It's been a busy couple of days for the Gophers hockey program since their season abruptly ended at the hands of Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Athletics director Joel Maturi has said publicly that head coach Don Lucia will be offered a contract extension this offseason; junior defenseman Aaron Ness left for the NHL, signing a three-year entry contract with the New York Islanders; and senior Jacob Cepis signed with an AHL team near his hometown of Parma, Ohio.
The timing of Maturi's 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 that he'll be around. At issue, however, is the steady decline of the program 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.
The problem, at least partly - and certainly counterintuitively - is Lucia's skill at recruiting elite talent, because under the current NHL collective bargaining agreement, there is arguably a disincentive to sign top-level players. 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 Lucia likely expected veteran leaders to be.
Ness' 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 didn't pop up much on the score sheet (2 goals, 12 assists), but the Gophers had a noticeably tougher time moving the puck up the ice when he sat out against Bemidji State on Mar. 5.
“Aaron made tremendous strides this year physically and in the defensive part of his game," Lucia said in a statement. "He was a terrific leader and you could count on him to be the hardest worker in practice and he competed hard in every game.
"At 20, he has a bright future ahead of him. We will miss Aaron, but appreciate all he did for Gopher hockey.”
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. The model for that may be a departing senior who just signed a pro contract of his own - 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 Gophers' leading scorer in 2010-11. At just 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, he's 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 finding 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 Gophers' season ended with the AHL's Lake Erie Monsters; he practiced with them on Tuesday. The Monsters have 13 games left this season.