GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. – A day after the Gophers’ stunning loss to Yale in their NCAA tournament opener, coach Don Lucia still was smarting. Ending a season with a defeat is always painful, he said Saturday, and this ache ran particularly deep.
He felt great fondness for this group of Gophers, who won a share of a second consecutive WCHA regular-season championship in the program’s final year in the league. This week, Lucia will get an idea of how many players will leave the program, which will determine how many new faces he brings in. Though top-end players such as juniors Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt could move on to pro careers, Lucia is excited over the fresh talent arriving for the team’s first Big Ten season.
The coach will meet with each of his players in the coming days. Soon, he will welcome rookie forwards Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos, Hudson Fasching and Gabe Guertler, a high-scoring bunch that should give the Gophers additional depth next fall. On Saturday, as the NCAA tournament went on without the Gophers, Lucia had not yet shaken the sudden end to a 26-9-5 season. It closed with Friday’s 3-2 overtime loss in the West Regional.
“It’s so hard when the season ends,’’ said Lucia, whose team was ranked first or second for all but six weeks of the season. “I really enjoyed this team. They were fun, and they came to work every day. You just feel for the kids.
“Our guys had a very good year winning the league title. They were able to hang another banner, and that’s something very important. But obviously, you’re disappointed not to advance in the NCAA tournament.’’
It has been widely speculated that Bjugstad, a first-round pick in the 2010 NHL draft, will leave the Gophers to begin his pro career in the Florida Panthers’ system. Others who could depart early include forward Haula, a seventh-round pick by the Wild in 2009, and defenseman Schmidt, an undrafted free agent drawing wide interest.
The incoming class is headed by Cammarata, of Plymouth, who has 34 goals and 46 assists and is the leading scorer in the U.S. Hockey League playing for Waterloo. Teammate Kloos, a Lakeville native, is the league’s second-leading scorer with 76 points. Fasching, of Apple Valley and playing now for the Team USA 18-and-under team, is a rugged 6-3 winger projected as a first-round NHL draft pick. Guertler, who plays for Fargo of the USHL, is a Floridian with 50 points.
Other players—including forwards Vinni Lettieri of Excelsior and Louie Nanne of Edina—are in the junior-hockey pipeline as well, and they could begin their Gophers careers next season if needed.
“Based on their history of scoring, some of the freshmen will get the opportunity to play a pretty significant role right out of the gate,’’ Lucia said. “We have to have that injection [of offensive firepower]. The best teams we’ve had are when we’ve been three lines deep.’’
The Gophers are set in goal next season. Freshman Adam Wilcox had the program’s best goals-against average (1.88) in a season and the second-best single-season save percentage (.921). Wilcox finished with a record of 25-8-5, equaling Kellen Briggs’ school record for most victories by a freshman goalie.
Lucia praised several other players for strides they made this season. Forwards Travis Boyd, Seth Ambroz, Christian Isackson and Tom Serratore all increased their point totals, and he expects a pair of freshman defensemen — Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei — to add weight and muscle during the offseason. Those two, he said, will be expected to play larger roles after getting plenty of seasoning their first year; Reilly played 37 games, Skjei 36.
Not making the Frozen Four could be a factor for some players as they make decisions about next season. So will their closeness. Bjugstad said after the game that he could barely stand to think about the players going their separate ways.
Captain Zach Budish, a redshirt junior, did not hesitate to make his choice known — he was already looking forward to next fall. “I’m planning on coming back,’’ said Budish, picked in the second round by Nashville in the 2009 NHL draft. “This is a learning experience. We’ve got a veteran team with a great group of guys coming back. I can’t wait to play again in six months.’’