Between the Lines: Minnesota
Nothing Wrong With Gophers' Program That Isn't a Problem for Everyone
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
In every sport there's a team that's popular, successful, and a lightning rod for fan hatred. Their fans worship them, and everyone else can't stand them.
In college hockey, different teams can fill that bill around the country. But the biggest of them all is Minnesota. The Gophers are (along with North Dakota), head and shoulders above the other teams in fan interest. Consequently, the pressure to excel is arguably higher there than anywhere. And many take great glee when they fail.
That explains, more or less, the piling on of head coach Don Lucia in the last few years. Their fans — assisted by the immediacy of the Internet age — are impatient, not having made the NCAAs the last two seasons and without a Frozen Four berth since 2005. And the haters are taking the ball and joyfully running with it, finding any opportunity to criticize.
Particularly since the new NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement — and changes to Major Junior rules that brought players North of the border in droves — changed the landscape of college hockey in the last half dozen years, all programs are losing players left and right, and all programs are suffering ups and downs. Recruiting philosophies are being adjusted on the fly, and some have rearranged things more quickly than others.
But no one has been criticized harder than Lucia.
The flash point for this was the now-infamous moment in December 2007 when Kyle Okposo left Minnesota, mid-season, to sign with the New York Islanders. It sent shock waves through college hockey, because of concern that NHL teams now thought it was OK to pluck players away mid-season rather than just wait.
In defense of the Islanders, the whole thing was driven by Okposo's desire to leave. He saw his old U.S. National Team pals making hay in the pros, and he wanted out after his freshman season, a stellar year in which he was essentially the Gophers' MVP. But the Islanders didn't want to sign him yet, for some reason. When linemate and Minnesota captain Ryan Stoa got injured early the next season, Okposo had less motivation to be there, and his play showed it — even though he still scored seven goals in 18 games. The Islanders decided they would help him, and get him out of Minnesota.
This was certain to draw the wrath of Minnesota fans, both at Okposo and the Islanders. But Lucia wanted to protect Okposo, a local boy, from such scorn. So, first, he waited to announce the news until Okposo was on a plane for the World Juniors. Then, publicly, he criticized the Islanders.
Islanders GM Garth Snow misread the situation. He didn't pick up that Lucia was just protecting the player, and had a knee-jerk reaction which was completely out of line, trashing Lucia for his ability to develop players and insisting the Islanders needed to get Okposo out of Minnesota in order to save him.
The whole thing was stupid, except that it suddenly became trendy to bash Lucia. And when Minnesota failed to make the NCAAs the two following years, after having been powerhouses for so long, people could go back to those comments by Snow and use them as fuel for their own misguided criticisms.
Snow, of course, belied his comments when he drafted Aaron Ness, a player committed to Minnesota, the following summer. Meanwhile, Ness hasn't blossomed yet after two seasons, so this is now Lucia's fault too, apparently. Yet the Islanders aren't rushing out to grab Ness away from Lucia. Why is that? Is it because the Islanders know that if Ness is to develop at all, it will have to be at Minnesota? That would actually be smart on the Islanders' part — but it contradicts the idea that Lucia can't develop him.
Meanwhile, this folly reached a new level when Chris Botta — former Islanders media relations director and now a well-read, well-regarded blogger about the Islanders — wrote a post in March that suggested Ness was looking to get out of Minnesota. In it, Botta wrote that Lucia routinely "bashes" the American Hockey League, and suggested, again, that Ness was looking to get out because Lucia was ruining his career. He wrote that Snow was "publicly ahead of the curve" when it came to Lucia.
All of that is nonsense.
First, who is telling Botta that Lucia "bashed" the AHL? What agenda do they have? Was it "bashing," or simply saying what every other college hockey coach tells every other player in a similar situation? "If you're leaving school to play in the AHL, then you're better off staying in school." Does Botta think such reasoning is unique to Lucia? Not only is that reasoning widespread, it's also great reasoning.
Second, what is it, again, with the implication that Ness needs to escape Minnesota and Lucia? This is a trendy self-fulfilling prophecy without much basis in reality.
Lucia has good company. Last winter, L.A. Kings GM Dean Lombardi ripped Red Berenson's skills as a coach. Another thing Lucia and Michigan's coach have in common is two national championship rings. They also send the most players to the NHL.
Botta, when contacted, replied that Nick Leddy just left Minnesota, and that Ness has been waffling all summer.
True. My response: Leddy left because he dominated at Chicago's camp and Chicago has salary cap issues. And Ness might be waffling, but what makes anyone think it has to do with Lucia?
Then there's the recent blog post on the Minneapolis Star-Tribune web site, which criticized Lucia for sending 17-year old star Seth Ambroz back to junior, and making his family unhappy in the process. Other bloggers again piled on, pointed to that and other "de-commits" as so-called evidence of Minnesota's spiraling disarray.
None of them actually contacted Lucia, who said Ambroz was unable to complete his required high school requirements and has no choice but to return to junior.
Of course Lucia has made mistakes with players, and maybe he's even ticked off a family or two. What coach hasn't?
The issue here is whether these things indicate widespread "disarray" and the overriding incompetence of the Minnesota coaching staff. The answer is no.
This is happening all over college hockey, not just at Minnesota.
Because of the changed landscape, players are making decisions long before they really should. It's impossible to convince the majority of young athletes and their families that short-term gain is usually long-term failure. No matter how many players benefit from staying in school, getting stronger, and then hitting the pros running — while other players leave too soon and are never heard from again — you still see kids leaving too soon. The pressure is on them to do so, because the NHL teams are pushing them more than ever (because they are cheap), and because Major Junior is pushing them more than ever.
Players can go from third-liner in college to instant top-liner in Major Junior, scoring 30 goals in 80 games. But are they a better player? They do it against 16, 17, 18-year old kids. They are not playing against 22-year olds like in college. Talent or not, the 22-year old college guy is stronger and smarter and an overall better player than the 16-year major junior kid.
Lucia points to a great example — Jimmy O'Brien. He was a late first-round pick, and he left Minnesota after one season. He said he wasn't getting enough playing time, so he went to major junior. O'Brien had seven goals in 43 games as a freshman, then scored 48 goals in 133 games over two seasons of major junior. Last year, he played in the AHL in what would've been his senior year at Minnesota, and scored 8 goals in 76 games. Now, he's destined to start in the AHL again. Had he stayed in school, he'd be no worse off, perhaps better off, and he'd have his degree. But, he left so he could play top line in major junior instead of having to fight his way up to that spot at Minnesota. His junior team sold tickets and won games, but did it help O'Brien's career?
There are dozens of Jimmy O'Brien stories. There are not many John Carlson stories — the guy who de-committed from UMass, signed an AHL deal with the Washington Capitals, became a hero for Team USA at the World Juniors last winter, and has NHL star written all over him.
Meanwhile, apparently Lucia didn't hold Nick Leddy back. So which is it?
In a sense, college hockey is a victim of its own success, just like Minnesota was. Because it has proven itself as a vehicle for producing players, more NHL teams are preying upon it. That, and it's cheap to do so.
There's a big catch-22 that Lucia addresses in our Q&A with him: You need to commit to players earlier and earlier, and then when players don't pan out, it's your fault. Or, you want them to stay and develop more, but they leave earlier for many reasons, including impatience, and when they don't pan out, then that's your fault too.
Youngsters get stars — and dollar signs — in their eyes, and fail to see the big picture. That's to be expected, one supposes, about youngsters. But the new paradigm in hockey has made that easier.
The point is, again, this isn't unique to Minnesota. They are just the lightning rod.
Another commonly-heard meme is that current assistant John Hill, who resigned as Alaska-Anchorage's head coach to go to Minnesota when Bob Motzko left for St. Cloud State, is to blame for the downturn in Minnesota's defense. Guys like Paul Martin, Jordan Leopold, Alex Goligoski, etc... developed under Motzko.
Like the criticisms of Lucia, it's taken on a life of its own. After all, how many of us can really proclaim to know Xs and Os well enough to break down tape and figure out whether Hill is a poor coach or not? That's far too easy and convenient a critique. Perhaps we should look here first: Hill's arrival just so happens to coincide with this changing landscape in college hockey.
If you can say one thing about Lucia and Minnesota, they do seem to have gotten caught off guard by the changing landscape. That's fair. But Lucia has earned the right to see this through, and has proven that he can do it — or do people forget the shape he found things in when he came to Minnesota in the first place?
Minnesota AD Joel Maturi has publicly backed Lucia, time and again, and from our time dealing with Maturi as chair of the men's ice hockey committee, he's a standup guy who surely means it. Here's to hoping he doesn't cave into mounting pressure if things don't go so rosy for the Gophers again this season.