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Minnesota Gopher Hockey: Nick Bjugstad and John Hill return, and Warning Signs

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Happy Friday, everyone. Let's talk some Gopher hockey, shall we? Mmmm we shall. The Strib's Roman Augustoviz continues to give us things to talk about thanks to his excellent Goal Gopher blog. Before we get to his most recent post, let's start with two things he hasn't mentioned: the first is the status of Don Lucia's assistant coaches.

We had a commenter a few weeks back who said the assistant coaching contracts expired on April 30th. Assuming that's true...it's now May 6, and we've heard nothing about coaching changes. I'm going to assume that means that after four straight disappointing seasons (and for a program like Minnesota, therefore unacceptable) Lucia's response to make things better is... changing nothing. It hasn't worked for four straight years, but hey, I'm sure everything will magically turn around the 5th year! I get Joel Maturi not wanting to fire and hire another coach when he's not sure he's going to be here in the fall (please please PLEASE!), but there's no reason Lucia can't at least make staff changes to show the fans he's trying. Maybe they're coming, but considering we're already into May and have heard nothing. I think Einstein may have said something rather poignant about a situation like this.

The other thing Roman hasn't mentioned is the possibility of Nick Bjugstad turning pro with the Florida Panthers instead of coming back to the U. I'm guessing he hasn't mentioned it because it's not happening, which we all had kind of guessed. There was a "rumor" from a certain columnist last week about the Florida Panthers not being happy with Bjugstad's development and that they might sign him and send him to the AHL. Their assistant GM mentioned not being happy about him playing on the wing instead of center. Some wise folks over at GPL and other places deducted these comments were likely from months ago, perhaps even before Christmas, as Bjugstad played almost exclusively at center in the second half of the season.

Just to make sure, we asked SB Nation Florida Panthers blog Litterbox Cats if they had heard anything on their end. Managing editor Donny Rivette's response:

Have heard nothing concrete in recent days; in fact I was under the impression - due to a Santos quote from several weeks ago (and I cannot locate it at this moment) - that the club would no longer be travelling the "Dmitry Kulikov Route", i.e. no more 18 year-olds. He felt it was a mistake and harmful, development-wise, (for the previous regime) to throw Kuli into the lineup at 18 and made it clear the Panthers would no longer do that...And honestly, they don't need (Bjugstad) anywhere but right where he currently sits; time is on the club's side.

Which makes all the sense in the world. Bjugstad should start the year centering the Gophers' top line and first power play unit, giving him as much ice time as possible. He needs to prove he can dominate guys close to his own age before he can move on to the pro game, and I'm sure he'll do that in 2011-12. Minnesota is the best place for his pro development, and that benefits the Panthers and Gophers.

Which leads us into Roman's most recent blog post about the signing of Sam Warning, and whether they'll be room for him next year. Roman's guess at what the possible forward lines could be for 2011-12...

LW C RW

Kyle Rau, fr. Nick Bjugstad, so. Zach Budish, redshirt so.

Comments: Rau is a sniper who led Eden Prairie H.S. to Class 2A state title and is leading USHL in scoring in the playoffoffs. He has seven goals and four assists for 11 points in eight games. Bjugstad started dominating late in his first season. Budish is a big body who should be able to get puck out of corners.

Nate Condon, so. Erik Haula, so. Seth Ambroz, fr.

Comments: Haula started season fast on first line, ended playing with broken foot. Condon played center a lot last season, so he can handle the puck. Ambroz is a power forward with three USHL seasons behind him.

Max Gardiner, so. Taylor Matson, sr. Jake Hansen, sr.

Comments: Matson is the team captain but, in three seasons, has never finished a season healthy. Gardiner played sparingly last season. Hansen came on strong at end of junior year. Could be top two RW.

Tom Serratore, so. Nico Sacchetti, sr. Nick Larson, sr.

Comments: Sacchetti and Larson could easily switch spots on this line or play on the third line if needed.

That still leaves four players fighting for playoff time. Gophers will probably shuffle their lineup some, as they do every year. Also injuries and illnesses will undoubtedly come up.

Two things jump out immediately: one, that's a REALLY young top six. All freshmen and sophomores. Two, that could be a really fun and exciting group of forwards to watch this winter. The top six IS young, but there's certainly talent, speed, and even a bit of size with Budish and Ambroz (both 6'2 and at least 215). The vets on the 3rd and 4th lines also have some ability and experience and I could definitely see Jake Hansen (and perhaps Nick Larson?) bumping up into the top 6 if they play well, or if someone ahead of them isn't playing well enough. Depth and talent up front should not be an issue this year, and I think/hope/pray that goal scoring won't be an problem like it was for more than half of last season (and in the playoff round against UAA).

I'll maintain a healthy Zach Budish is the biggest addition for this team, as his overall package of size, strength, skating and scoring is going to be fun to watch. Also interesting to see Rau on the top line right away. I know he's very skilled and quick, but at his size (just 5'9) I wonder if he's good enough to start on the first line straight out of high school? Wouldn't be surprised to see Condon start the year with Bjugstad and Budish. Another nice plus to this lineup is depth down the middle. We've talked about Bjugstad, and Haula proved to be a terrific two-way center as a freshman. As the senior captain, Matson should be able to play well in all situations, and Sacchetti or Larson are solid 4th line options.

Add in Jared Larson, Joe Miller, Christian Isackson, and incoming freshman Travis Boyd, and Roman wonders whether Warning, who's already played two years of junior in the USHL, won't be going back for a third? Really, that last spot probably comes down to Warning or Boyd, and we'll see which way the coaching staff decides to go. Whomever it is, as you can see, they're probably not going to play much anyway. That's a nice problem to have, as the Gopher forwards could be a real strength for this team. With Kent Patterson as one of the two best goalies in the WCHA, all we have to do now is figure out the defense.