnesotans still compete for national titles?
Below are the number of non-Minnesotans on each Gopher team since that national title team of 2003, along with the team's winning percentage, and the furthest playoff round they advanced to:
2004: 7, .648, NCAA Regional Final
2005: 5, .648, Frozen Four
2006: 6, .720, NCAA 1st Round
2007: 1, .739, NCAA Regional Final
2008: 0, .522, NCAA 1st Round
2009: 2, .561, WCHA Final Five
2010: 1, .487, WCHA 1st Round
2011: 4, 10-9-3, TBD (Currently tied for 6th in WCHA standings)
Not so long ago, the expectations were a National Championship, and fans were disappointed if the team didn't make the Frozen Four. The WCHA Final Five and the NCAA tournament were givens, yet in the past few seasons even the givens are no longer for certain. As we discussed last week, the NHL salary cap went into effect in 2005, and since then more and more drafted players are leaving college early, and more and more American-born players are skipping the college game altogether. Is it just a coincedence that Don Lucia and the Gophers haven't made a Frozen Four since 2005? Or are the Gophers not adjusting to the changing landscape of college hockey quickly enough? Does the continued instance on recruiting almost exclusively Minnesotans playing a factor?
There's certainly a few questions to pose here, but undoubtedly, the biggest and most important one is this: Are there still enough quality high school hockey players in Minnesota to recruit for division hockey?
The answer is absolutely! While we're seeing more players from non-traditional States playing college hockey, we're also seeing more quality players than ever from Minnesota playing the game too. The USA National Development Program in Ann Arbor almost always has more players from Minnesota than any other state. Ditto the World Junior rosters. Same with the pros, as there continues to more Minnesotans in the NHL than from anywhere in the USA.
We're also seeing more Minnesotans than ever contributing in college hockey- the problem is, many of them are not doing it for the U. Look at the rosters of some of our WCHA rivals like North Dakota, Wisconsin, Denver and CC, and you'll see Minnesota players making an impact. Look out East and you'll see them scattered amongst good programs there, too. But they're not just leaving the state to play. With the rise of other programs within Minnesota, plenty of quality high school hockey players are staying within the borders of the State of Hockey, but not doing so for the Gophers.
Gone are the days when every Minnesota youngster would throw on the skates in their backyard rink or neighborhood pond or park and dream of winning national titles at Mariucci with a big block M on their chest and a yellow helmet on their head. Part of it used to be the Gophers were the only D1 school in the state that mattered for decades, but that's certainly not the case anymore. UMD was an afterthought until the mid 80's when they made their first NCAA tourney (and Frozen Four) appearances. St Cloud State has made eight NCAA tourney appearances in the past 11 seasons, and Minnesota State and Bemidji State are now full fledged WCHA members. Those programs have gone from an afterthought to competing directly with the Gophers not only on the ice, but in recruiting for Minnesota's finest.
Now sure, it's impossible to get every top player in the state to Dinkytown. We mentioned the University of Texas earlier for football, and even they don't get every top player in the state to come to Austin (For instance, I'm thinking of a native Texan who is currently one of the two best running backs in the NFL for the Minnesota Vikings who starred in college at Oklahoma). And really, getting the top players in Minnesota every year hasn't seemed to be a problem for Lucia. Sure there's a kid like Brock Nelson from Warroad (1st round pick in the 2010 draft) that gets away every now and then, but generally Lucia continues to do an excellent job of getting the top Minnesota prospects to Mariucci. Six kids in last year's recruiting class are NHL draft picks, and there's more on the way next fall, and in the years to come.
The new problems developing then are two-fold: the top prospects (Nick Leddy, Jordan Schroeder, Alex Goligoski, Erik Johnson etc) leave after a year or two, and there doesn't seem to be enough quality players left behind to make up for it. Because Lucia and the Gophs get so many kids with high upside and NHL futures, the second tier of potential college players, the kids who may or may not have a pro future but could develop into excellent D1 players, end up going to other schools because they either have a better chance to play, or they may not get an offer from Minnesota at all. It then seems that to replace the blue chip kids that leave early, Lucia then has to dip into a third tier of players who are from Minnesota who may be only fringe players, and have even less of a chance to succeed in the WCHA than the second tier kids he's passing on.
There are two other options for building a winning college hockey team: if he wants to continue with the All-Minnesota philosophy then take less blue chippers, and more Minnesota kids from that second tier that may not be as highly rated but have a better chance of sticking around school for four years and developing into really good collegiate players. The other is to continue grabbing the cream of the Minnesota high school crop, but broaden his search for second tier players to the rest of the country, and dare I say it... Canada? (Lucia has already hit a couple of home runs with international kids like Austrian Thomas Vanek and current Finnish freshman Eric Haula. Although, it's hard to call Haula a true international since he played at Shattuck's and in the USHL with Omaha before coming to the Gophers). You know, like every other program in the country does. I'm not saying Lucia would have a 50/50 roster split of Minnesotans and non-Minnesotans, but he's certainly going to have to have more than 3 or 4 non-State o' Hockey kids on the roster.
I know the "All-Minnesota" Gopher hockey program is a huge source of pride for fans, alumni and boosters. But for those who believe the All-Minnesota team is so important, they need to decide if clinging to the past and watching the program continue to struggle is more important than adapting to the changes in college hockey and returning to national prominence. I believe the ideal of an All-Minnesota roster IS possible, but it's going to mean a contiuned change in recruiting and roster building for Don Lucia and his staff (which I believe they've already started doing, and are very capabale of doing), and will certainly make winning much more challenging. The other, easier, more proven method (at least for the programs that have won consistently the past 10 years) is to expand the Gophers recruiting base to outside the walls of the Land O' Lakes, and to bring in some outsiders. Again, I'm not even asking for a 50/50 split, but for perhaps 20 of your 25 or 30 players to be Minnesota born and bred. If that's too much to ask for Gopher fans who can't stand the thought of not seeing an All-Minnesota Gopher hockey squad made up of the very, very best the state has to offer, I have to ask you: what is more important? Reliving the glory of the past, or seeing it happen in the future? The game is changing, and your ideal of what a Minnesota Gophers hockey roster must look like should too.