Leopold, Taffe revisit career goals on eve of NHL Draft

Anthony Maggio

Last year, seven current Minnesota hockey players were taken in the NHL Entry Draft. This weekend’s draft won’t see as many Gophers selected, primarily because most of the incoming freshmen are a year away from eligibility.

To date, there are 14 players on the Minnesota roster whose rights are owned by a professional franchise. When a player is drafted, the NHL team retains the players rights, even if the player elects to remain in school.

Since both have been drafted – and then traded – standout Gophers Jordan Leopold and Jeff Taffe deal with the temptation of making the jump. Both say they are coming back – for now.

Drafted by Anaheim in the second round of the 1999 draft, then having his rights traded to Calgary last fall, Leopold said all sides feel he should return to Minnesota for his senior year.

“(Minnesota) coach Don Lucia, myself, and (Flames general manager) Craig Button have all been involved in the decision making process,” Leopold said. “We came up with a lot of good reasons to stay in school.”

After leading the nation in scoring by a defenseman with 49 points, Leopold earned All-America status and was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. He also won WCHA Defensive Player of the Year and was voted co-captain by teammates.

Despite Leopold’s tremendous season, Lucia believes his blueliner is capable of even more.

“He’s got a chance to be player of the year in our league and win the Hobey,” Lucia said. “We have very high expectations for him to be a very elite player in our league and across the country.”

Whenever he arrives on the professional scene, the 6-foot, 205-pound Leopold is expected to be a competitive player in the NHL.

“Jordan Leopold is a good, solid player,” said Tom Thompson, Midwest scout for the Minnesota Wild. “I don’t think he’s spectacular in any part of his game, but he’s pretty solid in all aspects. He’s big enough, strong enough, he’s got good feet and hands, and a good enough head. There’s no reason he can’t play (at a professional level).”

Selected by St. Louis in the first round of last year’s draft, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Taffe is also projected to be a solid NHL player, but he needs to get bigger and stronger.

“He has to play center to play well in the NHL,” Thompson said. “He’s got good vision, but he’s going to have to prove that he’s physically strong enough for the NHL.”

Taffe, who will be a junior, had his rights traded to Phoenix last winter. The rising star says he’s staying in school for the time being.

“I’m 100 percent sure right now Minnesota is the place I want to be,” Taffe said. “We’ll have a great team next year and a couple years down the road. It’s a great time here.”

Taffe has the daunting task of filling the skates of the departed Erik Westrum at center. Westrum notched 61 points last year and served as a key member of the Gophers excellent power-play unit.

“This has to be a real breakout year for Jeff,” Lucia said. “I told Jeff that in some ways he will play a more pivotal role than anyone on the team. He should be an all-league player for us this year. He’s got to go from being a 35-40 point guy to being a 50-60 point guy.

“He’ll be getting that type of ice time and now he’s got to score like that for us.”

Leopold, despite being a candidate for a plethora of individual awards, is very optimistic about his team’s chances. Minnesota made the NCAA tournament last year – its first berth in four years – and Leopold is looking for more.

“Right now, one of the big things is that we really have a chance to win a national title next year,” Leopold said. “I think its going to be us and Colorado College fighting for the WCHA title. I’m not going to say we’re going to win it, but we’ve got a good team coming back.”

And for now, two good players are coming back as well.

 

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