When asked for a fitting epitaph for his team’s 2005-2006 season, Minnesota’s men’s hockey coach Don Lucia let out a long sigh.
“Good question,” Lucia said. “I don’t know. I don’t think I could have one little phrase or one little thing that I can put on it.”
When viewing the scope of the Gophers’ campaign, Lucia’s response is an appropriate one. After all, Minnesota was the team that struggled to find any sort of consistency through its first 16 games before going on a three-month tear. During that stretch, Minnesota racked up a 20-1-1 record, a hot streak that allowed the team to pass the seemingly-uncatchable Badgers for first place in the Western Collegiate Hockey Association and ultimately win the MacNaughton Cup for the first time since the 1991-1992 season.
But the Gophers began to falter down the stretch, ultimately unraveling over eight days. They lost both Final Five contests in St. Paul and had their season end as a result of a shocking 4-3 overtime loss to Holy Cross in the NCAA regional semifinals last Friday.
Lucia said it was probably the most disappointing finish he’s ever had in his 19 years of coaching.
“The reality is, you reflect that, other than a 10-day period, we had a terrific season,” he said.
“But, unfortunately, it seems like, like I told the guys, it almost feels like we finished last after what happened in the postseason and that’s unfortunate. But that’s the reality.”
While the Gophers wait a couple of weeks to start working out in preparation for next season, here’s a look back and a glimpse ahead at how they might look, position by position, in 2006-2007.
With junior sniper Ryan Potulny (38 goals and 25 assists for 63 points) moving on to the Philadelphia Flyers and the possibility that fellow junior Danny Irmen (16-22-38 despite missing 11 games with finger and shoulder injuries) could sign with the Minnesota Wild, this could be Phil Kessel’s group next season.
Kessel showed nothing in his freshman season that says he’s not up to the task.
Kessel (17-33-50) was consistent throughout the season and was one of the only Gophers who performed well down the stretch. The catch, however, is that Kessel — predicted by many to be the No. 1 pick in this June’s NHL Draft — also could be gone, depending on what team picks him. If he is gone, the group could be in trouble.
But if he returns, the group will be solid with players such as sophomore Ben Gordon (12-17-29), perhaps the biggest individual surprise story, and freshman Ryan Stoa (10-15-25), who had a great second half, back in the fold.
Of course, players such as sophomores Mike Howe (12-6-18) and Kris Chucko (4-9-13) will have to bounce back from disappointing seasons and freshman Blake Wheeler (9-13-22) will have to be more consistent for things to be set.
They also will have to make up for the loss of team captain, and emotional leader, Gino Guyer.
As a whole, they will have to be more like the group that got to the net for screens, tips and rebounds during the hot streak and less like the one that tried to make the extra pass to set up the goal during the down times to ensure success.
The defensive group was indicative of the team as a whole as they struggled at the start, then were nearly dominant during the hot streak before faltering at the end of the year.
The defense was led by senior Chris Harrington (3-32-35) and sophomore Alex Goligoski (10-28-38), both of whom continued the trend of strong offensive defensemen during Lucia’s tenure.
But Harrington is gone now and Goligoski will have to step up and be the leader of the group next season, at least on the offensive end.
Junior Mike Vannelli and sophomore Derek Peltier are solid, if not spectacular, players and freshman R.J. Anderson continued to get better, at least defensively, throughout the season.
The group worried less about offense and more about defense during the streak and vice versa during the rough times, especially at the end of the year.
Continued focus on the defensive play will ensure a strong season next year.
After coming into the year with much fanfare, freshman Jeff Frazee had anything but a strong first season. Frazee dealt with numerous off-ice problems and stumbled to a 6-3-2 record. Although the record seems impressive, half his wins came against Niagara — not a tournament team — last-place Alaska-Anchorage and ninth-place Duluth. Frazee will have to show more of his promise in year 2.
Junior Kellen Briggs won the job outright around the midway point of the season, didn’t let go and was one of the key players during the streak of good play.
But Briggs looked anything but sharp in the final eight days and looked like an average goalie without a good defense in front of him.
“Next year is a new year and Jeff will certainly get an opportunity to play,” Lucia said. “But at the same time, he’s going to have to prove that he’s better and we’ll make a decision next year based on how they perform.”
As of now, Lucia said it looks as though two key players who missed the season with medical redshirts — senior forward Tyler Hirsch (personal reasons) and sophomore defenseman Nate Hagemo (shoulder/neck) — will return to action next season.
Those two will join a talented incoming class that is headlined by 6-foot, 5-inch, 227-pound defenseman Erik Johnson (U.S. National U-18 Development Team), also considered to be a candidate to be chosen No. 1 overall in June, and the 2006 United States Hockey League Rookie of The Year, forward Kyle Okposo.
Success next season depends largely on who stays and who goes.
If Irmen, Kessel and any number of other candidates (Wheeler, Johnson – who has scouts drooling to the point where he may never actually play for Minnesota) stay, another strong season is not impossible.
But, if they leave, the team will be hard-pressed to get near the 27-9-5 mark posted this year.
As disappointed as he is now, Lucia is positive when looking to the future.
“I think that we have some good players coming in that will complement the players that we do have returning,” Lucia said.
“So, I think that we have the potential to be a real good team next year.”