Here's my take on why the Gophers are struggling. I think it's a two part problem:
A) Recruiting the wrong kids. Since Bob Motzko left (he is a former assistant coach under Don Lucia who is now the St. Cloud State head coach), the Gophers have not recruited many impact players, despite their well documented recruiting advantages.
The last real impact players the Gophers brought in were (Blake) Wheeler, (Phil) Kessel, and (Ryan) Stoa, who were recruited while Motzko was still an assistant. You could say Erik Johnson was an impact player, but he all but said he was going to be a one (season)-and-done player.
What happened to bringing in the out-of-state impact players? That left with Motzko too. Where are the Potulny's, Tomas Vanek, Phil Kessel on this team? We're basically back to the mindset that Lucia was brought here to replace, the "we'll take the best kids in Minnesota" philosophy.
B) Player development has stagnated. People laughed off the Isles GM when he said that (Kyle) Okposo wasn't developing at the U, but he was right. Okposo was a better player as a freshman than the next year.
Wheeler was basically the same player every year. Stoa's numbers went up when he was being counted on as "the guy" but I can't attribute that to coaching. (Jay) Barriball has gone from being a promising scorer to being an agitator. The only guy who I can say made more than incremental improvement year to year is Tony Lucia.
To me it's the signs of a coach who's resting on his laurels (lazy recruiting) and who's been in one place for too long (player development is stalled, are the players listening to him?).
ROMAN SAYS -- A REBUTTAL OF SORTS
My history with the Gophers hockey program is relatively short. I was covering preps until the 2007-08 season. So I have been on the Gophers hockey beat for only 2-1/2 seasons.
My first season, 2007-08, The Don had an entirely Minnesota team of 25 players. And of those only seven were from outside the metro area. But most had at least a little outside experience, 13 had played in the USHL, six on the U.S. national development team, two in the NAHL and four came right out of high school.
That team finished seventh in the WCHA.
Last season The Don brought in two out-of-state kids, Grant Scott from Pennsylvania and Sam Lofquist from Wisconsin. Both had played on the U.S. national development team and Lofquist had accelerated his high school education, graduating in three years, to come to the U early.
Both, in hindsight, were recruiting blunders. Scott, a big forward, played in one game and then was gone. The Don even tried to convert him into a D-man -- which he is now with Fargo -- because the team was hurting on that position. He left two-thirds of the way through the season for the USHL.
Why bring in a kid from Pennsylvania who has no ties to Minnesota as a role player to sit on the bench? How long do you think he will stay?
Lofquist played in every game but two as a freshman but his contribution to the team was minimal. He had one goal on 42 shots on net and four assists, but was a minus-6 and got chewed out on the only goal he scored. He cupped a hand to his ear, copying Phil Kessel's showboating, when he scored against Wisconsin in Madison.
Early this year he crashed into Jay Barriball and put the popular senior wing out for the season with a knee injury. Nothing Lofquist did seemed to go right. He left early this season for the Ontario Hockey League. Lofquist has one goal and 11 assists for 12 points in 16 games for the Guelph Storm. Another recruiting faux pas.
Bringing in teen defenseman early to play against 21- and 22-year-old forwards who are stronger and meaner doesn't work too well. Hopefully The Don and his staff have figured that out.
This season I saw Ryan McDonagh, Wisconsin's junior defenseman from Cretin-Derham Hall just toss sophomore Aaron Ness to the ice like he was a rag doll. Ness is another defenseman who accelerated.
The Don has brought in a few impact players in the past couple years: defenseman Stu Bickel, who turned pro after one year; center Jordan Schroeder, more of an assist man than a scorer, and goalie Alex Kangas. Remember Kangas was the team MVP as a freshman when he was so sensational?
But bringing in role players from out-of-state or accelerated defenseman from anywhere -- unless they are physical freaks for their age -- makes little sense.
That said, The Don has expanded his recruiting horizons for next season.
He has signed Erik Haula, a Finn who is playing for Omaha of the USHL this season. He was at Shattuck-St. Mary's two seasons ago. Haula is supposed to be special. He has 12 goals and 27 assists for 39 points in 25 games. Almost half his points -- three goals, 16 assists -- have come on power plays.
If The Don could, he would probably add Haula now.
The Gophers are also bringing in an older forward from Wausau, Wis. He is 6-1, 190-pound Nate Condon. He will be 20 when he plays his first game for the U. He is second on the Fargo Force with 14 goals and 10 assists for 24 points in 26 games.
Condon's teammate, Nate Schmidt, a 6-0, 197-pound defenseman, also has committed to the U. He played at St. Cloud Cathedral as a junior and led his team to the Class 1A state tournament before opting for the USHL as a high school. He is 6-0, 197 and has seven goals and 15 assists in 22 games for the Force.
All the Gophers defensemen put together have five goals total halfway through the season. Think of that. Nate can you report early, too?
The Don also has a commitment from a player in suburban St. Louis, Mo., Sam Warning. He has played on some national teams overseas, but at least one WCHA assistant coach was flabbergasted the U offered Warning a scholarship. He won't become a Gopher until 2011-12 so I won't cast any stones on him. He can still develop a lot. But there seems to be a difference of opinion about him.
So you see, John, The Don is looking outside the state for players. Haula and Condon could/should be impact players.
And I agree with John, more of the present players should be developing quicker. Patrick White, Cade Fairchild, Dave Fischer, some of the older guys, should be players to be reckoned with on the ice.
Did they stop working, did they peak, are they getting poor coaching, is it their attitude bad? Hard to say. There is a locker room code of silence which is hard to get past. Coaches rarely rip their players out loud and players rarely rip their coaches for obvious reasons. What goes on in the locker room usually stays there.
But I have a lot of hope for the Gophers next season. Other big names coming in are 6-5 Nick Bjugstad and 6-3, 205 Seth Ambroz, both forwards who have accelerated but should make an immediate impact. Ambroz is playing in his second season in the USHL and thriving. Bjugstad is supposed to be a beast, a man among boys.
This season for the Gophers can still go either way. It's hard to tell which way this team is going until the U starts playing tough competition again. That won't happen until North Dakota visits in mid-January.