In the aftermath of the Gophers' 3-2 loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament Saturday, coach Don Lucia wasn't ready to think about the future. He was still processing the abrupt end to the season in the semifinals of the Northeast Regional, and the final game in maroon and gold for a well-loved senior class.
The Gophers expect to maintain a solid core from a team that won its fourth consecutive Big Ten regular-season championship, returned to the NCAA tournament after missing it last year and has been ranked in the nation's top five since Feb. 6. Six of the team's top 10 scorers are underclassmen, including Big Ten player of the year Tyler Sheehy, as is two-time Big Ten goalie of the year Eric Schierhorn.
Lucia said after Saturday's game that he doesn't expect many underclassmen to leave early, though he isn't sure. And the Gophers will add one of their most exciting prospects in some time: Eden Prairie star Casey Mittelstadt, who was named Mr. Hockey and is projected as a top-10 pick in this summer's NHL draft.
"I don't anticipate a lot (of underclassmen to leave),'' said Lucia, whose team finished the season 23-12-3. "You never know; somebody might leave that you don't necessarily expect. Obviously, we're going to miss our seniors, and to me, it's all about our seniors at this time of year.
"I thought our underclassmen did a good job. I like some kids we have coming in next year, and we'll get (Tommy) Novak and (Ryan) Lindgren back from their injuries. That will obviously help; they're two key components. But it's hard to be thinking about next year (Saturday), because you're putting closure on this year.''
Sheehy finished the season with 53 points, the highest total by a Gopher since Ryan Potulny's 63 in 2005-06. Forward Rem Pitlick finished with 32 points and showed speed and playmaking ability on the Gophers' top line. He and Lindgren, whose season ended when he broke his leg in the final regular-season game, were named to the all-Big Ten freshman team.
The Gophers were hurt late in the season by injuries. In addition to Lindgren, Novak missed the final 18 games, and Mike Szmatula missed seven at the end of the regular season before returning for the Big Ten tournament. All three are underclassmen and are expected to return.
In addition to Mittelstadt, the Gophers signed three other players during the early signing period: defenseman Nate Knoepke of Farmington and forward Scott Reedy of Prior Lake, who are both playing with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Michigan, and forward Brannon McManus of Newport Beach, Calif., who played with Reedy at Shattuck-St. Mary's.
Lucia signed a two-year contract extension in October that will run through 2018-19, which would be his 20th season with the Gophers.
The six seniors leave a gap to fill. Justin Kloos was the team's second-leading scorer with 18 goals, a career high, and 43 points. The two-year captain finished his Gophers tenure with 150 points--the 28th player to reach that mark--and tied for the NCAA lead with six game-winning goals. Vinni Lettieri had the best season of his career, with 18 goals and 36 points, and was a stellar faceoff man.
Defenseman Jake Bischoff was the Big Ten defensive player of the year, an alternate captain and a key special-teams player. Forward Connor Reilly also wore the A. Lucia lauded the group throughout the season, frequently noting their diligence, high character and devotion to the program.
Schierhorn became emotional after Saturday's loss when speaking about what the seniors did for the Gophers program. "We learned everything from this group of seniors,'' he said. "We're going to miss them so much. I'm not kidding when I say we love those guys, every single one of them. We learned how to be great people, great leaders, all from them.''
Sheehy echoed that sentiment while looking ahead. "All of our seniors made such an impact with leading and with the standard they set here,'' he said. "They made it very clear what you have to do here to be winners.
"I think this year, we were successful because we had the right mindset. We have a good group of guys coming in, I think. And it's going to be really competitive next year as well, so we're looking forward to that.''