The Gophers didn’t have much time to digest the loss of Brady Skjei on Wednesday before Adam Wilcox was gone, too. In a span of 12 hours, coach Don Lucia saw two of his best players give up their final season of college hockey to start their professional careers.
The news broke in the morning that junior defenseman Skjei had signed a three-year contract with the New York Rangers, and in the day’s final hour, junior goaltender Wilcox signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The two were the most consistent pieces on the Gophers’ back end over the past two seasons. Wilcox manned the net with some of the best success in program history over the past three years, and Skjei emerged as one of the top defensive figures in college hockey over the past two seasons.
Wilcox reported to Tampa Bay’s AHL affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, where he’ll finish out the season on an amateur tryout contract. Skjei also signed an ATO and joined the Hartford Wolf Pack, an affiliate of the Rangers, on Wednesday.
“I thought it was the right time for me to make the jump,” Skjei said in a phone interview from Hartford, Conn. “It’s been a goal for me the whole time to make the NHL, and this was a good step toward that. I thought I developed how I wanted to at Minnesota and thought it was the right time to sign with the Rangers.”
Wilcox released a statement: “I wouldn’t trade my college experience here at the University of Minnesota for anything, and I am incredibly honored to have been a part of this program. Growing up in Minnesota, I always wanted to be a Gopher, and wearing the ‘M’ has been one of the best experiences in my life.”
Coach Don Lucia said: “Adam has been a cornerstone for our program over the last three years, and he’s certainly an elite goaltender.”
Skjei’s and Wilcox’s early departures could just be the start. Fellow standout junior defenseman Mike Reilly is expected to sign, and sophomore forward Hudson Fasching is another player considered ready to make the jump.
Skjei was the Gophers’ only first-round draft pick. The Rangers selected him 28th overall in the 2012 NHL entry draft and were interested in signing the Lakeville native after his sophomore season. Skjei chose to join the rest of the Gophers standouts and return with the same goal of redeeming last year’s loss in the national championship game.
That goal was spoiled last Friday with a 4-1 loss to Minnesota Duluth in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The 6-3, 206-pound Skjei played a shutdown role on the back end for the Gophers over the past three seasons. He missed six games with injuries this season but finished with 10 points (one goal, nine assists), a plus-8 rating and 29 blocks.
Wilcox, a South St. Paul native, led the Gophers to three consecutive regular-season conference championships and one national championship game. He is the program’s all-time leader in save percentage (.922) and goals-against average (2.09).