Tough week to be a Gophers fan (I suppose it's just one in what's been a tough four years, but anyway) as the Frozen Four is happening in St Paul this weekend at the Best Arena in the World (this should be the official unofficial title. I haven't been to every hockey arena, but I've seen more than a few, but nowhere beats the sightlines at the X. Every seat's a pretty good seat) and the Gophers aren't there. You know who is? Two of their biggest rivals, f***ing Notre Dame (if you haven't noticed, I hate them in every sport), and a soon to be new/old rival who already hates us. And to add insult to injury, while none of Don Lucia's "Chosen Minnesotans" will be there, a ton of other Minnesota kids will be. GOOD TIMES!
Yeah not so much. North Dakota, Duluth, Michigan and Notre Dame are your Frozen Four this year and it just has to kill Gopher fans (not Jerry Kill) to see this. UND is playing in its 6th Frozen Four since 2001 and have made the NCAA tourney 14 of the past 15 years. This is Michigan's 5th Frozen Four since 2001 and they made the NCAA tourney for the 21st CONSECUTIVE YEAR. This will be the second Frozen Four appearance for both UMD and Notre Dame since 2004. Minnesota, as you may remember, has won 5 national titles, made 19 Frozen Fours, and made the NCAA tourney 32 times, but hasn't been to the Frozen Four since 2005, hasn't made the NCAA tourney in three years and hasn't even made the WCHA Final Five the past two.
Why? Good question. It's a riddle that confounds even the greatest of hockey minds, both inside and outside of Gopher athletics. We're all puzzled as to why the Gophers haven't been successful the past four seasons, and according to AD Joel Maturi and head coach Don Lucia it's not because of coaching, it's not because of the AD, and it's certainly not because of a lack of effort or passion. So since we can definitely rule those things out, maybe it has something to do with the players Minnesota has?
Maybe. To try and solve the Great Gopher Hockey Riddle I thought we'd look at some basic roster construction for the Gophers compared to this year's Frozen Four...
Minnesota has more drafted players this season (and pretty much every season) than any other program in college hockey, so you certainly couldn't argue there's a lack of talent in Dinkytown. However, a common excuse we've heard for why the Gophers are struggling is they lose so many of these drafted players early to the NHL and they have trouble replacing them. Interesting then that 11 of Minnesota's 19 drafted players were juniors or seniors this season. That's more drafted upper classmen than UND (7), Michigan (7), Notre Dame (3), and Duluth (1).
North Dakota: 7
Notre Dame: 5
Leadership and experience definitely matter, and the Gophers had as much or more of it than all four teams.
Notre Dame: 11
North Dakota: 5
The Irish have succeeded with contributions from a staggering 11 freshmen, including their two leading scorers. The Gophers were definitely counting on more freshmen than the other three schools, but for what it's worth six of them were NHL draft picks.
(I'll tweak this a bit by also adding how many Minnesotans the other three schools have.)
Michigan: 11 (players from 8 different states and 3 countries but no Minnesotans)
North Dakota: 2 (but 6 Minnesotans)
Notre Dame: 1 (4 Minnesotans- including 2 of their 3 top scorers)
Obviously Indiana and North Dakota are NOT hockey hotbeds, so in-state recruiting is almost non-existent for the Fightin' Schools. Still, interesting to note they managed to get some good players out of Minnesota, including two for Notre Dame- freshman Anders Lee and senior Ryan Guentzel- who had more points in conference play than any Gopher. Michigan is arguably the second best state in the country for hockey talent behind Minnesota (Massachusetts being the other in the argument for #2. And just thought I'd throw this in: Boston College, who has dominated college hockey lately with 2 national titles in 2008 and 2010, seven Frozen Four appearances since 2000, and NCAA tourney appearances in 12 of the past 14 seasons, have only 12 players from their home state of MA), and yet the Wolverines have just 11 kids from their home state. Duluth, like most of the Land of 10,000 Lakes schools, have a large contingent of home-grown talent (FWIW Makato has 15, St Cloud has 14, and Bemidji- who have more NCAA AND WCHA tourney wins than the Gophers the past two seasons- has just 6), but still not as many as the Gophers.
Hmmm...so after some quick and dirty roster comparisons, what conclusions can be drawn, if any? We find Minnesota actually compares quite favorably to this year's Frozen Four participants: The Gophers had more drafted players and just as many seniors as anyone else, although they were counting on a lot of freshmen- but not as many as Notre Dame.
So how is it the U looks just as good on paper, yet when they actually played the games Minnesota missed out on not just the Frozen Four (again), the NCAA tourney (again) and the WCHA Final Five (again) while these other four will be playing for a National Championship this weekend in the Gophers' backyard? We've already been told it can't be the coaching or the athletic director, it's not the effort or the passion, and we know a lot of alumni just LOVE the idea of an almost-all Minnesota roster, so where could the blame lie? I guess the great mystery that is Gopher Hockey mediocrity will remain unsolved for another day.