Taffe forgoes senior year, signs with Phoenix

David La Vaque

The day after Minnesota’s 4-3 win over Maine in the NCAA men’s hockey title game, Gopher fans headed to Mariucci Arena for a salute to their team.

Each player was introduced individually and walked onto the ice to cheers and applause.

The announcement of junior center Jeff Taffe transformed the crowd’s cheers into a chant of, “One more year.”

The plea by the Gopher faithful fell on deaf ears. Taffe signed a three-year contract with the Phoenix Coyotes of the NHL on Wednesday, meaning he will forgo his senior season.

“I’m very happy for him,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “He made a big step as a player, but I would have loved to see him dominate for two years at this level.”

Taffe was the 30th overall pick in the 2000 NHL draft, selected by St. Louis. His rights were traded to Phoenix in a March 2001 multi-player deal that sent Keith Tkachuk from Phoenix to St. Louis.

Taffe joins two other former Gophers centers in the Coyotes system. Wyatt Smith was Phoenix’s ninth-round pick in 1997, and Erik Westrum was chosen in the seventh round in 1998.

Taffe’s agent, Kurt Overhardt of KO Sports Inc. in Denver, would not comment on the value of Taffe’s contract.

Repeated attempts to reach Taffe on Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Taffe enjoyed a stellar season at Minnesota in 2001-02, finishing second nationally in goals scored (34) and fifth with 58 points. The third-team All-WCHA pick also finished tied for the national lead with 14 power-play markers.

“He’s probably as skilled a forward as I’ve ever coached,” Lucia said.

In Minnesota’s run to the national title, Taffe scored game-winning playoff tallies against both Colorado College and Michigan.

“We certainly recognize he’s a player with significant offensive flair and skill,” Coyotes general manager Michael Barnett said. “He’s getting physically stronger but he’s got a long way to go. But he’s prepared to pay the price.”

Taffe notified Lucia of his plans on Tuesday night. Lucia said Taffe promised to finish his degree, a decision which also pleased Taffe’s parents, both of whom are teachers.

Barb Taffe said her son has just over a year’s worth of classes to complete to earn his degree.

Taffe flew to Phoenix on Wednesday afternoon with his father, Chuck. The Coyotes hosted game four of their first-round playoff series with San Jose, and Taffe will fly with the team to California for game five.

He will then return to the University campus on Monday and finish his spring semester classes.

In Taffe’s absence, Lucia said he will likely promote Matt Koalska to center the first line while incoming freshman Gino Guyer will compete for the second line spot.

Lucia “doesn’t believe” another forward will be signed this spring.

Taffe will work this summer under a specialized fitness program to add strength and improve his aerobic conditioning. Coming into Minnesota at 150 pounds, Taffe dedicated himself in the weight room and put 42 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame.

“The light bulb went on last summer,” Lucia said. “He started to understand what it takes to be a great player.”

Taffe’s first chance to impress coaches will come at the Coyotes rookie training camp in the first week of September.

Barnett sees Taffe as a player with a combination of talent, passion and desire who will push himself to the highest level.

“He’s another pro prospect out of an elite program. (Smith and Westrum) are not only talented, they’re quality young men,” Barnett said. “Jeff Taffe is an extension of those two players.”

David La Vaque welcomes comments at [email protected]