The second day of the road trip for Gophers athletics included a stop in the childhood community of Don Lucia.
The hockey hotbeds of Grand Rapids and Coleraine were likely interested in the future of the Gophers, who were national runners-up. School is over and the student-athletes will be scattering back to their homes without any announcement of players leaving early for professional hockey.
The idea that the team remains intact this late in the spring, and more than a month after a 7-4 loss to Union in the national championship game, should be viewed as positive by Lucia, the Gophers head coach. If nobody leaves early, the majority of last season’s 28-7-6 team will be back, although four of the five departing seniors were regulars.
“It’d be nice if everyone could come back for another year,” defenseman Brady Skjei said. “If we get everyone back and make another run, that’d be awesome. That’s one thing I’d like to do, and that could affect my decision.”
Skjei, who will be a junior next season and was a 2012 first-round draft pick of the New York Rangers, is one of a handful of Gophers considering the option to turn pro. Three All-Americas are set to return — forward Kyle Rau, who will be a senior, and rising juniors Mike Reilly, a defenseman, and goalie Adam Wilcox.
Rau, a 2011 third-round draft pick by the Florida Panthers, led the team with 40 points. Wilcox, a 2011 sixth-round draft pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning, was a Hobey Baker and Mike Richter Award finalist, and finished with a .932 save percentage and 1.97 goals-against average.
Reilly, who finished with 33 points and was a 2011 fourth-round pick by the Columbus Blue Jackets, is thought to be the most interested in moving on. However, Reilly said earlier this year that playing with his twin brothers and Gophers teammates, Connor and Ryan, could sway his decision to stay.
Talk among the team is that Wilcox is confident he’ll return. His departure would leave the biggest hole in the Gophers lineup.
Hudson Fasching, who had a strong freshman season as a first-line winger, had his rights traded from Los Angeles to rebuilding Buffalo, and has NHL size. The belief is that the Sabres would let him develop at least one more season with the Gophers.
“No one has left yet, which is important,” Rau said. “There’s no pressure between the guys to make a decision. The guys know the goal here is to play at the next level. … I’m not trying to set a deadline or anything, it’s a big decision. I don’t want to rush into anything, and you don’t want to keep everyone waiting.”
Players can sign any time; there is no “summer deadline.” But clearly Lucia would like to know sooner than later.
Following last season, the Gophers lost non-seniors Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, Nate Schmidt, Mark Alt and Zach Budish to pro hockey. Haula (Wild), Bjugstad (Florida) and Schmidt (Washington) ended up in the NHL.
The Gophers considering an early departure have already addressed their intentions with Lucia, but he wouldn’t name the individuals. Late in the season, Lucia said he didn’t think anyone had made significant strides in proving he was ready for the next level.
Senior forwards Nate Condon and Tom Serratore, defensemen Justin Holl and Jake Parenteau and backup goaltender Michael Shibrowski will be replaced by an impressive incoming recruiting class.
Swedish recruits Leon Bristedt and Robin Höglund are among the forwards likely to fill the holes. Ryan Collins (Bloomington), Jack Glover (Golden Valley) and Steve Johnson (Excelsior) are among the top recruits in the country at defenseman. Goaltender Nick Lehr (Roseville) should compete for the backup role to Wilcox. The Gophers have other players who have committed for the future and would play junior hockey next season if no other spots open; included in that group is Chanhassen forward Jack Ramsey, who signed a letter of intent last fall.
Lucia expects to have a clearer picture of who will remain by the end of May and will start extending invitations to fill holes in early June should players leave early.
“I really enjoyed this year’s team. It was fun. If everyone chooses to come back it would be a whole different team,” Lucia said, referring to the experience gained. “I always tell the kids, [make a decision] with both feet in. If you stay, that’s great, we want you. If you choose to take the next step, it is a business and you’re an asset.”