Trio of Gophers hockey seniors sign to NHL teams, others may follow

Minnesota has had at least one early departure in the two seasons prior.

Justin Kloos, Jake Bischoff and Vinni Lettieri play at Mariucci Arena.

Daily File Photo

Justin Kloos, Jake Bischoff and Vinni Lettieri play at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Cove

Minnesota’s season ended earlier than anticipated — but now three Gophers players will pursue lifelong dreams sooner.

So far, seniors Vinni Lettieri, Jake Bischoff and Justin Kloos have signed with National Hockey League teams since the Gophers’ defeat Saturday.

Each of these players will join other Minnesota alumni at their NHL destinations. Here’s where each player is going:

Justin Kloos:

The former two-year captain of the Gophers found his NHL home Wednesday by signing a contract with the Minnesota Wild.

Kloos’ contract is a two-year, entry-level deal and begins next season, but he will head to Des Moines, Iowa to join the American Hockey League’s Iowa Wild on an amateur tryout agreement for its remaining season games.

The native of Lakeville, Minnesota is ranked No, 28 in all-time Gophers scoring. Kloos helped Minnesota win each of the first four Big Ten regular season titles.

“I can’t say enough great things about Justin Kloos and the way he represented our program as our captain,” Minnesota head coach Don Luciasaid in a statement. “He has been an outstanding leader, an incredible teammate and one of the best representatives our program and school has ever seen. He has a bright, bright future ahead of him, and we are very excited for him to join the Minnesota Wild.”

Among other teams Kloos considered were the Calgary Flames and the Los Angeles Kings, according to the Pioneer Press.

Two of Kloos’ former Gophers teammates are part of the Wild program: defensemen Mike Reilly and Nick Seeler.

Jake Bischoff:

The alternate captain for two years at Minnesota was only one of two senior players who were drafted.

Bischoff signed a two-year, entry-level contract Tuesday with the New York Islanders — the same team that drafted him 185th overall in the seventh-round of the 2012 NHL entry draft.

The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year will report to the AHL affiliate of the Islanders, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, for the remainder of the season.

The native of Grand Rapids, Minnesota developed into a solid defenseman for the Gophers and led the defensive corps as the only senior this past season.

Vinni Lettieri:

After significant improvement to his game every year he played at Minnesota, the undrafted senior has also found an NHL home.

On Monday, Lettieri signed a two-year, entry-level contract with the New York Rangers that will begin next season.

He will head to the AHL affiliate of the Rangers, the Hartford Wolf Pack, and will finish the remainder of the season with the team on an amateur tryout.

Along with the Rangers’ offer to Lettieri, the Star Tribune reported that the Chicago Blackhawks also extended an offer to the Excelsior, Minnesota native.

He joins former Gophers’ teammate Brady Skjei in the Rangers organization.

What’s next?

So far, Minnesota hasn’t had any non-senior players announce departures from the program, which is somewhat of an anomaly.

The Gophers saw three early signings last season with forward Hudson Fasching and defensemen Nick Seeler and Michael Brodzinski. Fasching signed an entry-level contract with the Buffalo Sabres, Seeler with the Wild and Brodzinski with the San Jose Sharks.

The year before also saw three departures from players who were not yet seniors.

The Star Tribune reported that the Columbus Blue Jackets may sign junior defenseman Ryan Collins, the team’s second-round draft pick in 2014 but nothing has been made official.

If no more departures come in the weeks ahead, Minnesota will retain some of its best players, such as top scorer junior Tyler Sheehy and freshmen defenseman Ryan Lindgren and forward Rem Pitlick.

The returners will be joined by highly touted prospects and incoming freshmen Casey Mittelstadt, Nate Knoepke and Scott Reedy.