Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve debated several Gopher fans on whether Don Lucia is the right man to be leading the University of Minnesota hockey program.
On one hand, the guy has won a pair of national championships. Been to Frozen Fours. Won MacNaughton Cups and Broadmoor Trophies. The man has indeed built up some equity and a chance to turn this thing around.
On the other hand, in this world of “what have you done for me lately,” the question needs to be asked: What has Lucia done to prove the game hasn’t passed him by?
I often find myself thinking about the second question and remember the Gopher teams of the early 2000s. Yes, they won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003. But in addition to being very talented, those Gopher teams just played the game differently. It seemed as though, back then, when Minnesota was put on the power play, the puck was going to wind up in your net. They would put on passing clinics, moving the puck two, three, four times until someone was wide open on the doorstep for the easy goal.
That’s simply not the case anymore. Perhaps its a personnel thing. But this year’s Gopher team had more NHL Draft picks than the ones during Lucia’s salad days in Dinkytown.
Speaking of NHL Draft picks, and more specifically, developing talent, what has happened there? In the last four years, Minnesota has watched players like Patrick White, Jake Hansen, Alex Kangas Aaron Ness and Cade Fairchild come and go with very little in the way of upward bounds. Those players didn’t necessarily get worse at Minnesota, but they certainly never developed like many thought they would.
Much has been said about Lucia’s recruiting classes, and even he has said he must find ways to get four-year players into the program. But when Lucia recruits those four-year guys, he finds players like Kevin Wehrs and Tom Serratore — two fine players in their own right, but probably not game changers. And certainly not like in the mold of a Matt Frattin or a Jason Gregoire at North Dakota or a Blake Geoffrion at Wisconsin or a Rhett Rakhshani at Denver. These are the kinds of guys Lucia needs. Are they difficult to keep all four years? Absolutely. But somehow, Denver did it. And Wisconsin did it. And North Dakota is doing it.
Why they can and Minnesota can’t is up for debate. They used to, back when guys like Jordan Leopold and Johnny Pohl and Grant Potulny stayed for four years. Perhaps Lucia needs to worry less about sending guys to the pros and more about winning at all costs at Minnesota. While sending guys to the pros reflects positively on your program, nothing short of winning championships will save Lucia’s job in Minneapolis.
And right now, that championship attitude at Minnesota is long-gone. Whether or not he finds it in the next 12 months will decide the long-term future of Minnesota’s Pride on Ice.