I am a New York Islanders' fan, as I have mentioned many times prior, and I really enjoy reading the Point Blank site of Chris Botta which covers the team independently. However, this post appearing last Friday about the apparent departure of defenseman Aaron Ness struck me as somewhat odd and utterly wrong.
The article suggests that Ness wanted to turn pro if the Isles wanted him and that he needed to get away from the U program in order not to hamper his development. The post was denied by Ness's father that evening and it appears Ness will stay with the Gophers.
Ness has been a disappointment in Minnesota. As a sophomore, he netted just 2-10-12 in 39 games, coming off a 2-13-15 freshman season. A big scorer in high school, Ness has looked tentative throughout his career at the U and seems gun-shy when needing to pull the trigger from the point. Arguments can be made that Ness has stalled under coach Don Lucia, but the truth is that Ness came in struggling and hasn't changed much at all.
He's a bit undersized for a defenseman at 5-10 and 170 lbs. and his future is as a finesse-type guy. The Isles took him in the second round of the 2008 NHL Draft, one season after the Kyle Okposo fiasco.
Everyone remembers the Islanders signing Okposo midway through the 2007-08 season. The Gophers were struggling somewhat and Okposo was in a bit of a funk. After teaming up with linemate Ryan Stoa to score 19-21-40 as a freshman, Okposo was off to a 7-4-11 start in 18 games during the season in which he left. Stoa was hurt in the team's opening game and Okposo's scoring chances were fewer. Islanders' GM Garth Snow signed the player mid-season and then ripped Lucia for stalling Okposo's development. Of course, Snow then turned around and took Ness the very next draft, showing just how big a problem Lucia was for Snow. (Sidebar, Botta talks a lot about Okposo being the Islanders' next captain, which I find interesting, given that he completely bailed on his team mid-season once before).
Now, Ness's development may have been stalled under Lucia. I wrote in a previous post that the Gophers should seriously consider bringing in a new assistant coach to work exclusively with defensemen and/or the defensive zone game (I tossed out Mike Guentzel's name specifically). However, maybe the Islanders over-rated Ness from the get-go? Is it possible? Definitely.
Botta's comment about the Gopher program being in "shambles" is a bit hyperbolic as well. Yes, the team missed the Final Five this season and finished seventh in the league, but this was the first time the team hadn't advanced to the Final Five since 1998 and just the second time in 34 seasons that they haven't passed the first round of the playoffs. They were hit by injuries last season (Jay Barriball mainly; Taylor Matson to a much lesser extent) and were hampered by inconsistency. Yes, Jordan Schroeder left for the NHL, but he was a first round pick for chrissakes, and this stuff happens. That is hardly the personification of a program in shambles.
As I wrote before, next season will be a make-or-break season for coach Lucia at the 'U.' Many Gopher supporters would probably like to see him gone right now. I choose to preach patience for a guy who has won over 60% of his games here and has two National Championship banners hanging from the Mariucci Arena rafters. I wrote earlier that I expected Ness to potentially leave anyway, and if the Islanders choose to "save him" by sending him to Bridgeport, CT, then so be it. They own his rights, so it's their (and Ness's) call. However, Ness's development will be far faster and better in the WCHA, which I have argued is the second-best league in the world in terms of intensity of competition. That Lucia counsels players against the long bus rides in minor league hockey is simply stating reality. The money is obviously much better in the professional ranks, but one rides buses for a while before the bright lights shine. And, it's not like the prospects on Long Island are very bright, either. Snow's team made the playoffs in his first season as GM (2006-07), but has missed each year since. The Isles finished with the fourth-fewest points in the league one season after that and had the fewest in the entire NHL last season. This year, the stand tied for 27th out of 30 NHL teams. Obviously, Snow has assembled quite the juggernaut on Long Island. Add to that the craziest owner in the NHL (Charles Wang), the worst building in the NHL (Nassau Coliseum), and an unsettled situation surrounding their long-term whereabouts, and everything comes up Milhouse with the Islanders.
As I said earlier, Aaron Ness may indeed decide to start his pro career next season and forego his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility. That's his decision, but it is clear that he needs further seasoning. Let's hope he (or Chris Botta or Garth Snow) does not take any cheap shots on his way out the door should be decide to leave early. The hit piece courtesy of Islanders Point Blank on the Gopher program was simply misguided and misses the likelihood that Ness's development wouldn't be any faster in the AHL than it is in the WCHA. For further evidence to this point, see Jordan Leopold, Paul Martin, Keith Ballard, and Alex Gologoski; defensemen all coached by Lucia at the University of Minnesota.