Minnesota again turns to top prospects to replace high-end talent

It happens all over college sports. Players leave before their senior seasons to try an make it as a professional. Perhaps no college hockey coach knows this better than Don Lucia.

Since Phil Kessel left Minnesota in 2006 after his freshman season, six other Gophers taken in the NHL entry draft have also signed pro contracts before their sophomore seasons.

The last two players to bolt for the pros were freshman defenseman Nick Leddy and sophomore center Jordan Schroeder, both first-round picks in the 2009 draft. Losing high-end talent that early makes it difficult to establish continuity within the program.

“You’re happy for the kids who get the opportunity to move on,” Lucia said. “It’s part of the reason they want to be part of our program, to get ready for the next level. The trick is to find a happy medium where they are productive players here before they decide to move on. It’s something we have to deal with.”

Up front, on the blue line

Lucia brought in a new bunch of highly rated prospects to play for the Gophers this season, starting with Nick Bjugstad at forward. Bjugstad was drafted out of Blaine High School 19th overall by the Florida Panthers. He finished his junior season with 35 goals and 34 assists to win the Minnesota Mr. Hockey Award and accelerated his academics to be eligible for college hockey this fall.

“Those three [Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Nate Condon] are going to have an impact right away,” Lucia said. “They can skate and they can make plays. We could have three freshman as our top three centers when it’s all said and done.”

Incoming freshman forwards Haula and Max Gardiner and defensemen Mark Alt and Justin Holl were taken in the NHL draft.

But the Gophers also have experience. Jay Barriball returns for his senior season after sitting out last year with a knee injury and will be a first-line winger with senior Mike Hoeffel.

“Having Jay back is like getting a new recruit,” Lucia said. “He can be one of our top scorers and play in every situation offensively. I don’t think his knee bothers him anymore when he skates.”

In the crease

Minnesota is also well-seasoned between the pipes with fourth-year starter Alex Kangas, who has a career goals-against average of 2.46 and a save percentage of .914.

“Alex, quietly, had a really good year,” Lucia said. “Kent [Patterson] is going to push him [for the starting spot]. We told our goalies that they have to win some games for us this year and they’re both capable of doing that.”


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