Lucia, Minnesota In Great Shape
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
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Don Lucia's team lost the national championship game last Saturday night.
The expectations for Minnesota, as they are under Lucia or any other coach, never seem to veer. It's trophies or bust. National championship or bust. Dominate or find another gig.
They take hockey seriously in Minnesota. Gopher fans take their program even more seriously. It can come off as entitlement at times, rubbing opposing teams and their fans the wrong way.
But they come out like few others. They travel to watch their team no matter the distance. So when they demand a winner and trophies, the higher-ups in Minnesota's program listen.
After last week's defeat at the hands of Union, a team that officially marked its status as a powerhouse with the victory, the blame naturally started to swirl around Minneapolis.
Lucia is the obvious target of this enmity. He runs the program. He hasn't won a national title in 11 years after winning two in a row. He'd get the praise if they won on Saturday, so it's fair to direct questions to him when the trophies don't come.
"I've had people tell me to my face that because I'm not an alumnus, I don't belong," Lucia said. "I never had the opportunity to come here as a player. ... But I've been here for 15 years. Not many people get the opportunity to be a part of this program for that long."
But this particular Minnesota team was never supposed to get there in the first place. The talent was there, but sure-fire NHL prospects don't win championships in the new era of college hockey. Every program that wins games has developed a recruiting model that works for them. There isn't in a coach in the country that wouldn't prefer to do things the way Lucia does. That just isn't possible, though. Not everyone can go into their own backyard and find enough players to build a contending team. Even still, the uncertainty caused by early departures and realignment tempered any expectations Lucia had of his team.
"I tried not to have too many expectations because of the new league," he said. "I was a little concerned about our non-conference schedule being too tough because we were so young, but the guys responded and played well out of our league."
However, Minnesota wasn't just talented. Their players can skate and pass and shoot and score, of course. They can also defend. Few teams in the nation averaged more goals this season. Even fewer were stingier defensively.
Moreover, a number of players accepted less-visible roles to help the club succeed. Whether it was upperclassmen happy to contribute defensively or gifted freshmen enjoying the success and accepting their instructions, the 2013-14 Gophers weren't just about talent.
"We've had some of that with Tom Serratore and Jake Parenteau," Lucia said. "They were both guys who played a couple years of juniors and weren't necessarily heavily recruited. We knew they could help us, and they became great role players for us.
"This team was a lot of fun to coach because no one was worried of 'my ice time' or 'my power-play time.' Some of our younger players, whether it was Gabe (Guertler) or Vinny (Letteri) came in right out of high school and played well for us. They weren't getting big minutes, but they contributed. I think that tone was set by our senior class. They experienced some tough times as freshmen, when we lost to (Alaska-Anchorage) in the WCHA playoffs."
A player or two may opt to sign a professional deal on top of the five seniors leaving Mariucci this season. Just as many highly talented, motivated young men will arrive.
Most importantly, though is what's coming back and what the Gophers could become next season if a majority of those players decide to stay.
The Gophers return scoring. They return defensemen. They return Adam Wilcox, one of the nation's best goaltenders, and they return the coaching staff that turned a young, talented team into a juggernaut.
Right now, questions about the next wave of early departures persist. Wilcox, a 2011 sixth-round pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, seems like the biggest flight risk. Junior defensemen Brady Skjei (2012 New York Rangers second round), classmate Mike Reilly (2011 Columbus Blue Jackets fourth round) and senior forward Kyle Rau (2011 Florida Panthers third round) are all risks as well. Altogether, 12 returning players have been drafted.
Lucia's role in their decision-making process isn't too pronounced, but he, as most coaches do, offers his opinion when asked.
"I don't have too much of a role in it," Lucia said. "I certainly give guys my opinion. I think if you're going to leave, you should be NHL ready. That isn't always the case. Either way, I think you need to have both feet heading in whichever direction you choose. If you're going to come back, you have to want to be a college player. The same with going pro.
"What's most important is that our players are close to graduating if they decide to leave," Lucia continued. "Nick Biugstad is a great example. He's going to graduate with his class this spring. He and Erik were both close to graduating after their junior years. We knew they both leaving after their junior years, but they were great players for us and in good shape academically."
It's inevitable that a couple may bolt, but those who stay have a chance to do something special in the 2014-15 season. Last season's Gophers were a young, albeit talented, team, which few expected to excel and advance as they did.
They won the Big 10 regular season and fell just a game short in their quest for the program's sixth national championship. There's no reason the Gophers won't be as formidable a contender for the 2014-15 season.
Minnesota's freshman class scored 59 goals this season — the most in the nation. They graduate just one top six forward and a pair of top four defensemen. Whether it's the incoming class or current Gophers ready to emerge, someone will fill that void.
Should an early departure or two strike, Lucia has options. His lineup is versatile.
The Gophers are in fantastic shape.
And that's what made their accomplishments this season even more impressive.
They lost Nick Bjugstad last summer. They lost Erik Haula last summer. They lost Mark Alt last summer. They lost Nate Schmidt last summer. They lost Zach Budish last summer. All of these players lost year ahead of schedule. Lucia's team lost just seven games in the 2013-14 season.
That seventh loss, the 7-4 defeat in Saturday's national championship game, won't sit well with Gopher fans. It doesn't with Lucia either, but this team will be back.
So keep those expectations high in Dinkytown. Lucia's built a team capable of reaching them.