After a season of uncertainty — in a year vital to his draft prospects — Chaz Lucius got a big payoff Friday night.
The future Gophers center was the top Minnesotan taken in the 2021 NHL Draft when he was chosen 18th overall by the Winnipeg Jets. He was actually the 17th player taken because Arizona had to forfeit its first-round pick.
Lucius, who committed to the Gophers when he was 14 years old, is from the northeast Twin Cities suburb of Grant. He played for the U.S. national under-18 program last season, but was sidelined for most of the season while recovering from leg surgery.
"With the injury, it wasn't the best to happen in my draft year but I really rolled with it as it happened," Lucius said. "I really couldn't control it at all, so from Day 1, I wasn't really sad or really mad. I'm glad I'm a Winnipeg Jet now."
After suffering a bone lesion from taking a puck off the left knee two years ago, Lucius had an operation last summer to clear out the dead bone and replace it with bone marrow from his back.
He was in a wheelchair for six weeks and then moved on to crutches while his leg was still tucked in a brace. In December, the 6-1, 185 pounder was back skating. He scored 13 goals in his first 13 games for the U18s.
He'll be with the Gophers this fall.
"I would say I'm a good teammate, a good leader and I do the right thing and play a good, 200-foot game," Lucius said in a Zoom call with reporters.
Lucius was ranked 12th among North American skaters. With the U.S. U17 program in 2019-20, he had 31 goals and 19 assists in 46 games, and was known for his quick release and heavy shot.
He had to wait a bit to hear his named called Friday.
"Whatever happened with the draft, come what may, but I'm really happy to be with the Winnipeg Jets right now," he said on a Zoom call with reporters.
"It's close to home for me,that's a plus for sure. It's a fun team to watch, fast-paced ... I'm looking forward to the future of the Winnipeg Jets and ...hoping to contribute to that some day."
He'll play next in the 2021 World Junior Showcase, a preview of the talent that could represent the United States at the next World Junior Championship.
"He had to go through some adversity," said Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff. "He had some injuries that limited the amount of games that he could play, but we're real excited. Again, it's a really good value pick where we got it. A really skilled player, a very good character player.
"The interview process we went through with him was fantastic. He knows a lot about his game, about how to play. He works real hard at it, he's real skilled. He's kind of missed a year of development in a lot of ways, so we are looking forward to the fact that he is going to college and it's a good opportunity for him to develop.
"Anytime you can grab a center with those kind of skills and those kind of qualities, it's a good day for the draft."
Lucius said patterned his game after Winnipeg standout Mark Scheifele.
"I'd say in my interview process with the Jets, I saw they were interested in me, and I saw that it would be a good fit," said Lucius.
The Jets captain, Blake Wheeler, is another Minnesotan who was a first-round pick (fifth overall, 2004) and played for the Gophers.
Lucius, who turned 18 on May 3, didn't play high school hockey in Minnesota. He was with the Gentry Academy youth program before heading to Ann Arbor and the national junior program as a 16-year-old.
His brother, Cruz, played for the U.S. national U17 program last season and is considered a top prospect for next year's draft; Cruz Lucius is also committed to the Gophers. A 5-11 right wing, he had 42 points in 42 games for the U17s.
Arizona forfeited the 11th pick after having prospects work out for them in violation of rules before last year's draft.