Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Gopher Hockey Post-Mortem

Season Summary:
  • Overall Record – 18-19-2
  • Regular Season Record – 17-17-2
  • Post-Season Record – 1-2 (Lost at North Dakota in WCHA first round playoffs)
  • WCHA Record – 12-14-2
  • WCHA Finish – Seventh
  • Home Record – 10-8-1
  • Away Record – 8-10-1
  • Neutral Site Record – 0-1-0
  • Leading Scorers – Tony Lucia (11-17-28); Jordan Schroeder (9-19-28)
  • Leading Goaltender – Alex Kangas (16-15-1; .911 Save %; 2.61 GAA; 1 Shutout)
  • Team Statistics
Season Recap:

Sky-high expectations seemed reasonable for a Gopher squad which returned virtually its entire team from a season prior and added a first round (Nick Leddy) and second round (Zach Budish) NHL draft picks to its lineup. All told, the Gopher roster contained 20 NHL draft picks, highlighted by three first-rounders. The goaltending tandem was solid and experienced and the team was poised for a bounceback following a disappointing 2008-09 fifth place finish.

Instead, the season fell apart really in the opening game of the season up in Grand Forks against North Dakota. The Gophers were barraged by the Sioux 4-0, and had goaltender Alex Kangas not stood on his head all night long, it could have been far worse. Minnesota battled back for a 3-3 tie the next night, and then proceeded to be shut out in consecutive games at home courtesy of Denver goaltender Marc Cheverie. This had not occurred since the 1930s, and it kind of set a tone for things to come. When it was all said and done, the Gophers would find themselves shut out six times, would never be more than one game over the .500 mark, and finish a very disappointing seventh in the WCHA. After a first game embarrassment in the first round of the WCHA playoffs at North Dakota, the Gophers fought hard to win game two and were competitive in the decisive third game, but ran out of gas and saw their season end by not qualifying for the Final Five for the first time since 1998. Until this season, the Gophers had gotten by the first round of the playoffs 31 years out of the last 32, with 1998 being the only hiccup along the way.

Save for a solid stretch from November 28 through January 16, which saw the Gophers go 8-2-1, the 2009-10 would have been an unmitigated disaster. The team struggled with consistency all season long. Injuries to forwards Jay Barriball (5 games played before season-ending knee surgery) and Taylor Matson (19 games played prior to an ankle injury) thinned the core up front. The departure of defenseman Sam Lofquist did not help matters either. Frustrated by a lack of ice time, Lofquist left the program for the Ontario Hockey League, and left a thin defensive core already without freshman Nick Leddy (broken jaw caused him to miss six weeks) with a shortage of healthy bodies and forced walk-on Brian Schack into action. The team struggled to score goals all season long but the real struggles came in the defensive zone. Simply put, the team wasn’t good enough night in and night out.

Team Grades:

Forwards (C) – Senior Tony Lucia tied for the team lead in total points (28), sharing the title with talented sophomore Jordan Schroeder. Mike Hoeffel led the team in goals with 14, but struggled with consistency. The Gophers received a much-needed shot in the arm from transfer Jacob Cepis, who added 19 points in his 21 games played and created many other opportunities when he was on the ice. Apart from Lucia and Hoeffel, no Gophers reached double-figures in goals. On far too many nights, Lucia and Cepis were the only ones bring solid effort.

Defensemen (D) – This was the team’s Achilles heel all season long. The Gophers struggled in the defensive zone. Costly turnovers hurt the team, and they were prevalent early and often. The play of senior David Fischer actually improved late in the season, but he certainly did not look like an NHL first-rounder throughout his career in the maroon and gold. Sophomore Aaron Ness seemed to regress late in the season. Leddy was solid as a freshman but passed up many an offensive opportunity. Cade Fairchild (4-17-21) came on strong at the end, but was a bit of a disappointment after a fine sophomore campaign.

Goaltenders (B+) – Kangas was good all season long. His numbers improved across the board from his disappointing sophomore campaign. He received little help from the team’s defensive core, and it seemed like a majority of the goals were scored against him with three feet of the net. The Gophers needed a bounceback season from Kangas this year, and he did his part. Sophomore Kent Patterson was promised more playing time this season, but still found action in only 8 games. At times, it would have been nice to see him get a start here and there, but the coaching staff elected to ride Kangas throughout the season.

Newcomers (B-) – Leddy was solid as a freshman, and Budish (7-10-17) showed flashes of what he should be able to provide in the future. Remember, he did not play hockey during his senior season in high school due to injuries. The other freshmen, Josh Birkholz and Seth Helgeson, were ok in their first seasons, but lacked consistency, as one would expect from newcomers.

Coaching (C)Don Lucia and his staff took a lot of heat this season from a disappointed booster organization and an all-too-happy-to-oblige media. The team stagnated as the season progressed, but did play reasonably well down the stretch. Still, failing to show up for the first game of the playoffs was inexcusable. Lucia read his team the riot act, and they responded with solid efforts the next two nights. However, play in the defensive zone has been brutal the last two seasons and suggests a problem. Lucia should consider adding an additional coach to work with the defensemen to address this issue. You know, someone like Mike Guentzel.

Flight Risks:

Schroeder's as good as gone (UPDATE: He's gone). The Vancouver Canucks’ first-round pick last season was reported to be wavering about turning pro before this season, but stayed in school. The Canucks will make a strong effort to sign him.

Ness is a NY Islanders' pick but still needs more seasoning. GM Garth Snow has said the right things about his development after the Kyle Okposo fiasco a few years ago when Okposo quit on his team mid-season, but the smart money is on the youngster to continue his development at the U of M.

There were whispers about Leddy maybe considering the junior route as well, and there were issues with his development (if the StarTribune and Wild Assistant GM Tom Thompson are to be believed) after his trade to the Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks have a ton of WCHA-developed players on their roster and in their system, and I don’t seem them pushing Leddy to either turn pro or go to juniors. My guess is that he comes back.

Key Losses:

The senior class was large compared to past seasons. Tony Lucia will be missed. David Fischer’s experience will be missed, but his play will not. Forwards Mike Carman and Ryan Flynn had very disappointing senior years. Brian Schack was pressed into duty during his final year and acquitted himself quite well. The team will miss his unsung leadership.

Key Additions:

The incoming freshman class is large and decorated. It includes:

  • 2009-10 Minnesota Mr. Hockey forward Nick Bjugstad of Blaine
  • Minnetonka forward Max Gardiner, who compiled 55 points for the start runners-up
  • Big defenseman Mark Alt of Cretin-Derham Hall, who passed up a football opportunity at Iowa to play hockey at the U
  • Forwards Seth Ambroz, Nate Condon, Erik Haula, and Tom Serratore of the USHL
  • Defensemen Nate Schmidt of the USHL and Jake Parenteau of the NAHL
  • Forwards Jared Larson and Jake Youso of the NAHL
The eleven players listed above will provide depth to the Gopher roster and give the team some insurance in the event of injury. Also, remember that Barriball petitioned for an medical redshirt and will return for his senior season next year, and the team will be able to add a healthy Matson to the lineup. Of the group, Bjugstad, Gardiner, and Alt can be expected to be solid contributors immediately. The last time Lucia brought in such a large class was only two seasons ago, and three players are no longer with the program: Lofquist, Michael Dorr, and Grant Scott.

2010-11 Outlook:

The 2009-10 season was nothing but an unmitigated disappointment for the Gophers. It started out poorly in Grand Forks and ended up there as well in equally disappointing fashion. Nobody expected to be writing a post-mortem of the Gopher season BEFORE the NCAA Tournament, but that’s what happened.

So, 2010-11 will be a huge season for the fans of the maroon and gold. After three-consecutive subpar campaigns, the Gopher will be under pressure to compete next season. The heat will be on the coaching staff next year, and the public may turn on them at the first sign of mediocrity. This is a program which deserves not to accept mediocrity as a standard. Simply qualifying for the Final Five is not acceptable; it is expected.

Now, the team next year should be very good. Although it loses Lucia and likely Schroeder up front, offensive firepower still is available. Forwards like Cepis, Nick Larson, Jake Hansen, Hoeffel, and Budish will be expected to ratchet up their games next season. Gardiner and Bjugstad should score a fair amount as freshmen.

The key will be in the defensive zone. Assuming Ness and Leddy return, they will be counted upon to provide leadership and solid defensive zone play. Fairchild will be expected to get the team’s anemic power play back on track, and newcomers Alt and Schmidt will be regular contributors to the team’s top six defensemen. Kangas will need to do the same in the nets. Hopefully, the defense will give him some help.

Lucia deserves another season behind the bench. Calls for his dismissal were a bit premature. A coaching change only makes sense if the replacement is better than what is currently in place, and there is nobody who is available and better equipped to coach this program than Lucia. However, adding a defensive-minded coach will help in this area. However, if we’re writing a similar column at the end of next season, it’s possible we’ll also be discussing the merits of a new coach.


  1. Here are my grades:

    Forwards: D. The only positives were Lucia's and Cepis' energy. That's it. Schroeder was a major disappointment and seemed disinterested. Carmen and Flynn were once again no where to be found. Good riddance.

    Defense: D-. Ness regressed, Fischer has been the biggest disappointment on the blueline over the last 10+ years, and Fairchild's play was turn-over prone and lacked the scoring we have come to expect. Wehrs seemed to have stepped up his game a bit and was somewhat of a surprise as a steady, stay-at-home defenseman.

    Goaltending: B-. Kangas was pretty decent but rarely took over games. To compensate for the lack of scoring by this team, Kangas rarely stepped up to win a game on his own. He did not loose too many games on his own however and had the team scored enough, he may have been a 2nd team All WCHA selection.

    Coaching: D: Teflon Don had a difficult time motivating his team night after night. We saw flashes of a good team at times only to see them not show up the next night. Simply put, there is too much talent on this team and a sub-.500 record is unacceptable. Lucia has troubles building a "team." Too many egos and Lucia could not figure out how to utilize his players. If Lucia's coming back, he needs to crawl on his knees and beg Guentzel to come back and teach this team how to play defense.

    Next Year's Team Prediction: Same as this year. Great talent but lack of toughness and consistency. Hopefully Maturi finally notices this...

  2. Do you think there is any chance of stealing Dean Blais from UNO? The U is his alma mater, and he started his career here. I don't know what coaches will be available this year, but can the Goph's really compete with another year of 'but they're trying really hard!'?

  3. Start a campaign to get Blais. He would be a great coach for the U.

  4. Guys - Blais ain't coming here - at least not now. He's got a good thing going at UNO and is entering the WCHA next season. Blais would be a good care-taker coach for a few years if the Gophers have an appointed assistant (Grant Potulny) in mind long-term. However, that isn't happening now. If Lucia leaves, it's going to be on his own terms. Get used to it.

  5. Get used to more seasons of uninspiring hockey and empty stands.

  6. Kangas was pretty decent, but rarely took charge of the games. To compensate for the lack of scoring for this team, Kangas rarely went to win a game on your own. He did not lose too many games on their own and the team had scored enough, may have been a second-team All WCHA selection.