Minnetonka forward Max Gardiner remains in limbo about where he will play next season.

"I don't really know," said Gardiner, who signed with the Gophers last November during the fall signing period.

"I talked to coach [Don] Lucia and he has not decided quite yet," Gardiner said. "It will either be the University of Minnesota or Des Moines [of the USHL]. He said he will let me know sometime before the start of July."

As it stands now, the Gophers have 11 forwards returning and six coming in. That's 17 in all and only 12 play per game.

"I'm in a little different situation than most guys," said Gardiner, a Star Tribune first team All-Metro pick, "but I don't really care where I play, it's whatever is best for me."

Des Moines has Gardiner's USHL draft rights. The Buccaneers are coached by Mike Guentzel, the former Gophers assistant. The team struggled this past season, finishing sixth in the seven-team West Division and did not make the playoffs. 

"If one guy leaves [the Gophers early], I think I'm next in line" for a roster spot, Gardiner said. Provided that player going is a forward, he could have added.

"And [Lucia] wants to watch me develop," Gardiner said. "I got smaller legs. He wants to see more leg strength."

So as Gardiner works out, he is especially focusing on leg exercises.

Last week he started working out three times a week at the university  with two other recruits, Blaine forward Nick Bjugstad and Cretin-Derham Hall defenseman Mark Alt. Bjugstad signed last Friday; Alt is expected to sign this Friday.

Another three days a week, Gardiner works out off-campus often doing exercises that will help him at the NHL Combine in Toronto in late May.

Gardiner said he is looking forward to the combine, where only the top 100 or so NHL draft prospects receive invites. "I think it will be a lot of fun, a neat experience being with all the top players," Gardiner said.

Gardiner has good size already. He is 6-3, 185 but admits he has skinny legs.

He had 22 goals and 31 assists for 53 points as a senior at Minnetonka despite missing eight game because of a broken wrist. He was one of the co-captains on a Skippers team which finished 27-2-2 and reached the Class 2A title game.

Edina beat Minnetonka 4-2 for the championship. The night before, though, the Skippers had to play four overtimes before edging Hill-Murray 2-1 in the semifinals.

* Max's older brother Jake was a sophomore defenseman for Wisconsin this season. The Badgers made the deepest NCAA run of any WCHA, falling to Boston College 5-0 in the championship game.

Jake is about the same size as Max. He is listed at 6-2, 185. He had six goals and seven assists this season for 13 points and was a team-high plus-25. Jake went directly from Minnetonka High School to Wisconsin. He was taken No. 17 overall by Anaheim in the first round of the 2008 NHL draft. 

Amid the haze of a six-month Gophers hockey season, I can still vividly remember a dazzling spin move Jake Gardiner made with the puck en route to the Minnesota net.

MORE DEPARTURES?

Only one Gophers player, Jordan Schroeder, has left the team early so far. Schroeder, a sophomore center, signed with Vancouver shortly after Minnesota's season ended.

Lucia has said several times that he doesn't expect anybody else to leave.  But he really can't be certain. Lucia has been caught off guard in recent years when players such as defenseman Stu Bickel and forward Jim O'Brien signed pro contracts unexpectedly late in the offseason`.

Bickel signed with Anaheim on July 2, 2008, O'Brien with Ottawa on August 12, 2007.