Midway through season, Gophers on thin ice

Minnesota is below .500, unranked and lacking consistency.

Gopher Hockey vs. Bemidji St.

Image by Ian Larson

Gopher Hockey vs. Bemidji St.

by Max Sanders

With two championships in the past decade, the banner program in a state known for hockey used to reside at the University of Minnesota. Signing the stateâÄôs best recruits was a given; favorable bounces were a given; qualifying for the NCAA Tournament was a given. Now, with nearly half the season gone, the Gophers find themselves on the wrong side of .500 with sound defeats to the likes of in-state rivals Minnesota-Duluth and Bemidji State on their card. The issues with Don LuciaâÄôs squad this year have been plentiful and have occurred both on and off the ice. Off the ice, Minnesota had a player leave the program midseason, a disturbing trend that has emerged in recent years. Consider what New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow said of the Minnesota program following the controversial midseason departure of first-round draft pick Kyle Okposo in 2007. âÄúQuite frankly, we werenâÄôt happy with the program there,âÄù Snow said. âÄúThey have a responsibility to coach, to make Kyle a better player, and they were not doing that.âÄù The departure of Sam Lofquist this season was not significant from an on-ice standpoint. The sophomore had never advanced past the second defensive line and ended his Gophers career with just one goal and three assists in 35 games before leaving for the Ontario Hockey League. Rather, the significance of LofquistâÄôs departure is the hole it pokes in what had long been considered an unbreakable foundation of elite talent. In years past, Minnesota could count on its players staying and contributing for three or four years before leaving to play in the National Hockey League. However, when you combine MinnesotaâÄôs postseason struggles âÄî the Gophers have failed to reach the NCAA Frozen Four since a 2005 loss to North Dakota âÄî with the six-figure signing bonuses offered to draft picks, the Gophers have seen not only its top-tier, but also second-level talent depart early at the request of NHL executives such as Snow. âÄú[Okposo] just wasnâÄôt getting better âÄî bottom line,âÄù Snow said. âÄúAnd to me, thatâÄôs the frustrating part. We entrusted the coach there to turn him into a better hockey player, and it wasnâÄôt happening. We feel more comfortable in him developing right under our watch.âÄù Lofquist is not the only Minnesota player to consider leaving this Gophers squad. Rumors online and through various media outlets prompted star forward Jordan Schroeder to issue a pre-emptive press release in which the sophomore denied all reports that he was considering leaving the Minnesota program early. In addition to Schroeder, rumors have circulated that sophomore Aaron Ness is considering transferring to the University of North Dakota, a report he and his father have denied. On the ice, the Gophers have lacked consistency on both sides of the puck, and when a good effort is put forth on one side, the other seems to fall apart. In 14 games, Minnesota has been shut out four times, already tying the record for single-season shutouts. The GophersâÄô most recent shutout loss came against Michigan, 6-0, the worst loss in LuciaâÄôs 11-year tenure at the helm of the Minnesota program. Offensively, the Gophers have just two players with double digit points. Jay Barriball was injured after seven games, but the senior still has more points than five active forwards, including captain Ryan Flynn, who has yet to score a goal this year. Between the pipes, Lucia is still trying to find a clear-cut solution that will give Minnesota the best chance to win every night. Lucia began the year rotating Alex Kangas and Kent Patterson between games but then went with Kangas as the full-time starter. Lucia had hoped the junior would earn the starting spot on a full-time basis through solid play, but that hasnâÄôt happened, forcing Lucia to revert back to the platoon situation as recently as this past weekendâÄôs series. On the defensive end, the Gophers have been shorthanded since the departure of Lofquist. The result: theyâÄôve allowed three goals per game. For a defensive-minded team, Lucia knows allowing three goals a night is something that just isnâÄôt acceptable. âÄúWeâÄôre not a high scoring team,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúYou get down by 3 or 4 youâÄôre not going to come back and win that game.âÄù That said, on the rare occasion this year that Minnesota has managed to combine tough play on defense with smart passes and timely shots, the Gophers show the potential that earned them the 2002 and 2003 NCAA Championships. In last SaturdayâÄôs win, Minnesota defeated then-No. 8 Michigan State behind timely scoring and clutch defensive efforts. The elusive key is maintaining that success throughout the season. Do that, and the critics and naysayers will be silenced. Continue the slide into mediocrity, and the voices calling for change will only grow louder.