In the week since the Minnesota menâÄôs hockey teamâÄôs 2010-11 season ended at the hands of Alaska Anchorage, leaving it out of the WCHA Final Five for the second straight season, the program almost simultaneously received stabilizing and destabilizing news.
First, Athletics Director Joel Maturi said publicly that head coach Don Lucia will be offered a contract extension this offseason. Then on Wednesday, junior defenseman Aaron Ness left for the NHL, signing a three-year entry contract with the New York Islanders.
The timing of MaturiâÄôs vote of confidence is unsurprising; Lucia has one year left on his current contract and if the 12th-year coach is going to have any recruiting clout going forward, his prospective players need to know heâÄôll be around. Lucia said he and Maturi met last Monday regarding the extension but didnâÄôt discuss specifics.
âÄúWhen IâÄôm not here anymore, when I leave, I want to leave on top,âÄù Lucia said Wednesday. âÄúI want to leave when the program is in the NCAA tournament every year and to be able to leave it in good hands and then turn it over so we understand the expectations here.âÄù
At issue, however, is the GophersâÄô recent inability to live up to expectations. The program has declined since the high of back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003. Despite a late-season run, the Gophers finished in the middle of the WCHA, bowed out in the first round of the conference playoffs and missed the NCAA tournament for the third straight season.
âÄúWe didnâÄôt get it done,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúThatâÄôs on all of us. ThatâÄôs on the coaches, itâÄôs on the players. ItâÄôs disappointing. We want to do better; nobody hurts more than the coaches and the players.âÄù
The problem, at least partly âÄî and certainly counter-intuitively âÄî is LuciaâÄôs skill at recruiting elite talent. Under the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, there is arguably a disincentive to sign top-level players because pro teams can snatch up young players on the cheap and often do so to save money. Gophers such as Phil Kessel, Kyle Okposo, Nick Leddy and Jordan Schroeder have been lured away early, leaving gaping holes where there should have been veteran leaders.
NessâÄô departure, announced Wednesday, is the most recent example. He leaves Minnesota without a senior on defense for next season, not to mention without one of its best-skating players. Ness didnâÄôt fill the score sheet (two goals, 12 assists on the season), but the Gophers had a noticeably tougher time moving the puck up the ice when he sat out with an injury against Bemidji State on March 5.
âÄúAaron made tremendous strides this year physically and in the defensive part of his game,âÄù Lucia said in a statement. âÄúHe was a terrific leader and you could count on him to be the hardest worker in practice and he competed hard in every game.
âÄúAt 20, he has a bright future ahead of him. We will miss Aaron, but appreciate all he did for Gopher hockey.âÄù
With Ness going the way of many of his other top players, Lucia admitted Wednesday that he and his staff needed to figure out how to be competitive in this new era of early exits.
âÄúI think we have to look when weâÄôre recruiting and [make] sure we bring in some older kids, make sure we bring in some elite players and make sure we bring in some four year players,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúI donâÄôt think weâÄôre that far away.âÄù
The model may be a departing senior who just signed a pro contract of his own âÄî Jacob Cepis.
Though he transferred from Bowling Green and spent only two seasons at Minnesota, Cepis played four years of college hockey and was the GophersâÄô leading scorer in 2010-11. At just 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, heâÄôs a bit undersized but was always noticeable on the ice and gave defensemen fits in the corners of the rink. There is no exact formula for recruiting the players that will stay three or four years, but if Lucia can find more Cepises, it may help Minnesota again rise to the upper echelon of college hockey.
Cepis signed quickly after the GophersâÄô season ended with the AHLâÄôs Lake Erie Monsters; he practiced with them Tuesday. The Monsters have 13 games left this season.